One of the really cool things about the movie Avatar (not the Airbender one, but the one with the big blue aliens) is that the moon where the movie happens is alive. There’s a network of plants and animals all over it, and this whole web of live has consciousness, called Eywa by the planet’s inhabitants. The thing about science fiction films is that they’re usually based on some kind of theoretical science (the ones that aren’t are really fantasy films, which is OK).
In the case of Avatar, there’s some real science that says plants and maybe even some animals are communicating with each other. How? With a network of fungus. This basic idea has also been used by Star Trek: Discovery. Even more fun, one of that series’ characters was named after a real scientist, Dr. Paul Stamets. This is just a fun, short article, so I won’t go into great detail, but you can read a lot about his theories of fungus communication here. It turns out that there is not only a fungus among us, but that it’s been around a lot longer than any other forms of life. Fungus is also essential to life, including everything from plants to bacteria to humans.
Astrobiologists took this idea to the next level: space. They’re theorizing that when we search for alien life on exoplanets, we should consider the possibility that we need to be looking for planet-scale intelligences instead of civilizations like our own, made up of many discreet intelligences. This could lead to very different signatures to look for in the search for extraterrestrial life, and could help us find things we would have otherwise overlooked.
But, if that could be true in space, on planets orbiting other stars that we know very little about, could it be true here on our planet? The basic ingredients of the idea are all here. There are many, many fungal lifeforms all over our planet, and they’re known to communicate with each other, feed each other, and do the same with other types of life. The largest fungi today (that we know of) extend for miles, so the idea isn’t completely crazy.
Right now, our civilization is what the researchers call an “immature technosphere,” a conglomeration of human-generated systems and technology that directly affects the planet but is not self-maintaining. For instance, the majority of our energy usage involves consuming fossil fuels that degrade Earth’s oceans and atmosphere. The technology and energy we consume to survive are destroying our home planet, which will, in turn, destroy our species.
In other words, whether there’s a fungus supermind that feels pain when we do dumb things to hurt the planet’s health or not, we’d better get to thinking more about how we can make technology work with the planet’s needs (which are really OUR needs) instead of working against it. But, we already knew that.
The other thing they get into is the possibility of a planetary consciousness emerging in the future, and it could be made up of clean technologies. Even if there’s not one today, adding technology to our planet that works with these fungal networks instead of against them could be what brings such a thing to bear in the future. That’s a pretty wild theory, of course, but we’ll never find out unless we do the right things today. So, we’d better keep working hard on that!
Featured image: A screenshot from the 2009 movie Avatar (Fair Use, Commentary)