Astrophysicists ask: if a planet with life has a life of its own, can it also have a mind of its own? They combine current scientific understanding of the Earth with broader questions about how life alters a planet to ask: if a planet with life has a life of its own, can it also have a mind of its own? The study offers fresh perspectives on how humanity may address global concerns such as climate change.
Life’s combined activity, including all bacteria, plants, and animals, has altered the planet Earth.
Consider plants: they ‘developed’ a method of photosynthesis to improve their own survival, but in doing so, they generated oxygen, which altered the whole operation of our planet. This is only one example of separate lifeforms carrying out their respective activities while collectively affecting the world.
Could the collective activity of cognition, and action based on this knowledge, transform a planet if the collective activity of life — known as the biosphere — can change the world? Earth took on a life of its own as the biosphere formed. Is it possible for a planet with life to also have a consciousness of its own?
In a paper published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, Adam Frank, the Helen F. and Fred H. Gowen Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester, and his colleagues David Grinspoon of the Planetary Science Institute and Sara Walker of Arizona State University pose these questions. Their “thought experiment” blends current scientific knowledge of the Earth with wider issues about how life affects the world. The researchers explore “planetary intelligence” in the article, which is the concept of cognitive activity occurring on a global scale, to elicit fresh thoughts about how humans may address global concerns like climate change.
“We must utilize our intellect for the greater welfare of the earth if we ever want to survive as a species,” Frank argues.
An ‘immature technosphere’ is a term used to describe a technological environment that is still developing.
The Gaia hypothesis, which proposes that the biosphere interacts strongly with the non-living geological systems of air, water, and land to maintain Earth’s habitable state, is used by Frank, Grinspoon, and Walker to explain how even a non-technologically capable species can display planetary Intelligence. The secret is that life’s collective effort forms a self-maintaining system.
Many recent studies, for example, have demonstrated how the roots of plants in a forest link through subterranean fungal networks known as mycorrhizal networks, according to Frank. When one region of the forest need nutrients, the other parts of the forest use the mycorrhizal network to transfer nutrients to the stressed areas. The forest maintains its own vitality in this manner.
Our society is now a “immature technosphere,” a collection of human-created systems and technology that has a direct impact on the earth but is not self-sustaining, according to the experts. For example, the vast bulk of human energy use is based on fossil fuels, which harm the Earth’s seas and atmosphere. The technology and energy we need to stay alive are harming our home planet, which will ultimately lead to the extinction of our species.
To live as a species, we must all work together for the greater good of the planet.
But, as Frank points out, “We lack the power to react collectively in the best interests of the world. There is intellect on Earth, but no intelligence on the planet.”
Towards a technologically mature society
To demonstrate how planetary intelligence may play a role in humanity’s long-term destiny, the researchers propose four phases of Earth’s history and prospective future. They also explain how these phases of development driven by planetary intelligence might be found on every planet in the cosmos that generates life and a technological civilisation that can be sustained.
Stage 1 — Immature biosphere: typical of very early Earth, billions of years ago and before the emergence of technological species, when bacteria existed but plants had yet to emerge. Because life could not exert forces on Earth’s atmosphere, hydrosphere, or other planetary systems, there were few global feedbacks.
Stage 2 — Mature biosphere: typical of Earth from 2.5 billion to 540 million years ago, before the emergence of a technological species. The formation of stable continents, the development of flora and photosynthesis, the accumulation of oxygen in the atmosphere, and the appearance of the ozone layer The biosphere had a significant impact on the Earth, perhaps assisting in the preservation of the planet’s habitability.
Stage 3 — An immature technosphere, as seen on Earth today, with interconnected communication, transportation, technology, power, and computer systems. However, since it is not incorporated with other Earth systems, such as the atmosphere, the technosphere is still immature. Instead, it extracts matter and energy from Earth’s processes in such a manner that the whole system enters a new state that is unlikely to contain the technosphere. In the long term, our existing technosphere is working against itself.
Stage 4 — Mature technosphere: According to Frank, this is where Earth should aspire to be in the future, with technology systems in place that benefit the whole world, such as global energy harvesting in forms like solar that do not affect the biosphere. The mature technosphere is one that has co-evolved with the biosphere into a state that permits both to flourish.
“Planets go through immature and mature phases, and planetary intelligence is a sign of when you’re on your way to becoming a mature planet,” Frank explains. “Because we don’t know how to transition to a mature technosphere yet, the million-dollar issue is finding out what planetary intelligence looks like and means for us in practice.”
Planetary intelligence is a sophisticated system
Although the researchers emphasize that a mature technosphere requires integrating technological systems with Earth via a network of feedback loops that make up a complex system, we don’t yet know how planetary intelligence can express itself.
Simply said, a complex system is anything made up of smaller pieces that interact in such a way that the system’s overall behavior is totally determined by the interaction. That is to say, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Forests, the Internet, financial markets, and the human brain are examples of complex systems.
A complex system, by its very nature, has whole new qualities that arise as isolated elements interact. Examining the neurons in a person’s brain, for example, makes it impossible to determine her personality.
As a result, predicting precisely what qualities will emerge when people construct a planetary intelligence is challenging. According to the researchers, a complex system like planetary intelligence would have two distinguishing characteristics: emergent behavior and the necessity to be self-maintaining.
“Billions of years ago, the biosphere worked out how to host life on its own by establishing mechanisms for moving nitrogen and carrying carbon,” Frank explains. “Now we have to find out how to get the technosphere to have the same self-maintaining properties.”
Extraterrestrial life is being sought
“We don’t have planetary intelligence or a mature technosphere yet,” he adds, despite measures such as worldwide restrictions on some environmentally harmful chemicals and a shift toward utilizing more solar energy. “However, the whole goal of this study is to steer us in the right direction.”
Raising these issues, according to Frank, will aid in the hunt for life and civilizations beyond our solar system as well as give knowledge regarding the past, present, and future survival of life on Earth. For example, Frank is the main scientist on a NASA contract to look for civilizations’ technosignatures on planets circling distant stars.
“We’re suggesting that the only technological civilizations we may ever see — the ones we should expect to see — are the ones who didn’t destroy themselves,” he adds. “This line of research has the capacity to connect what we need to know to survive the climate catastrophe with what may happen on any planet where life and intelligence emerge.”