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Scientists theorise that the Earth may be an intelligent entity

Pointing to evidence that fungi is communicating underground to suggest that large-scale networks of life could ‘form a vast, invisible planetary intelligence,’ a group of astrobiologists are asking the thought-provoking question: if a planet like Earth can be ‘alive,’ can it also have a mind of its own?

‘Conventionally, intelligence is seen as a property of individuals. However, it is also known to be a property of collectives,’ reads the introduction to a paper published in the International Journal of Astrobiology that explores the thought-provoking question: is the Earth itself an intelligent entity?

Pointing to evidence that fungi is communicating underground to suggest that large-scale networks of life could ‘form a vast, invisible planetary intelligence,’ the analysis’ authors (astrophysicist Adam Frank, astrobiologist David Grinspoon, and theoretical physicist Sara Walker) present the idea that if a planet like Earth can be ‘alive,’ it may also have a mind of its own.

This isn’t as outlandish a theory as it seems, given that we now know mushrooms are not only able to interact, but talk to each other using a vocabulary of up to 50 ‘words’ which bear a striking structural similarity to human speech.

The ‘planetary intelligence’ they refer to describes what they term as the collective knowledge and cognition of an entire planet. In other words, just as an individual ant appears to possess very little intelligence, working as a whole, a colony displays an impressive level of it.

With this in mind, they looked at the Earth as a collective whole of all the processes and activity on and within our planet.

Credit: Sofia Phillips

‘What matters is when collective smarts are put to work toward life’s most essential collective purpose: survival,’ the researchers noted. ‘As we conceive of it, planetary intelligence is measured by the capacity of life on a planet to sustain itself in perpetuity.’

Collectively, they claim, all of the biological, geological, meteorological, and all human activity together create ‘planetary intelligence’ and if we want to tackle global issues like the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, or pollution, we must treat the Earth as a living and intelligent entity.

And if this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s essentially what Indigenous Peoples have been saying for centuries, though they’ve faced ceaseless ridicule, erasure, and violent terrorisation for doing so.

It also bears likeness to James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis proposed in 1972 and even dates back to the 1600s when John Milton wrote Paradise Lost, presenting the Earth as a living being, or organism.

As the scientists explain, humans are one of the primary species driving profound change on Earth – and currently, we’re well on our way to irrevocably transforming the entire environmental balance – but we ‘don’t yet have the ability to communally respond in the best interests of the planet.’

That’s why they believe that ‘thought experiments’ such as theirs will help us understand our impact on the Earth and serve as a guide on how to improve it.

Think: acknowledging that these events (climate change, disruption caused due to technology, among other crises) do not happen on our planet, but to it, so extinction or deforestation effectively hurts an entity with a mind and a life of its own.

Interestingly, they additionally put forward the concept that planetary intelligence is likely the key to any civilisation’s ability to traverse the universe and discover extra-terrestrial life.

‘The only technological civilisation 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,’ says Frank. ‘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. We must broaden the view of intelligence by taking a planetary view of its appearance and effect.’

Credit: Sofia Phillips

Simply put, we must look at the complete ‘planetary intelligence’ of the Earth, taking into account all feedback systems than exist on and within it.

It 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.

‘We now live in an immature technosphere. We possess interlinked systems of communication, transportation, technology, electricity, and computers,’ continues Frank.

‘But it is immature because we humans have not integrated into our planet’s other systems. In a mature technosphere – which should be our goal – our technological systems benefit the entire planet without harming the biosphere.’

‘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.’