Earth Itself May Be an Intelligent Being, Suggests New Theory
Can a planet be intelligent? That seems to be the crux of a new theory proposed by astrobiologists — that planets are intelligent entities too. This thought experiment builds on the notion that collective activity of life, in the form of microbes or plants, has changed planets like Earth and allows them to take a life of their own.
Published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, the paper lays down a framework for measuring the intelligence of a planet. That’s a jarring prospect — to think of intelligence in reference to an interstellar body rather than sentient animals like human beings. But a planet can have a “green mind” in a way; this paradigm raises new ideas about the ways in which we address climate change, disruption caused due to technology, among other crises.
The researchers defined planetary intelligence as “cognitive activity” and knowledge operating on a large planetary scale. We know intelligence as a concept describes individuals, collective groups, even the curious behaviors of viruses or molds. The underground networks of fungi, for instance, are the breathing life of forests; they form a life system that recognizes changing climate conditions and actively respond to them. These things profoundly alter the condition of the entire planet.
“What matters is when collective smarts are put to work toward life’s most essential collective purpose: survival. As we conceive of it, planetary intelligence is measured by the capacity of life on a planet to sustain itself in perpetuity,” the researchers noted.
“We don’t yet have the ability to communally respond in the best interests of the planet,” said Adam Frank, professor of physics at the University of Rochester and co-author of the paper, in a press release. The impact humans have on the world is best understood as follows: these events “do not happen on a planet, but to a planet,” the study says. In other words, species extinctions or loss of forest habitat effectively hurts an entity with a mind and life of its own.
The notion of a planet taking a life of its own was first observed through the perception of the “biosphere” in science. “The biosphere tells us that once life appears in a world, that world can take on a life of its own,” the researchers wrote. It leads to a more introspective, albeit provocative, question: “If a planet with life has a life of its own, can it also have a mind of its own?”
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Interestingly, the theory notes that Earth may be full of intelligent life — but “it doesn’t seem very smart.” “We don’t yet have the ability to communally respond in the best interests of the planet,” says astrophysicist Adam Frank from the University of Rochester. “There is intelligence on Earth, but there isn’t planetary intelligence.”
Earth seems to be stuck at a stage called an “immature technosphere.” This is a scenario where technological activity has fully developed and taken root — yet it’s not yet harmoniously integrated with other systems, such as the physical environment. It is important to integrate these two spheres, for only when the biological and technological processes are in sync can we ensure productivity and human’s future on this planet.
“Such planetary intelligence would be capable of steering the future evolution of Earth, acting in concert with planetary systems and guided by a deep understanding of such systems,” the researchers wrote in the paper.
The interpretation of a planetary intelligence school of thought could be radical. If there is a collective body of knowledge, one that spills through different species and is produced across space and time, the idea of it operating in a self-sustaining way takes precedence. In other words, humans may be more mindful of their actions if they were to think of physical nature as intelligent beings.
“That’s the power of this line of inquiry,” Frank added. “It unites what we need to know to survive the climate crisis with what might happen on any planet where life and intelligence evolve.”