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C. Kevin Boyce.

C. Kevin Boyce is a paleobotanist—and a recipient of the 2013 MacArthur "genius grant."

Photograph courtesy John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Tanya Basu

National Geographic

Published September 26, 2013

Image of the 125 Anniversary logo "This year's class of MacArthur Fellows is an extraordinary group of individuals who collectively reflect the breadth and depth of American creativity," said Cecilia Conrad, vice president of the MacArthur Fellows program, in a press release announcing the 2013 recipients on Wednesday. "Their stories should inspire."

Over the next few days, we will profile some of these innovative people in this series, "Interview With a Genius."

C. Kevin Boyce claims he doesn't have a green thumb, even though he studies plants for a living.

"I don't!" he insists. "I know other paleobotanists who do, but I don't."

But few other paleobotanists can claim to have just won one of the premier honors in the intellectual arena—Boyce is a recipient of a 2013 MacArthur "genius grant."

The Stanford professor of geological and environmental sciences is part of a small but influential group of paleobotanists, folks who study ancient, fossilized plants to find clues to evolution and climate patterns from millions of years ago.

"Plants Have Souls"

It wasn't until Boyce was in graduate school at Harvard for paleontology, studying evolution and development of life-forms, that he realized he might have a green thumb of a different sort.

"I wasn't a plant person from birth or anything," Boyce said. "[But] plants have unique characteristics that allow those kinds of studies ... They have cellular preservation."

Cellular preservation means that fossilized plants remain intact and reveal the internal function of flora from millions of years ago. That unique preservation answered some of Boyce's nagging questions about evolution in a way studying animals couldn't.

"It's more difficult with animals," Boyce said. "A clamshell is a clamshell. With dinosaur bones, you can't look at soft tissues around the bones.

"But with plants, you have cellular anatomy preserved. Every plant cell has a strong cell wall. Plants have souls that animals don't—it was pretty literally that."

Strong cell walls are a key to understanding evolutionary biochemistry because they preserve organic matter. The organic matter, in turn, provides valuable clues into not only the age of the plant but also how it functioned.

Climate Change Clues

But what are those clues?

It might help to think about plants as a thermometer, a sort of indicator of the climate around them.

For plants, water processing is a vital process—moving water throughout its internal system, a process called transpiration, is crucial for survival. Remember how your houseplant looks without some water over the course of several days? Dry, perhaps brittle at the edges?

That plant is indicating that it's not doing too well and that the atmosphere has become somehow unfit for it.

Boyce says a plant's veins reveal these kind of effects to scientists.

"If a plant is trying to take in carbon dioxide but can't [do so easily] without losing water, there is a higher density of veins," he said.

In other words, if the climate gets hotter, plants display more veins to aid its transpiration process—a pattern that is now increasingly being seen in areas of high deforestation, such as the Amazon rain forest.

According to Boyce, the evolution of plant structure and its relationship to the climate is a two-way street.

"If they're capable of losing more water, it changes climate," he said. "If you look at the tropics, just based on physical geography, there will always be a rainy belt. It's based on vegetation. And it's this that dominates the tropics. If you cut down the forests, you're degrading the precipitation that's sustaining the environment."

This pattern of a response cycle in venation and climate doesn't occur just in rain forests, Boyce said, pointing to evidence in colder regions and at higher altitudes that venation has changed because of rising temperatures.

The past is an indicator of the present—and future—of natural life.

"If you went back 150 million years ago, the rain forest wasn't working the same way," he said. "[Without fossilized plants], you can't understand the modern environment."

Though his research on the environment has far-reaching effects, Boyce says that he is a paleobotanist first and foremost, and that the study of fossilized plants is his focus.

"I'm not an ecologist," he emphasized. "I kind of do what I enjoy the most. I'm not a climatologist either, but I'm interested in teasing out the lineage here and what it tells us."

Follow Tanya Basu on Twitter.

19 comments
Dr. T. K. Stone
Dr. T. K. Stone

The word "soul" was used by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who claimed all sentient beings had souls. A sentient being is a plant or animal, which are using senses to experience life and this world. The soul is not physical and Aristotle invented a word to describe the soul as "metaphysical," which is invisible and intimately associated with the physical. The mind is also metaphysical and the concept soul was created by the mind of a philosopher scientist. Plants have intelligence and animals have intelligence. It was intelligence that came up with the word soul in the mind of a human being. The mind is more powerful than the body. Understanding is more powerful than the mind. Understand plants and animals have souls.

Dr. T. K. Stone
Dr. T. K. Stone

All of life, plant and animal, has metaphysical intelligence and physical sensibility. Simply stated, plants and animals have a mind to think (not physical) and a body to feel (physical) and the mind and body cannot be separated while alive. The ancient Greeks, who created the word "soul," used the word to express thoughts of life after death or before life. The Greeks recognized that all sentient beings have a soul. A sentient being is a plant and a sentient being is an animal because they use their senses to experience the world. As mentioned below, read "The Secret Life of Plants" to recognize that plants have a soul just like animals because they both respond to life the same way, sensing. If we homo sapiens have a soul and we belong to the animal kingdom, which cannot be separate from the plant kingdom, then all of life has souls. 

Mady Richardson
Mady Richardson

wow, how very interesting, wow. I love to eat some plants... didn't know they had some souls. I am vegetarian now.

David Campbell
David Campbell

First, copy editors (or other editors) usually write the headlines in most publications, not the article writers. Oftentimes they simply lift a word or concept from the story for its likelihood of catching readers' eyes. 

Second, the author should have asked Boyce to explain what he meant by his use of the word "soul." I suspect he may mean something a little different than what many of us think of when we hear the word. He might have been referring to something more physical than metaphysical.

Ansie van der Walt
Ansie van der Walt

Heading??!  Anyone of you and N. Geo experts read the book "The Secret Life of Plants" by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird?

Jade Andrews
Jade Andrews

The headline for this article is ridiculous. It relates in no matter to the subject of the reading.  Change it.

Nate Whilk
Nate Whilk

' "It's more difficult with animals," Boyce said. "A clamshell is a clamshell. With dinosaur bones, you can't look at soft tissues around the bones.But with plants, you have cellular anatomy preserved. Every plant cell has a strong cell wall. Plants have souls that animals don't—it was pretty literally that." '

So this "soul" is there because we have fossils of plant material, i.e., physical matter. Since the word "soul" refers to something immaterial (assuming it even exists), this is self-contradictory. I think this "genius" should stick to his subject and not humiliate himself with pseudo-philosophy. And he should look up the word "literally".

Fred HYder
Fred HYder

Perhaps there is more to this as Rupert Sheldrake might say plants have a morphogenetic  field and so do we..

jas stellar
jas stellar

the headline smacks of desperation to get readers attention.

I would prefer it if Nat Geo stuck to hard facts.

show me the scientific data on what a "soul" actually is please.

George Meladze
George Meladze

Indeed, the headline is a little misleading. I'd rather expect to read something about that kind of neuronic-like activity, some scientists claim to have detected in plant tissues.

Jeff Hunt
Jeff Hunt

Nat Geo, I think most of your readers could do without the silly headline. We are smart people.

Joe david
Joe david

I respectfully disagree. The headline is perfect, to attract all of us, sort of a switch and bait. You see, when writers-- such as the writer of this article-- are mediocre, then they have to resort to blatant sensationalism and do this switch and bait routine to attract some readers--any readers. 

Thorgood Smith
Thorgood Smith

Catchy headline, although it seems that Kevin Boyce has been out in the woods too long.   

Souls do not equate to strong cell walls, however it does demonstrate how academia spins sideways and becomes neurotic.

kami krazee
kami krazee

I am still digesting this, but these facts, while illuminating and well presented,  are not indicative of the presence of cognitive abilities or those qualities or spiritual presence that we collectively term as "the soul".

Another headline is in order.

Fix it.

Now.


Doc Holiday
Doc Holiday

@Nate Whilk perhaps you should criticize the headline  instead.


Actually, always being critical of things is quite telling.

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

@Joe david Joe its the editors you need to be getting angry with. 

Writers rarely if ever get to pick the article name, most of the time they're lucky if the publisher even bothers to ask them for a recommendation.


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