This article was published on February 18, 2022

Scientists say humans are part of a ‘planetary intelligence’

Counterpoint: Humans are parasites

Scientists say humans are part of a ‘planetary intelligence’

What if we could zoom out past our own myopic point of view and see the planet Earth and all of its inhabitants as one giant global intelligence?

That’s the question a trio of researchers recently tackled in a paper titled “Intelligence as a planetary scale process.”

AKA: the “By your powers combined, I am Captain Planet” theory, as we like to call it here at Neural.

This one’s a bit of a doozy. The paper itself is intriguing, but my first instinct was to call it ironically boring and painfully optimistic.

Here’s a snippet from the abstract:

We consider the ways in which the appearance of technological intelligence may represent a kind of planetary scale transition, and thus might be seen not as something which happens on a planet but to a planet, much as some models propose the origin of life itself was a planetary phenomenon.

Anybody else getting “Dune” vibes?


Oh you weren’t expecting this to be about aliens? Neither were we. Thank goodness for PR.

A press release from the University of Rochester implicates this research in the quest for extraterrestrial life:

“We’re saying 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,”[lead author Adam Frank] says. “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.”

Okay, so this is really about climate change. Basically, if we live long enough to solve climate change, we’ll meet aliens?

Kinda, yeah. The researchers seem to be positing that observations on how Earth’s climate adjusts to technological advancements will give us great insight into what we should be looking for when we search for signs of advanced intelligence in the universe.

Climate change

The researchers describe a sort of evolutionary ebb and flow between the unfettered world before the advent of technology, the destruction of the climate by the use of technology, and the ultimate saving of the planet by… more technology.

In their words:

We believe the concept of planetary intelligence holds promise in providing a framework for understanding possible paths of long-term inhabited planetary evolution that is both broad and deep. Most important, it may ultimately help unite disparate perspectives into a single explanatory paradigm for the transitions in the Earth-system observed in the past, with what we are experiencing now and will experience in the future evolution of the Earth.

In this view, it seems like humans are an infantile species who’ll ultimately grow up to save the planet from the harm we’ve caused. Climate change is our responsibility, but it’s not our fault because we are the world and the world is us.

It’s nice to be off the hook, but we’ve still got to figure out how to fix the problems. And that’s where the researchers say we should literally start thinking globally.

Per the paper:

Our explicit definition of planetary intelligence is the acquisition and application of collective knowledge, operating at a planetary scale, which is integrated into the function of coupled planetary systems.

Sure thing science people. We’ll just grab ground-truth data from the whole planet and shove it in our “coupled planetary systems.” That’ll solve the problem.

Was that grouchy? Sorry. It’s just that I don’t feel very much like a single, blameless neuron in a planetary intelligence scheme.

Counterpoint: Humans are parasites

The researchers’ paper concludes:

An exploration of an exploration of planetary intelligence can draw together three domains of study: the evolution and function of Earth’s biosphere; the current emergence of the technosphere in the Anthropocene; and the astrobiology of worlds inhabited by technologically capable exo-civilizations.

Our takeaway is a little different. Perhaps a thought experiment wherein we view intelligence from a planet-scale point of view is helpful when it comes to imagining the ramifications of human-caused climate shift.

And it sure feels nice to think of this whole climate crisis thing as mere teething troubles as we ultimately find our place as part of the Earth’s self-preservation machine.

But the fact of the matter is that humans aren’t bystanders working to overcome the hand we’ve been dealt.

We’re the architects of our own nightmares. Every system the Earth built to protect itself is faltering under the strain of humanity, from the individual biospheres separating savannah lions from jungle panthers that no longer exist to the polar ice caps that stood in place for millions of years until air conditioning was invented.

We’re parasites. We’re the only living beings that take more from the planet than we contribute.

Maybe climate shift is a natural function of our evolution towards planetary intelligence. And maybe it’s just the planet slowly becoming uninhabitable because humans are greedy and dumb.

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