Due to one species — us — Earth’s biosphere has begun to resemble a human brain.
In the 1970s, scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia hypothesis, which likens our biosphere to a self-regulating organism. In the decades since, the idea that biological evolution is inseparable from planetary processes became part of mainstream Earth-system science. Just as an individual living thing such as a sea slug can exhibit sophisticated internal self-regulation without needing abstract thought, our biosphere may help regulate the planet without any self-awareness.
Yet sometimes I wonder.
Through our influence on our planet’s history, cognitive processes have become, in a way, planetary processes. Humans are the first geological force to be aware of its own existence. But beyond this, could there actually be some emerging mind — and not just metaphorically — that is global in scale?
Many have noted superficial ways in which the internet resembles a giant brain, with myriad nodes exchanging billions of signals. But several of our other aggregate, global-scale activities also involve the complex, planet-wide interchanges of matter, energy, and information we might expect from an individual, self-regulating entity.
In the 1970s we humans saw that our use of certain refrigerants was endangering our ozone shield. We thought about it for a few years then stopped using them. If an asteroid menaced Earth now, we’d deliberate then swat it away. And, in a painfully slow way, we’re realizing that our energy systems threaten our well-being, and we’re starting to seriously consider replacing them.
In other words, humans, working on a global scale, are acting like a single, sentient planet. We exhibit unified behavior and respond to memories, lessons learned, and data gathered about the situations we find ourselves in.
Obviously there are many ways in which none of this activity seems like “planetary intelligence” — the 6,000-billion-trillion-kilogram rock we live on isn’t cogitating. And if humankind is a sensing, thinking, and acting beast, it’s quite sluggish, and perhaps even borderline psychotic. All this global behavior is plainly incoherent and very slow to respond to perceived danger. What we see is chaos, discord, and noise. Yet is this really so different from a human mind?
Imagine if you could make yourself minuscule and descend into your own brain in the midst of trying to make a decision. What you’d observe might be every bit as chaotic as our world. Yet somehow out of all those competing thoughts and firing neurons comes a pattern, and a decision is made.
The mechanics of decision-making for groups is on some level not that different than those of an individual mind. Group members accept input and apply some manner of reason and store of memories and knowledge to determine how to act on that input. There is a deliberative process, which may involve conflict, competition, cooperation, and communication, ultimately resulting in a course of action.
In the end, the similarities between cognition, biological evolution, and globalization might provide insight into the nature of collective decision-making on planetary scales. Maybe the Gaia hypothesis is strangely correct. Maybe the world didn’t originally evolve with purpose — but now, through our actions and desires, it’s becoming invested (or infested?) with it.
Just a thought.