Is the Earth a Superorganism?
This article has appeared on my website spiritualityinpolitics.com
I hope that the previous article has convinced you that “superorganism” is a meaningful concept in relation to insects, and to even lower forms of life. An interesting question therefore emerges, could humanity be a superorganism? Or, even more controversially, especially from a materialist standpoint, could the Earth be a superorganism? (I’ll leave open the question of the universe, but see footnote 1.)
If it is difficult enough to get biologists to accept the concept of superorganisms in relation to insects, the concept of humanity as a superorganism is likely to be avoided even more. Can humanity reasonably be compared to an ant-colony? Lewis Thomas² thinks so but here acknowledges biologists’ reluctance to admit it: humans “do resemble, in their most compulsively social behaviour, ants at a distance. It is, however, quite bad form in biological circles to put it the other way round, to imply that the operation of insect societies has any relation at all to human affairs. The writers of books on insect behaviour generally take pains, in their prefaces, to caution that insects are like creatures from another planet, that their behavior is absolutely foreign, totally unhuman, unearthly, almost unbiological. They are more like perfectly tooled but crazy little machines, and we violate science when we try to read human meanings in their arrangements”. Here he puts it somewhat more pithily: “Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment”. He goes into details, and then concludes: “they do everything but watch television”³.
Despite this general reluctance, Thomas himself thinks that there is some merit to the idea, saying: “We are part of the system. One way to put it is that the earth is a loosely formed, spherical organism, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis… We might see ourselves as motile tissue specialized for receiving information — perhaps, in the best of all possible worlds, functioning as a nervous system for the whole being” ⁴.
The phrase “spherical organism, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis” is suggestive of the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock. The question of whether the Earth can be considered a superorganism has been an enduring theme of his work since the 1970s. In his original book⁵ he put forward the hypothesis that the whole planet is a “self-regulating organism”, thus appears to be alive⁶.
In a fascinating interview with Mark Lawson in 2006⁷, Lovelock revealed some of the background to the controversy he stirred up. His said that his theory was immediately attacked by biologists, especially Richard Dawkins. Lawson commented: ‘It was a challenge to them, to everything they had ever said’. (There’s an interesting phrase for you!). Indeed it was. The things he was accused of, we might say heresies, included teleology, introducing a) religious ideas into science, and b) factors that could never happen by natural selection. This was a point which Lovelock partially conceded, saying that “it is difficult to see” rather than “could never happen”.
Thus I cannot agree with Lewis Thomas (in my previous article) when he says that the notion of a superorganism does not conflict with any other more acceptable view. Clearly it conflicts with neo-Darwinian ideas of natural selection, and in the modern world that can be a very dangerous heresy.
Now, some people might think that, if Richard Dawkins were getting agitated and going into attack-mode, this might indicate that they were on the right track. Unfortunately Lovelock took the opposite view and backtracked, saying, amongst other things, that the Gaia hypothesis was just a metaphor, albeit a very powerful one.
As a brief aside on this question of natural selection, Lovelock related this interesting story:
“I had the good fortune rather late on in the game to talk with two senior biologists, William Hamilton and Maynard Smith. Strangely both of them, right up until the mid 1990s had not read any of my books or papers, but were violently against the theory” (a great piece of science there!). They had been criticizing him, so he decided to go and see them. The result was, in Lovelock’s words: “They still said that they could not see how it could happen by natural selection, but they said, yeah, you’ve proven the point, the earth does self-regulate. They went that far”. The original complaint was that self-regulation could not happen by natural selection. So, if two hostile scientists eventually concede that the Earth is self-regulating, what does that say about natural selection? And then what about teleology and quasi-religion?
Lovelock and his ideas lead me on to Peter Russell, and his book The Awakening Earth⁸, in which he takes the Gaia hypothesis further and has no hesitation in declaring the Earth to be a superorganism, which has the potential for becoming a thinking, conscious being. In my estimation, Russell, inspired amongst others by Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin, is at the cutting edge of modern spiritual thinking, and I invite readers to research him, rather than go into more detail here.
In his first chapter he refers to the experience of the various astronauts who have travelled to the moon. Here are a few select quotations:
- “The view of Earth from space brought with it… the realization that the planet as a whole may be a living being”
- “We and the planet are all part of a single system”
- “The whole planet appeared to be alive — not just teeming with life, but an organism in its own right”
- Edgar Mitchell “felt a strong mystical connection to the planet”
- “instant global consciousness”
- each astronaut comes back “a planetary citizen”.
Russell goes on to discuss the role of humanity in this process. At one point he chooses to use the same phrase as Lewis Thomas: “Society is beginning to look more and more like a planetary nervous system” ⁹. Other suggestions are that we are comparable to brain-cells or, pessimistically, that we are more like cancer. Ecologists may incline towards the latter, but I prefer to take the more optimistic view, even if that suggests that the planet’s brain is not in an especially healthy state.
I mentioned earlier that Lovelock backtracked from his original position, and he may have been sincere. My own feeling is that he always believed the Earth to be a living entity, but for whatever reason did not want to stir up hostility from the world of biology. For example, in the interview with Lawson, the latter mentioned Lovelock’s period at NASA, and the first picture of Earth from space. He replied: “It reinforced all I felt about the earth as a quasi-living entity”. And, if he was indeed being sincere in his backtracking, he seemed to have forgotten this by the time of an interview with Simon Mayo in 2009¹⁰ when he said: “To put it simply I see our planet, the earth, as almost alive. It’s not alive in the sense that it can reproduce or yet think. But what it does do is look after its temperature, its composition just in the same way that almost any living organism does. And when you look at it in that light, it puts us in a very different position, and it puts all of life in a very different position. We all become a part of it. We’re not owners, we’re just part of a great big assembly that is living”.
Mayo responded: “So it’s an organism, a superorganism?”
Mayo: “And you say, it can’t yet think?”
Mayo: What do you mean by that?
Lovelock: “Well, you see, I think that humans have a great potential. We could become so closely integrated with the planet that we could make it in effect an intelligent planet”. “I see in the distant future us evolving and adapting, until we become a part of the whole system, and enable it to think”.
So Lovelock seems to have come publicly a lot closer to the Peter Russell view of things. He has returned to his original idea, and arguably taken it much further. In my opinion, it’s a shame he backtracked and gave in to the biologist bully-boys.
It would be surprising if such a scientifically controversial idea were frequently discussed. However, Arthur M. Young takes on the subject in The Reflexive Universe¹¹, a highly interesting exploration of science and spirituality, where he says that the individual ego is still the vehicle and not “a cell in the social body. Man in our view is not at this stage evolving toward a collective superorganism. Teilhard de Chardin has been so interpreted, and there is a general disposition to envisage that which is beyond man as a kind of social or racial entity of which individual men are cells”. So here he is against the idea. However, he is able to contemplate the possibility because he goes on to say: “However noble the surrender of personality… this sacrifice can only be authentic after personality has been fully achieved”. “Merging into a superorganism, if it occurs at all, can occur only after the individuation has been completed… (which) would see the end of individuation and the reunion of the self with the group…’ ¹².
This is fascinating. He predicts that we need to become fully human (individuate completely) and then there might be the possibility of integrating into the superorganism.
Significant figure in the world of spirituality, George Trevelyan, in his book A Vision of the Aquarian Age: the Emerging Spiritual Worldview¹³, has no hesitation, however, in endorsing the Russell/Lovelock view of things. Here are a few especially relevant quotes:
- “The Universe is Mind not mechanism, the Earth is a sentient creature and not just dead mineral” (p3)
- “We are passing out of an epoch in which we were mere observers, distinct, isolated and alienated from an infinite number of disparate things. The experience of solitude was necessary — a prelude to the imaginative vision of the kinship with all life, and of the fact that mankind is in reality one great family” (p14). (This sounds a little like Arthur M. Young’s position.)
- “We as human beings are intimately and inextricably part of the whole of nature. In this way, we proceed to discover that Planet Earth is truly alive, a sentient creature with her own breathing, bloodstream, glands and consciousness. We human beings are integrally part of this organism, like blood corpuscles in a body. We are, moreover, points of consciousness for the Earth Being” (p15).
Is he exaggerating, being fanciful? Perhaps, but who knows? The problem is that, if any of the above is true, not much of it is obviously apparent to the majority of people, who still consider themselves to be separate individuals. This topic will be the subject of my next article, The Role of the Citizen in a Spiritual Society.
Originally published at spiritualityinpolitics.com.
1. Various spiritual traditions think of the universe as a living organism. If the fundamental idea underlying spiritual thinking is true, namely that matter is a manifestation of a divine consciousness, however you understand that idea, then it follows logically that the universe is alive, since consciousness obviously suggests life.
A couple of possibly relevant observations on that idea:
Physicists were surprised to discover in the famous double-slit experiment that one sub-atomic particle seems to “know” the behaviour of another.
Along similar lines, physicists now agree that paired particles seem to communicate with each other instantaneously, (i.e. faster than the speed of light, which is supposed to be impossible) — so-called Action at a Distance.
Both of these phenomena make sense if all particles are in some way interconnected as parts of a universal superorganism, and therefore controlled by a supernatural (divine) mind.
2. My primary source in the previous article
3. The Lives of a Cell, 1974, my edition Penguin 1978, p11–12.
4. ibid. p104
5. Gaia, A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford University Press, 1979
6. The name Gaia itself, of course, was given by the ancient Greeks to the Earth “goddess”, thus a living entity.
7. Mark Lawson Talks to James Lovelock, BBC 4, 22/5/06
8. Routledge, 1982
9. Russell, p78
10. BBC Radio 5, 24/2/09
11. Robert Briggs Associates, 1976
12. Young, pp195, 196
13. Originally 1977, my edition, Gateway Books, 1994