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GAIA’S EVOLUTIONARY LEAPS    PART 2

YESTERDAY WE SHARED tidbits from “Our Cyborg Progeny,” a review of James Lovelock’s Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, in London Review of Books, January 7, 2021. Today in Part 2, we learn about Gaia’s evolutionary leaps, the most critical one a “Hail Mary” pass envisioned for Earth’s survival.

Gaia’s Evolutionary Leaps: Two Accomplished, One to Come. The expansiveness of James Lovelock’s thinking is evident to Meeham Crist: “As Lovelock sees it, Gaia has already gone through two major evolutionary leaps, which can be understood in terms of ‘the planet processing of the power of the sun.’ ”

In photosynthesis, energy from the Sun drives plant growth transforming carbon dioxide into oxygen. Image from science.howstuffworks.com.

Photosynthesis. “Gaia’s first evolutionary leap,” Lovelock proposed and Crist observes, “was marked by the appearance of photosynthesisers. These were the first organisms to use sunlight to split water molecules, thus converting solar energy into chemical energy, which photosynthesisers used to power internal processes. In other words, these were the first organisms to harness the energy of the sun to do work on Earth. The waste product of this complex biochemical process was oxygen, which back then was a nasty substance to release into the environment. But Gaia self-regulated and life flourished.”

Thomas Newcomen’s Engine. Crist continues, “The second evolutionary leap was made, as Lovelock sees it, in 1712, with Thomas Newcomen’s invention of the atmospheric engine.” 

A Newcomen engine generates a partial vacuum of condensed steam in a cylinder, its piston then driven by atmospheric pressure.

As described here at SimanaitisSays, Newcomen’s engine was used to pump water from British mines. In Lovelock’s view, this exploitation of coal was a second evolutionary use of solar energy, albeit an indirect one: The Sun nurtures life, the life decomposes, and its carbon is transformed to coal.  

Crist writes that by this exploitation of a hitherto inaccessible fossil fuel, “Newcomen’s engine ushered in the Industrial Revolution with its attendant glories and horrors, including humans’ new capacity to release massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, drastically reshaping the Earth’s climate. Much as life on Earth rebounded from the early oxygen dump by photosynthesisers, so too it might yet recover from this carbon dioxide dump, though whether this will happen in time to ensure continued human survival remains in question.”

Cyborgs Tossing the “Hail Mary.” “Gaia is on the verge of a third evolutionary leap,” Crist writes, which will usher in what Lovelock calls the “Novacene.” In this evolution, solar energy will be converted directly into information.

This and the following image cropped from nips.jpg.

In charge of this will be cyborgs, with Lovelock borrowing Norbert Wiener’s term cybernetics, from the Greek kybernetikos, “good at steering.” Lovelock’s cyborgs will be highly evolved products of Artificial Intelligence.

Crist amplifies on Lovelock’s view: “As he envisages it, once today’s rudimentary AI becomes self-replicating and self-designing, silicon-based cyborgs made entirely of engineered materials – no flesh, so not your typical sci-fi cyborg – will rapidly appear. They will evolve according to Darwinian principles and soon become ‘thousands then millions of times more intelligent than us.’ ”

Humanity’s Future in This? Crist observes, “With our limited capacities, humans will appear to the cyborgs as plants now appear to us—as a slower form of life. They’ll keep humans around the same way we keep houseplants. The playful reference to photosynthesisers is a nice touch, but it’s not at all clear that humans are necessary to help Gaia control the climate, so perhaps the cyborgs will keep us around for nostalgic reasons? Or because they have a sense of humour?”

Heady thoughts, these. ds  

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021

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