What is humanity? Do our minds set us apart from the rest of nature and from the rest of Earth? Or does Earth have a collective mind of its own, and we’re simply part of that mind? On the literal face of it, that last question might sound ridiculous.

But a new thought experiment explores it more deeply, and while there’s no firm conclusion about humanity and a planetary mind, just thinking about it invites minds to reconsider their relationship with nature.

Overcoming our challenges requires a better understanding of ourselves and nature, and the same is true for any other civilizations that make it past the Great Filter.

Humanity is pretty proud of itself sometimes. We’ve built a more-or-less global civilization, we’ve wiped out deadly diseases, and we’ve travelled to the Moon. We’re so smart we’re taking steps to protect Earth from the type of calamitous impact that wiped out Earth’s previous tenants, the dinosaurs. But that’s just one perspective.

Another perspective says that we’re still primitive. That billions of us are in the grip of ancient superstitions. That nuclear war haunts us like a spectre. That tribalism still drives us to do horrible animalistic things to one another. That we’re not wise enough to manage our own technological advancement.

Both perspectives are equally valid. All that can really be said is that we’re not as primitive as we used to be, but we’re nowhere near as mature as we need to be if we hope to persist beyond the Great Filter.

The Juno spacecraft took this image of Earth during a gravity assist flyby of our planet in 2013. The fact that we can make a spacecraft take a picture of our home planet is a sign of intelligence. But how intelligent are we really? Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill.

Can we come up with a way to explain what stage we’re at in our development? The authors of a new article think they can. And they think we can only do that if we take into account Earth’s planetary history, the collective mind, and the state of our technology.

This trio of scientists wrote the new article in the International Journal of Astrobiology. It’s titled “Intelligence as a planetary scale process.” The authors are Adam Frank from the University of Rochester, David Grinspoon from the Planetary Science Institute, and Sara Walker from Arizona State University. The article is a thought experiment based on our scientific understanding of Earth alongside questions about how life has altered and continues to alter the planet.

Humans tend to think of intelligence as a property belonging to individuals. But it’s also a property belonging to collectives. Social insects use their collective intelligence to make decisions. The authors take the idea of intelligence even further: from individual intelligence to collective intelligence, to planetary intelligence. “Here, we broaden the idea of intelligence as a collective property and extend it to the planetary scale,” the authors write. “We consider the ways in which the appearance of technological intelligence may represent a kind of planetary-scale transition, and thus might be seen not as something which happens on a planet but to a planet, much as some models propose the origin of life itself was a planetary phenomenon.”

We’ve divided Earth’s life forms into species. We recognize that evolution drove the development of all these species. But are we missing something in our urge to classify? Is it more correct to view life as planetary rather than as individual species? After all, species didn’t suddenly appear; each one appeared in an ongoing chain of evolution. (Except for the original species, whose origins remain clouded in mystery.) And all species are linked together in the biosphere. It’s often pointed out that Earth is a bacterial world and the rest of us are only here because of bacteria.

It’s worthwhile to recall the work of Vladimir Vernadsky. Vernadsky was an important founder of biogeochemistry. Wikipedia defines biogeochemistry as “…