An article by Gaia Vince, BBC.
In Ancient Greek mythology, the Earth Goddess Gaia had nine titan sons, who attempted to control not just the Earth, but the entire Universe. I’d like to introduce another. It’s a new creature who emerged only in recent decades. But it’s a creature who is already as influential over life on the planet as the phytoplankton or forests that regulate global temperature, the weather and the air we breathe.
That new creature is us, or more precisely, what humanity is becoming. The entirety of our species, Homo sapiens, is evolving into a superorganism; I’ll call this new life force Homo omnis, or ‘Homni’.
We have now become the dominant force shaping our planet. Some say that because of our actions we have entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, or the age of man. Homni is a product of this age, a product of human industrialisation, population expansion, globalisation and the revolution in communications technology, and he is immensely powerful. Homni can influence the biosphere, and has needs – currently, he uses 18 terawatts (trillion watts) of energy at any time, 9,000 billion cubic metres of water per year, 40% of global land area for farming, and a plethora of other natural and mineral resources.
Only time will tell if he will be a benign caretaker, or a monster that destroys life and with it himself. But there are clues, and here I will examine what Homni is, and what he means for our species, the planet and the rest of life on Earth.
To understand Homni, let me first take you down into the soil to consider one of the most simple and ancient single-celled organisms, an amoeba called a slime mould. It evolved some 600 million years ago, and occupies soils across the world, from Antarctica to the Arctic. For most of its life-cycle, the cell lives the unexceptional life of most amoeba. But sometimes, these single cells gather in their thousands to create an organism, encased in its own slime, that can creep, crawl, pulsate, grow tentacles and even negotiate a maze.
Scientists describe these slime moulds as ‘societies’ because of the way the individual amoebae work together towards a common cause, sometimes sacrificing themselves on the way. For example, if food is scarce in their soil patch, the amoeba coalesce together forming a tendril that creeps up to the light. Once it has reached the surface, a portion of them form a stalk above ground, by turning their bodies into hard cellulose – a process that kills them. The rest of the mould then climbs the stalk and waits in a blob at the top for a passing animal to transport them to new soils. All this, from the simplest organism.
The human brain is a bit like the mould. Each single brain cell, or neuron, cannot be described as conscious or sentient, and yet, when all 86 billion neurons are networked together, the human brain is far, far more than the sum of its parts, capable of thinking and processing ideas in original ways. We still don’t understand how thoughts or personality or behaviours are seeded and take root in this network, or how the neurons become organised to drive such processes, but somehow consciousness is created from the most prosaic building materials.
We can describe the intelligence, creativity and sociability of Homni as being comparable to the networked, linked-up, conversational accumulation of all the human brains, including those from the past who have left a cultural and intellectual legacy, and also the artificial ‘brains’ of our technological inventions, such as computer programs and Wikipedia. Homni is a global network of civilisations with a stream of knowledge already being channelled for human protection. Just as a cloud of starlings suddenly flips direction en masse, it is difficult to predict how Homni’s behaviour will play out.
But this is just one aspect of Homni.
Not long ago, I sat in a rainforest in Belize, watching a troop of fire ants at work. Individually, each is a formidable beast, a few centimetres long but with a powerful bite. But together, they form what entomologist EO Wilson described as a superorganism of thousands of organised ants that systematically devours everything in its path, tearing down trees and crops and stripping the insulation off wiring and other electrical equipment. In some places the ants run a protection racket for other aphids and bugs, which supply them with nectar. And the superorganism has even figured out a way of surviving heavy rainfall, by clinging to each other and forming a floating life raft in times of flooding. Once they’ve exhausted their environment’s resources, the entire community ups and moves to pastures new. Ants are sophisticated farmers – pre-dating human farmers by more than 50 million years – and they also raise and milk livestock (aphids), they build complex residences, keep slaves, and wage massive battles that involve psychological warfare.
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