Let the oceans take and transmute this cold and fated anchor.

(July 8, 2007)

Last week, I devoured (literately, not literally) a book by Simon Winchester, called A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. It's a fantastic and amazingly readable book about the San Francisco earthquake, but beyond the basic historical narrative, it provides a look at the ideas of New Geology, especially plate tectonics. Midway through reading the book, I encountered an article on Swarm Intelligence in National Geographic, and that - along with the ensuing discussion on Slashdot - forged some odd connections in my ever-receptive brain.

Here's the run-down on Swarm Intelligence/Swarm Behaviour, though I can't promise it's an absolutely accurate summary and recommend you read the article for clarity's sake (and because it's excellent). In essence, numerous swarming species - ants, bees, and termites among them - display intelligence en masse, but not individually. Each ant follows incredibly simple context-based rules, never understanding the reasons for its decisions but making them decisively. There are no leaders of any kind, no overall comprehension of the situation; all structure flows up from the group's members, who see no further than their own antennae. Depending on what they smell, they rebuild parts of the anthill, go outside to forage for food, or act as sentries on patrol. Each ant depends on the actions of the ants around it, but it does not wait for their instructions; it sniffs out the situation and plays its part instinctively.

Despite this, scientists are trying to determine ways to apply ant-style intelligence to real-world human issues, because they are incredibly efficient at what they do. Though a given ant is basically an idiot who will bumble around hopelessly if it becomes lost, an anthill is like a self-sustaining life form of its own, one which appears to behave intelligently. It defends and repairs itself, finds the quickest routes to food sources, and grows in size, all without its constituent parts ever understanding what's going on.

Various people on Slashdot discussed the possibility of this theory applying to human intelligence - after all, what is a brain but a series of (relatively) simple units, communicating with adjacent units via chemical signals? (I am oversimplifying again, but man, I'm no neuroscientist.) However, at least when I read through the comments, no one seemed to be considering the other direction: scaling up this theory to cover whole ecosystems, or even the planet itself.

This is where my newly-gleaned information about plate tectonics and geology comes in. Let me make it clear that I am most assuredly not one of those New Age types who believes that the Earth has a consciousness or feels actual pain when we misuse it. However, when reading about the ways in which tectonic plates move and change, it was easy to think of the Earth as being alive - not in an abstract way related to the life growing on it, but in the sense of being a coherent creation with its own requirements for survival and development. We live on a ball of molten material whose outer layer has coalesced into a series of solid parts, but it is not stable, not at all.

Continents are formed and destroyed as the plates that support them grind and slide together, put under pressure by the liquid metal and rock underneath, then release that energy in seismic activity that forms new mountains and canyons. Everything we think of as permanent on this planet was born, even if that event occurred hundreds of millions of years ago, and it will all eventually either decay or transform into something else. What we typically think of as geography is incredibly limited; consider, for example, that the great rifts and sulphur springs in Iceland are intimately linked to the earthquakes in San Francisco, the huge ocean in between notwithstanding.

Let's take this back a step for a moment. Consider a complete ecosystem as if it were a larger version of that aforementioned anthill - take, for example, a New Brunswick swamp. The flies are eaten by the frogs and the small predators eat the frogs and other low-level insectivores and the moose tromp around eating the plants which support the flies, and none of them have any idea why they do these things, they just feel compelled. The environment which supports the flora and the fauna persists beyond the life cycle of any given species (or genus, for that matter), changing as time passes in order to maintain its internal balance. When a given species becomes too populous or destructive, something else in the ecosystem changes in turn so that its numbers reduce; what we term "Mother Nature" bears a striking resemblance to swarm intelligence. It is equally calculating and willing to sacrifice unintelligent individuals for the sake of the intelligent whole. Though no single element in the ecosystem understands what is going on, an impartial observer can witness the overall structure which supports the survival of the environment itself.

Now we can scale this up to the planetary level. The world's environments spring up and eventually decay in sync with the moving of the tectonic plates and, as a result of that movement, the shifting layout of the continents. Life is sustained on the basis of synergistic relationships, from the bacteria that keep your intestinal tract functioning to the bees who pollinate flowers to the grass (a relatively recent innovation, no less) that feeds so many of nature's little breathing entrees. We live in concert with the flora around us, which has evolved to match the conditions of the rock underpinning it. Though each member of each species is acting only for itself (or, more accurately, acting for itself in order to continue its own family line), there is an overarching order that leaves the planet as a whole making sense - or coming close, anyway.

If we look at the Earth as having the same basic raison d'etre as an anthill - to develop, to maintain life, to ensure the continuation of its own existence - then it seems to achieve it in the same basic ways. Just as a single ant does not consciously know its own purpose, and just as it may die as part of the order of the greater intelligence, so do Earth's various species blunder about according to instinctual responses which are innumerable generations older than they are, living and breeding and contributing to their environments without grasping their roles. These environments in turn work together, providing the level of variation necessary to allow something on Earth to survive nearly any event the solar system may throw their way.

I'm not the kind of person who wants to argue spirituality unless I know my audience extremely well or not at all, but I don't think that has to come into this equation; whether life is a miracle or not, it is still a marvel, and we are still cross-dependent with thousands of other creatures in order to sustain it. There is, however, a question I've not tried to answer, and that is why humans have developed self-awareness; after all, that has damaged our ability to follow the simple context-based rules of our genetic code. I'll admit that this seems to argue against my theory, except for one thing: why are we all so obsessed with our purpose, our reason for being, and our future on Earth? Could we feel so uncomfortable about something that really shouldn't matter to a species as (potentially) advanced as ours because we know, on some level, that we are ignoring our basic ties to the Earth of which we are an active part?

Do we think we ought to be able to be more than we are because we have forgotten how to do the simple tasks that keep things moving forward on a planetary level? Perhaps individual intelligence comes at the expense of swarm intelligence - after all, if any given ant started realizing that he could just sit around and let the food come to him, or that refusing to go outside would drastically reduce his chance of dying, the anthill would suffer. If they all came to such realizations, the anthill would cease to function. We have forgotten how to be cogs in the environmental machine, and the machine is beginning to fail as a result. The question is, if this is the case, have we evolved to the point where we are unsustainable, or will the environment adapt to us as we used to adapt to it? Can planetary intelligence continue past the point where its members have left it behind?