Most of us think of sentience and cognition as properties of individual organisms, yet the authors of a provocative new study suggest that intelligence actually exists on a planetary scale and that all life on Earth acts as a unified conscious system.
Outlining their theory in the International Journal of Astrobiology, the researchers say that humankind is currently out of sync with the overall planetary intellect, and that our future survival may depend on our ability to harmonize our actions with the global mind.
In contrast to the classic view of evolution as a process of conflict and competition between individual species, the model proposed by the authors implies that life is in fact a singular, cooperative network. Rather than existing to compete against one another, therefore, each species emerges in order to play its role in maintaining the balance of the biosphere.
“Our approach follows the recognition among researchers that the correct scale to understand key aspects of life and evolution is planetary, as opposed to the traditional focus on individual species,” write the researchers.
The study of life from this perspective is referred to as Earth systems science – a discipline seeking to illuminate how different species work together rather than against each other to help sustain planetary systems.
Examples include the underground fungal networks enabling forest plants to communicate and exchange nutrients, ensuring the health of the overall ecosystem. Similarly, huge populations of microbes work together to regulate critical biospheric feedbacks, ensuring stable atmospheric conditions that are conducive to life in general.
However, such flawless cooperation takes time to develop, and species must evolve to integrate into this planetary consciousness. In a statement, study author Adam Frank explained that “planets evolve through immature and mature stages, and planetary intelligence is indicative of when you get to a mature planet.”
Expanding on this point, the researchers outline four stages of planetary evolution. The first is represented by an immature biosphere, involving the emergence of life forms that have not yet developed the ability to work together to regulate planetary systems.
This is followed by the mature biosphere, whereby all species on a planet cooperate seamlessly to maintain the perfect conditions for life to proliferate. Next, however, comes the immature technosphere, characterized by the development of technologies that influence the planet but are not integrated with the rest of the biosphere, and ultimately work against it.
It is this stage that humankind currently finds itself in, the authors say. Only by moving to a mature technosphere – whereby our industrial activities begin to support the planet – can we become part of the planetary intelligence and secure our future as a species.
“We don’t yet have the ability to communally respond in the best interests of the planet,” says Frank. “The million-dollar question is figuring out what planetary intelligence looks like and means for us in practice because we don’t know how to move to a mature technosphere yet.”
Extending their theory to other planets, the authors say the apparent scarcity of technologically sophisticated life elsewhere in the galaxy may reflect the fact that civilizations that fail to mature don’t tend to last very long.
In other words, as Frank explains, “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.”