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Earth May Have A Mind Of Its Own

| Updated: February 20, 2022 15:22

A group of researchers have posed a question in their thought experiment – If a planet with life has a life of its own, can it also have a mind of its own?

The team of researchers that include Adam Frank, the Helen F. and Fred H. Gowen Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester, and his colleagues David Grinspoon at the Planetary Science Institute and Sara Walker at Arizona State University published a paper in the International Journal of Astrobiology exploring this thought experiment. 

In the paper, they explore the idea of ‘planetary intelligence. The idea is based on the principle that if the collective activity of life—known as the biosphere—can change the world, could the collective activity of cognition, and action based on this cognition, also change a planet? Once the biosphere evolved, Earth took on a life of its own. If a planet with life has a life of its own, can it also have a mind of its own?

The story of a planet that is alive has been narrated a few times after Ego was introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in pop culture, but it is not just science-fiction anymore. 

The researchers believe that could really assist us with managing worldwide issues, for example, climate change, or even assist us with finding extraterrestrial life.

The researchers point to evidence that underground networks of fungi can communicate to suggest that large-scale networks of life could form a vast invisible intelligence that profoundly alters the condition of the entire planet.

One of the essential species driving that change right now are humans – and as of now, from the environment to the plastic emergency, we likely could be permanently changing the natural equilibrium.

The researchers posit four stages of Earth’s past and possible future to illustrate how planetary intelligence might play a role in humanity’s long-term future. They also show how these stages of evolution driven by planetary intelligence may be a feature of any planet in the galaxy that evolves life and sustainable technological civilization.

Stage 1—Immature biosphere: Characteristic of very early Earth, billions of years ago and before a technological species, when microbes were present but vegetation had not yet come about. There were few global feedbacks because life couldn’t exert forces on Earth’s atmosphere, hydrosphere, and other planetary systems.

Stage 2—Mature biosphere: Characteristic of Earth, also before a technological species, from about 2.5 billion to 540 million years ago. Stable continents formed, vegetation and photosynthesis developed, oxygen built up in the atmosphere, and the ozone layer emerged. The biosphere exerted a strong influence on the Earth, perhaps helping to maintain Earth’s habitability.

Stage 3—Immature technosphere: Characteristic of Earth now, with interlinked systems of communication, transportation, technology, electricity, and computers. The technosphere is still immature, however, because it is not integrated into other Earth systems, such as the atmosphere. Instead, it draws matter and energy from Earth’s systems in ways that will drive the whole into a new state that likely doesn’t include the technosphere itself. Our current technosphere is, in the long run, working against itself.

Stage 4—Mature technosphere: Where Earth should aim to be in the future, Frank says, with technological systems in place that benefit the entire planet, including globally harvesting energy in forms like solar that do not harm the biosphere. The mature technosphere is one that has co-evolved with the biosphere into a form that allows both the technosphere and the biosphere to thrive.

The researchers believe that such thought experiments can help humans to understand their impact on the Earth and serve as a guide on how to better it. Interestingly, they also believe that it could aid in the search for aliens too. 

“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,” said one of the researchers. 

“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,” he added. 

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