Can a planet have a mind of its own?

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Newswise – The collective activity of life – all microbes, plants and animals – has transformed planet earth.

Take plants for example: Plants “invented” a way of photosynthesis to enhance their own survival, but in doing so they released oxygen that changed the entire functioning of our planet. This is just one example of individual life forms fulfilling their own functions but collectively making an impact on a planetary scale.

If the collective activity of life – known as the biosphere – can change the world, could the collective activity of knowledge and action based on that knowledge also change a planet? As the biosphere evolved, the earth took on a life of its own. If a living planet has a life of its own, can it also have a mind of its own?

These are questions posed by Adam Frank, 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 in an article published in to the International Journal of Astrobiology. Her self-described “thought experiment” combines current scientific knowledge about Earth with broader questions about how life is changing a planet. In the paper, the researchers discuss what they call “planetary intelligence” — the idea of ​​cognitive activity operating at the planetary scale — to generate new ideas about how humans might tackle global problems like climate change.

As Frank says, “If we ever hope to survive as a species, we must use our intelligence for the good of the planet.”

An “Immature Technosphere”

Frank, Grinspoon, and Walker base themselves on ideas such as the Gaia hypothesis – which states that the biosphere interacts strongly with the inanimate geological systems of air, water and land to maintain the habitable state of the earth – even in non-technological ways species capable of explaining can display planetary intelligence. The key is that the collective activity of life creates a system that is self-sustaining.

For example, says Frank, many recent studies have shown how the roots of the trees in a forest are connected via underground networks of fungi known as mycorrhizal networks. When one part of the forest needs nutrients, the other parts provide the stressed parts with the nutrients they need to survive via the mycorrhizal network. In this way the forest acquires its own viability.

Right now, our civilization is what researchers are calling an “immature technosphere,” a conglomeration of man-made systems and technologies that directly affect the planet but are not self-sustaining. For example, most of our energy use involves the use of fossil fuels, which damage the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere. The technology and energy we expend to survive is destroying our home planet, which in turn will destroy our species.

So, to survive as a species, we must work together in the best interests of the planet.

But, says Frank, “we don’t yet have the capability to collectively respond in the best interest of the planet.” There is intelligence on earth, but there is no planetary intelligence.”

Towards a mature technosphere

Researchers posit four stages of Earth’s past and possible future to illustrate how planetary intelligence could play a role in humanity’s long-term future. They also show how these evolutionary stages, driven by planetary intelligence, can be a feature of every planet in the galaxy evolving life and a sustainable technological civilization.

  • Stage 1 – Immature Biosphere: characteristic of the very early Earth billions of years ago and before a technological species when microbes were present but vegetation had not yet emerged. There were few global feedback loops because life could not exert forces on Earth’s atmosphere, hydrosphere, and other planetary systems.
  • Stage 2 – Mature Biosphere: characteristic of Earth, also before a technological species, 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 formed. The biosphere exerted a powerful influence on the Earth and may have helped maintain the Earth’s habitability.
  • Tier 3 – Immature Technosphere: characteristic of Earth today, with interconnected systems of communication, transportation, technology, electricity, and computing. However, the technosphere is still immature because it is not integrated with other Earth systems such as the atmosphere. Instead, it pulls matter and energy from the earth systems in a way that propels the whole thing into a new state that likely doesn’t include the technosphere itself. Our current technosphere is working against itself in the long run.
  • Stage 4 – Mature Technosphere: where Earth should be in the future, Frank says, with technological systems that benefit the entire planet, including global harvesting of energy in forms like solar power that don’t harm the biosphere. The mature Technosphere is one that has evolved along with the Biosphere into a form that allows both the Technosphere and the Biosphere to thrive.

“Planets evolve through immature and mature stages, and planetary intelligence indicates when you reach a mature planet,” says Frank. “The million dollar question is figuring out what planetary intelligence looks like and means to us in practice because we don’t yet know how to move into a mature technosphere.”

The complex system of planetary intelligence

While we don’t yet know exactly how the planetary intelligence might manifest, the researchers note that a mature technosphere involves the integration of technological systems with Earth through a network of feedback loops that form a complex system.

Put simply, a complex system is anything made up of smaller parts that interact in such a way that the overall behavior of the system depends entirely on the interaction. That is, the sum is greater than the totality of its parts. Examples of complex systems are forests, the internet, financial markets and the human brain.

A complex system naturally has completely new properties that arise from the interaction of individual parts. For example, it is difficult to discern a person’s personality just by examining the neurons in their brain.

This means that it is difficult to predict exactly what traits might emerge when individuals form a planetary intelligence. However, according to the researchers, a complex system like planetary intelligence will have two distinctive features: It will have emergent behavior and it will need to be self-sustaining.

“Billions of years ago, the biosphere figured out how to support life by creating systems to transport nitrogen and transport carbon,” says Frank. “Now we have to figure out how to have the same self-sustaining properties with the technosphere.”

The search for extraterrestrial life

Despite some efforts, including global bans on certain polluting chemicals and a move to harness more solar energy, “we still don’t have planetary intelligence or a mature technosphere,” he says. “But the whole purpose of this research is to show where we should be going.”

Asking these questions, Frank says, will not only provide information about the past, present, and future survival of life on Earth, but will also aid in the search for life and civilizations beyond our solar system. For example, Frank is the principal investigator on a NASA grant to search for technosignatures of civilizations on planets orbiting distant stars.

“We say the only technological civilizations we will ever see – the ones we should see expect to see – are the ones who didn’t kill themselves, which means they must have reached the stage of true planetary intelligence,” he says. “That is the power of this line of research: it combines what we need to know to survive the climate crisis with what could happen on any planet where life and intelligence develop.”

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