What is humanity? Do our minds set us apart from the rest of nature and from the rest of Earth? Or does Earth have a collective mind of its own, and we’re simply part of that mind? On the literal face of it, that last question might sound ridiculous.
But a new thought experiment explores it more deeply, and while there’s no firm conclusion about humanity and a planetary mind, just thinking about it invites minds to reconsider their relationship with nature.
Overcoming our challenges requires a better understanding of ourselves and nature, and the same is true for any other civilizations that make it past the Great Filter.
Humanity is pretty proud of itself sometimes. We’ve built a more-or-less global civilization, we’ve wiped out deadly diseases, and we’ve traveled to the Moon. We’re so smart we’re taking steps to protect Earth from the type of calamitous impact that wiped out Earth’s previous tenants, the dinosaurs. But that’s just one perspective.
Another perspective says that we’re still primitive. That billions of us are in the grip of ancient superstitions. That nuclear war haunts us like a specter. That tribalism still drives us to do horrible animalistic things to one another. That we’re not wise enough to manage our own technological advancement.
Both perspectives are equally valid. All that can really be said is that we’re not as primitive as we used to be, but we’re nowhere near as mature as we need to be if we hope to persist beyond the Great Filter.
Can we come up with a way to explain what stage we’re at in our development? The authors of a new article think they can. And they think we can only do that if we take into account Earth’s planetary history, the collective mind, and the state of our technology.
This trio of scientists wrote the new article in the International Journal of Astrobiology. It’s titled “Intelligence as a planetary scale process.” The authors are Adam Frank from the University of Rochester, David Grinspoon from the Planetary Science Institute, and Sara Walker from Arizona State University. The article is a thought experiment based on our scientific understanding of Earth alongside questions about how life has altered and continues to alter the planet.
Humans tend to think of intelligence as a property belonging to individuals. But it’s also a property belonging to collectives. Social insects use their collective intelligence to make decisions. The authors take the idea of intelligence even further: from individual intelligence to collective intelligence, to planetary intelligence. “Here, we broaden the idea of intelligence as a collective property and extend it to the planetary scale,” the authors write. “We consider the ways in which the appearance of technological intelligence may represent a kind of planetary-scale transition, and thus might be seen not as something which happens on a planet but to a planet, much as some models propose the origin of life itself was a planetary phenomenon.”
We’ve divided Earth’s life forms into species. We recognize that evolution drove the development of all these species. But are we missing something in our urge to classify? Is it more correct to view life as planetary rather than as individual species? After all, species didn’t suddenly appear; each one appeared in an ongoing chain of evolution. (Except for the original species, whose origins remain clouded in mystery.) And all species are linked together in the biosphere. It’s often pointed out that Earth is a bacterial world and the rest of us are only here because of bacteria.
It’s worthwhile to recall the work of Vladimir Vernadsky. Vernadsky was an important founder of biogeochemistry. Wikipedia defines biogeochemistry as “… the scientific discipline that involves the study of the chemical, physical, geological, and biological processes and reactions that govern the composition of the natural environment (including the biosphere, the cryosphere, the hydrosphere, the pedosphere, the atmosphere, and the lithosphere).
Vernadsky saw that the biosphere system is strongly linked to the Earth’s non-living systems. It’s difficult to understand the biosphere without looking at how it’s linked with other systems like the atmosphere. The linkage allows the biosphere to shape Earth’s other “spheres.”
Vernadsky wrote: “Activated by radiation, the matter of the biosphere collects and redistributes solar energy and converts it ultimately into free energy capable of doing work on Earth. A new character is imparted to the planet by this powerful cosmic force. The radiations that pour upon the Earth cause the biosphere to take on properties unknown to lifeless planetary surfaces, and thus transform the face of the Earth.”
In their article, the authors point out how organisms changed Earth’s biosphere. When the ability to photosynthesize appeared in lifeforms, individual lifeforms used it to great benefit. But collectively, they oxygenated Earth’s atmosphere in the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE.) The photosynthesizers opened a pathway for their own continuation and for more complex life to develop. It not only changed the course of evolution, but it also changed the very geology and geochemistry of the planet. The authors liken the collective activity of photosynthetic organisms to collective intelligence.
“Making sense of how a planet’s intelligence might be defined and understood helps shine a little light on humanity’s future on this planet—or lack thereof,” they write. “If we ever hope to survive as a species, we must use our intelligence for the greater good of the planet,” said Adam Frank.
The authors point out how collective activity changes the planet. They base their experiment partly on the Gaia hypothesis, which says that the Earth’s non-biological systems—geochemistry, plate tectonics, the atmosphere, the oceans—interact with living systems to maintain the entire planet in a habitable state. Without the “collective intelligence” of the biological world, the Earth wouldn’t be habitable.
The authors use an example from forests to illustrate the point.
Earth’s great forests couldn’t exist without the network of mycorrhizal fungi that live below ground. Tree roots interact with the network and the network moves nutrients around in the forest. The fungi get carbon in return. Without this network, the trees couldn’t survive, and no great forests would emerge.
As schoolchildren, we learn that plants produce the oxygen we need to breathe. Without photosynthetic organisms, we couldn’t survive. So the collective activity of the plant world (and algae, etc.) changes the planet to a place hospitable for humanity and other complex life. But now in our short time on Earth, we’ve developed technology, which is the most powerful expression of our collective planetary intelligence. What does that mean for Earth?
The authors talk about four stages of Earth’s development and how we can understand the idea of collective planetary intelligence as those stages evolve.
“Planets evolve through immature and mature stages, and planetary intelligence is indicative of when you get to a mature planet.”
— Adam Frank, co-author, “Intelligence as a planetary scale process.”
The first stage is an immature biosphere. Billions of years ago the Earth was an immature biosphere. The only lifeform was bacteria, which couldn’t exert much force on Earth’s planetary systems. Because of this, there was no important global feedback between life and the planet. There was no collective intelligence.
The second stage was a mature biosphere. This was about 2.5 billion to 540 million years ago. Photosynthesis appeared and then plants. Photosynthesis oxygenated Earth’s atmosphere and an ozone layer developed. Life was making the Earth more stable and hospitable for itself. This is the collective planetary intelligence the authors are talking about.
The third stage is where we’re at now, according to the authors. We live in an immature technosphere of our own creation. Our communication, transportation, electrical, and governmental networks are increasingly linked into a technosphere. A quick scan of headlines in consumer tech media shows how we can get a little excited about what we’ve created as a species (Meta, anyone?) But it’s wise not to get too excited. Why?
Because our technosphere is not linked with natural systems. Our immature technosphere largely ignores its impact on the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and the biosphere in general. We extract fossil fuels and push carbon into the atmosphere in an unregulated way. The danger is that this technological immaturity will force the Earth’s systems into a state that imperils the technosphere itself. The immature technosphere is working against itself and the biosphere that supports it.
The fourth stage represents a workable future. It’s the mature technosphere, and in a mature technosphere, our technological intelligence benefits the Earth. For example, renewable energy sources like solar energy will displace fossil fuels and help the climate regulate itself and maintain its habitability. Technological agriculture will strengthen the Earth’s soil systems rather than degrade them. We’ll use our technology to build cities that co-exist with natural systems rather than dominating them. But there are a lot of unknowns.
“Planets evolve through immature and mature stages, and planetary intelligence is indicative of when you get to a mature planet,” Frank says in a press release. “The million-dollar question is figuring out what planetary intelligence looks like and means for us in practice because we don’t know how to move to a mature technosphere yet.”
In a mature technosphere, systems would interact in mutually beneficial ways, like the trees and the mycorrhizal network in forests. A network of feedback loops both technological and natural would work intelligently to maintain habitability. This would be an entirely new arrangement, and the complexity would allow new capabilities to emerge. The emerging capabilities are one hallmark of a mature technosphere. Another is self-maintenance.
“The biosphere figured out how to host life by itself billions of years ago by creating systems for moving around nitrogen and transporting carbon,” Frank says. “Now we have to figure out how to have the same kind of self-maintaining characteristics with the technosphere.”
There are some signs that we’re groping towards a mature technosphere, but they’re mostly crisis-driven. In 1987, we banned the ozone-harming class of chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) after scientists found a hole in the ozone layer. Acid rain is caused by sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide and we’ve developed international agreements to limit them after scientists found that acid rain damages soil, trees, fish, and other aquatic animals. DDT was used to kill pests and malarial mosquitoes but many countries banned their use when scientists found that it persisted in the environment and led to population declines in birds of prey, among other biosphere-harming effects.
So there’s been some progress towards planetary intelligence. But those successes are mostly corrections to previous bad behavior. Can we be more proactive?
We might be starting to. We’re developing systems to detect, catalog, and deflect dangerous asteroids that pose a collision hazard with Earth. If we can do that, we can protect the entire biosphere from calamity, along with our own civilization. NASA and the ESA are working on planetary defense, and NASA launched a technology demonstration mission in 2021. If we can use technology to protect the entire planet, that must constitute a step toward a mature technosphere.
Some of these efforts are heartening, but we have a long ways to go, and this thought experiment can help us think more clearly about it. “We don’t have planetary intelligence or a mature technosphere yet,” Frank said. “But the whole purpose of this research is to point out where we should be headed.”
Are the development of planetary intelligence and a mature technosphere hallmarks of civilizations that make it past a “Great Filter?” Maybe. That idea dovetails with Frank’s other work in the search for alien technosignatures on distant exoplanets.
“We’re saying the only technological civilizations we may ever see—the ones we should expect to see—are the ones that didn’t kill themselves, meaning they must have reached the stage of a true planetary intelligence,” he says. “That’s the power of this line of inquiry: it unites what we need to know to survive the climate crisis with what might happen on any planet where life and intelligence evolve.”
For we lifeforms on Earth at this time, Anthropogenic Global Warming is the biggest threat to a sustainable biosphere. While we can debate what it is about our species that drives us to want more stuff, consume more stuff and create more pollution, the debate about AGW itself is over. It’s happening and we’re causing it.
There are some glimmers of planetary intelligence flickering on the horizon. But we’ve got a long way to go yet. Will we become intelligent enough to make it past the climatic Great Filter? Only time will tell.