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PSI’s David Grinspoon Explores ‘Planetary Intelligence’

can a planet have a mind of its own grinspoon

In a self-described “thought experiment,” University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank and colleagues David Grinspoon at the Planetary Science Institute and Sara Walker at Arizona State University use scientific theory and broader questions about how life alters a planet, to describe Earth’s past and possible future.

Credit: University of Rochester illustration / Michael Osadciw


A trio of researchers including PSI Senior Scientist David Grinspoon studied the question: “If a planet like Earth can be ‘alive,’ can it also have a mind of its own?” 

“We are saying that in a sense the planet itself obtains cognitive skills.  Just as the Gaia hypothesis (which proposes that the biosphere interacts strongly with the non-living geological systems of air, water, and land to maintain Earth's habitable state) proposed that in a sense a planet is alive – in the sense that the living organisms so thoroughly permeate and transform the physical planet that life has become a quality of the planet and not merely something incidentally added on to a nonliving planet – we are saying that the same can be said about cognition. Cognitive processes have become planetary scale processes which are deeply implicated into the functioning of the planet,” Grinspoon said. 

“The three of us – a physicist, planetary scientist and astrobiologist – were considering the ways in which humanity has transformed planet Earth and discussing how that may fit into planetary history in general and whether this is a kind of transformation which could be common in the universe. The question is whether a human-like alteration of a planet can be considered as something different from merely the evolution of a particular kind of species but as a transformation in the way that the planet operates, which may have analogs on other planets. We wanted to find ways to describe such a transformation and how it fits into the larger narratives of planetary evolution in terms of systems processes,” Grinspoon said. 

This understanding will help humans better take care of Earth by seeing ourselves as being in the midst of a planetary transformation in which technological  intelligence is starting to become integrated into planetary functioning, but has not yet done so successfully, Grinspoon said. We may be able to formulate new visions of how this transformation can play out and result in a sustainable planetary civilization, and what the physical requirements for such a well-functioning techno sphere would be, and perhaps even gain some insight into what the organizational requirements would be in terms of global coordination of planet-altering technologies. 

“In a more general sense it may lend a new perspective on ourselves as we grapple with the challenges brought on by the realization that we have become planet changers without any planetary owner’s manual, or knowledge of how to apply these powers in a way that is constructive, as opposed to destructive,” Grinspoon said. 

The paper “Intelligence as a planetary scale process,” published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, can be found at

March 20, 2022
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