I recently read John Wyndham’s most famous sci-fi novel, ‘The Day of the Triffids’. For those unfamiliar, ‘The Day of the Triffids’ follows the post-apocalyptic story of Bill Masen, one of the few humans to escape a plague of blindness. Those remaining must also face the scourge of the triffids; a mysterious species of carnivorous plants which has developed the ability to walk and hunt, and had appeared suddenly decades previously.
Due to my habit of viewing the world through ‘vegan-goggles’, I found myself drawing out themes in the novel that could be related to vegan philosophy. In particular, I saw contrast in the relationship between humans and animals, and humans and triffids.
Initially, the triffids are dominated by humans, and eventually some usefulness is found for them as decoration, food, and in industry:
“A little later it began to be a fashion to have a safely docked triffid or two about one’s garden… where they could provide vast amusement for the children.”
“…similar companies in other countries were about to farm triffids on a large scale, in order to extract valuable oils and juices and to press highly nutritious oil cake for stock feeding.”
Early on in the appearance of the triffids, science begins to question how the triffids function. While the scientists determined fairly quickly how far the triffids can walk, and their reactions to soil quality (itself a juxtaposition revealing already the dual animal/plant nature of the triffid when classified by our present understanding of life), the narrator states “a number of unobvious characteristics which escaped comment for some little time” including the accuracy with which the triffids were able to aim their stings, their taste for flesh, and the three mobile, noise-making sticks located at the base of their stem. There is certainly an inference that, having determined none of these things are important to know for the sake of humans finding usefulness with them, they are unwisely ignored.
It is when Bill starts reminiscing about his friend Walter, a fellow researcher of the triffids, that the reader is clearly led to question the intelligence of triffids. Walter is the first to suggest that the triffids may be communicating in a more complex manner than initially suspected. In fact, the conversation that prevails focusses on the idea of intelligence and what it means.
When Bill accuses Walter of suggesting the triffids have ‘equal intelligence’ to a man, he refutes this suggestion by arguing that equal intelligence is not necessarily needed for superiority, but rather the physical abilities available to the organism to use that intelligence. He states “I should imagine it’s likely to be an altogether different type of intelligence.”
The question of the level of intelligence of humans compared to other animals has, in the past, been viewed as a continuum, placing humans at the top, and all other animals listed in some order of intelligence below them. Indeed, I would say anecdotally that many people still view it this way. Even within the vegan and vegetarian community, there is much talk of pigs and dogs being endowed with equal intelligence as a means of arguing that the treatment of each should be more equal. However, there is plenty of evidence that the concept of ‘intelligence’ is too multi-faceted to be viewed in this manner.
Take for instance, the use of tools. Initially it was thought to be a characteristic solely employed by humans. Then, in 1960, Jane Goodall first observed chimpanzees using carefully fashioned sticks to ‘fish’ for termites. In 1990, it was stated that chimps were the only non-human animals to use tools (which is certainly what I remember being told in my childhood), but by 2000, several other great apes had been observed also using tools. Since that time, observations of tool use, and even tool fashioning, have been noted from all corners of the animal kingdom, including in birds, insects, fish and reptiles.
Granted, intelligence, however it is measured, is not the only manner of classifying the meaningfulness of a life, and indeed whether such a life is deserving of welfare or care. Sentience, the sense of self and feeling, is also a factor in this. Throughout ‘The Day of the Triffids’, the evidence for triffid sentience is limited. They show no emotion, and play the role of unfeeling alien monster without fault.
Physically, the triffids are still plants. Walter points out that no dissection had proven them to have anything resembling a brain. This makes justifying their treatment easy; being tethered in yards for their entire lives, having their dangerous parts removed for human’s safety, and being farmed in cramped unnatural conditions. After all, they are just plants! Albeit, pretty clever plants.
Thus, I propose the contrast between triffid and beast. While the ‘just plants’ justification fits for triffids, even with their intelligence and mobility, such justification does not exist for the millions of animals treated in a very similar manner to serve humans. ‘Just plants’ must then become ‘just animals’, which is really ‘just not humans’.
Walter’s character eventually serves as a kind of reluctant prophet, providing our foreshadowing to set the scene for the rest of the book. When asked by Bill why he didn’t publish a book to make his beliefs more widely known, Walter motion over the fields of farmed triffids and explains:
“It’s a vested interest now. It wouldn’t pay anyone to put out disturbing thoughts about it. Anyway, we have the triffids controlled well enough so it’s an academic point and scarcely worth raising.”
How many permutations of that statement do you think have been uttered in the interest of maintaining profits?
Thanks for reading, please leave your thoughts below!