Tuesday, August 29, 2006


"Life is not life, but rock rearranging itself under the Sun." - Dorion Sagan

I believe the Earth is alive. The definition of life includes:

1) Organization: the Earth is composed of smaller units (plants, animals, and other organisms) that, when taken together, make up a larger whole. The human body is likewise composed of trillions of cells, ordered into specific organs that perform specific functions

2) Metabolism: converting non-living matter to energy useable by the organism. The Earth accepts lots of energy from the sun, and even produces some of its own. The moon’s gravity also adds some. The organisms on Earth gather the energy from these sources and store it in fats and proteins in their bodies. They also use it to shape other bits of non-living matter. On a small scale, this is hardly impressive, but taken on the planetary level, with whole rainforests and oceans teeming with life, it becomes incredible.

3) Growth: accepting and using more energy than it expels. Organisms live and die, but on the whole, there are more things growing than dying, more energy being stored than being lost.

4) Adaptation: the Earth has changed atmospheric and soil composition several times since its inception. It has also undergone tectonic shifts and upheavals. Each change has brought about changes in the organisms on the Earth.

5) Response to stimuli: Although this takes place on geological timescales, the organisms on Earth and the Earth itself do “respond” to changes in their environment. In most cases, there is no neural network to design and implement changes. Instead, there are feedback routines, energy traps, release/pressure valves and other homeostasis mechanisms.

6) Reproduction: This one is a bit iffy. It is hard to imagine a planet breaking a piece of itself off to form another spherical body. It would certainly not be like anything we would call “birth”. I am usually ridiculed at this point by the Earth’s inability to reproduce. The Moon sure is pretty, though.

After the Earth was formed and cooled, simple chemical processes gave way to more and more complex processes. Back then the atmosphere was inhospitable to most forms of life. The critters at that stage in the Earth’s development were different from the ones we know now. For millions of years they did their own thing, oblivious to the changes they were causing on the planet. They released oxygen, which forms ozone in the upper atmosphere, forming a protective layer that keeps out UV. They helped form the oceans, helped make them the life-rich seas they are today. Far more examples abound. After about a billion years, life managed to make the Earth more hospitable to new and previously unknown life forms. Everything on Earth now is in some way built upon what came previously, and was ultimately started the moment the Earth was cool enough to support chains of carbon atoms.

This is not to say that I believe the Earth is just like us, conscious of what is going on, responding immediately to stimuli, conversing with others, etc. I don’t claim these things, but people often assume this is what I mean. I don’t. Each of your cells has no idea it is part of a larger whole. Neither do any of the organisms on Earth. They don’t need to understand this to function. They will happily do their own thing, and what they do will happen to benefit or hurt other parts of the larger system. Much like the systems that develop in our bodies to perform specific functions, we can find whole organs of organisms throughout the food chain. Predator/prey relations, bottom-feeders and clean-up crews, and even large-scale organs, like air filtering forests, and CO2 absorbing oceans.

It is necessary here to broaden the scope of skeptics and eye-rollers. Imagine the Earth from a great distance and a long time ago and in geological time scales. It is a rock with a pebble orbiting it, both of which circle a candle flame. The rock bubbles and morphs, melting, writhing, twisting, contorting from the heat of the candle. It changes color, changes size, changes composition, becomes more stable for more complex patterns. Soon it is covered in green patches, like moldy bread. Look closer and you see small bits of matter crawling all over it, swimming in its tiny ponds. One category of critters, almost within the blink of a geological eye, leaves the green patches, and builds advanced structures of rock, metal, and glass that are scattered across the rock face. Mere moments after that, the tiniest of specs fly off the rock and land on the pebble. More specs follow, orbiting the rock from whence they came. Some specs move beyond the rock/pebble system to other rock/pebble systems.

This is dangerous territory, and to avoid stepping out of bounds, some ideas need to be elucidated. What the human body does is not a matter of design from above, but design from below. It is bottom-up, not top-down. There is no over-arching intelligence guiding what goes on the surface of the Earth. Whatever happens, happens, and is more a matter of energy than any preconceived plan. The weather patterns on Earth are caused by the heat and energy from the Sun, the moon whizzing overhead, and surface conditions on the Earth. They are no different than what happens on Venus (sans the satellite), or Jupiter, or any other cloud-capable planet. But then again, life as we know is no different either. Little bits of matter bumping into each other according to particular physical laws that happen to culminate in beautiful and stable patterns. Life on Earth is just far more interesting and far more complex.

Can the analogy go beyond this? Will the Earth ever become a coherent system, a planet that is specifically designed to support some conscious superorganism? To compare the organs of the Earth to the organs of critters living on the Earth is troublesome. The Earth is a different kind of system. Some things will be similar, and others dissimilar. A 1:1 ratio for the analogy is unrealistic and not to be expected. There are, however, some things that may have analogues to what we call life. In some animals, there is a central nervous system, where data from stimuli is gathered, interpreted, responses determined, and responses executed. There are sensory organs that aid in data acquisition. We have seismic meters the world over, detecting every shake and tremor, feeling the ripples of earthquakes from thousands of kilometers away. We have observatories, both planet-based and satellite, and radio telescopes peering like a giant eye into the cosmos. We have radar and sonar, to glean information from the depths of the sky and oceans. We have the internet, a neural network that spans the globe, unites all of this data, and which will soon be able to process it all like never before. We may not understand it, we may not believe it, we may not be able to comprehend it in its entirety, but we are the cause of these developments. What they mean in superorganism terms has yet to be determined.

I don’t believe the Earth is an intentionally coherent system, nor do I believe it has some inherent purpose or function. These concepts are traps of the minds of humans, and are not to be applied to all systems. But seeing the Earth as a single superorganism, Gaia, allows us to see it in a way we probably didn’t before. It gives us a greater sense of responsibility, but also a greater sense of connection with everything else on the Earth. No longer are humans and Gaia disparate or even opposed entities. No longer do our actions exist in a vacuum, stuck only in the time we are alive on Earth. When we die, Gaia lives on, and all the changes we wrought will carry with it far beyond when we return to the soil. It also makes us appreciated what we do to further the complexity of Gaia. Recognizing that what we do has some benefit to human society is well enough, but knowing that it may have some benefit to Gaia, to the entire life-support system, is a powerful idea indeed.


Blogger SH said...

It is definitely an interesting way of looking at things. It also makes me wonder if there is a good reason to make distinction between life and non-life. I mean technically everything consists of "dead" particles, or simply energy. Everything is made of the same stuff, everything constantly changing states. The particles that are part of my body today will be parts of the environment tomorrow. Everything is alive and everything is dead at the same time.

31 August, 2006 20:39  
Blogger Mookie said...

"everything constantly changing states"

The one constant is change.

01 September, 2006 00:42  
Blogger Delta said...

Interesting post. While I think it's a bit of a stretch to consider the earth as being alive, I do share your fascination with the wonder and beauty of the earth, as well as the processes that evolve it in time.

After all, by suitable massaging of the definition of life could you not argue that a business is alive as well? =)

01 September, 2006 01:17  
Blogger Mookie said...

"After all, by suitable massaging of the definition of life could you not argue that a business is alive as well?"

Yeah, sure. The differences are not black and white, but of degrees. The terms we use are arbitrary and human-centric, and, I believe, often more limiting than they are useful.

I read "Chaos" by James Gleick, and suddenly everything was an analogue to everything else:

SH is on the right track: "It also makes me wonder if there is a good reason to make distinction between life and non-life"

I think our definitions sometimes get in the way of a more complete understanding.

The universe is a big place:


01 September, 2006 10:58  

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