There are those who believe the Earth is hollow, and inside are subterranean beings surviving somehow despite the many scientific proofs that this is impossible. Now comes a group of scientists who propose that the Earth itself is alive – a terranean being – with a mind of its own. If this is true, do we really want to know what it thinks of the beings taking such poor care of it while tramping over it with their smelly feet?
“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?”
Yes, this theory, presented in the International Journal of Astrobiology by astrophysicists from the University of Rochester, sounds like the plots of a number of science fiction novels and movies, but lead author Adam Frank, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester, and his colleagues present the kind of evidence and logic that pseudoscientists only dream about. To illustrate how plant species can operate collectively to display planetary intelligence, they point to forests where tree roots connect via underground networks of fungi to movie nutrients throughout the forest to help areas under stress. If a forest can collectively self-maintain, can a planet?
"We don't yet have the ability to communally respond in the best interests of the planet. There is intelligence on Earth, but there isn't planetary intelligence."
Like a good teacher, Frank sees potential but we have a long way to go. Not surprisingly, he uses climate change to illustrate the “immature technosphere” stage Earth and every living and non-living thing on it comprise. The technosphere – our human-created-and-managed interlinked systems of communication, transportation, technology, electricity, and computers – is not integrated into Earth systems -- the atmosphere, the oceans, the underground plates, etc. The current technosphere is working against the Earth’s systems, which will ultimately destroy these systems, which will destroy all species on Earth. That’s not exactly a sign of intelligence of any kind. Fortunately, the Earth has shown promise.
“The biosphere figured out how to host life by itself billions of years ago by creating systems for moving around nitrogen and transporting carbon. Now we have to figure out how to have the same kind of self-maintaining characteristics with the technosphere."
Is the Earth alive? By Frank’s definition, yes. Does it have a mind of it’s own? No, but that’s not Earth’s fault. Like any good collective, it needs help from us to begin figuring out how to achieve maturity. Humans developing more biosphere-aiding rather than biosphere-destroying systems would help. If that happened, would we know what it should look like? Good question. A better question might be – would we know an intelligent exoplanet if we saw one?
To get a little dystopian, what if there are no intelligent exoplanets? There are those who believe that process of achieving the technology to leave a planet will also destroy it – most likely before any more than a few escape. Frank predicts the only other life forms we can expect to encounter are those who survived by achieving planetary intelligence.
If they did that, why would they want to leave? Would their planet let them?