Gaia as been evolving/emerging on Earth for more than four billion years; this exciting story has been told elsewhere. Our sun may continue for more billions of years; but Gaia could forecast a possible leveling off of the emergence of greater complexity and beauty, even a reduction. Each prior grand extinction was like the pruning of an orchard; when new life emerged it was more complex and beautiful than what was before. The life forms that emerge after a grand extinction had existed in the fringes or margins of Gaia before the extinction. They were being held back by the dominant life forms. Most grand extinctions were caused by forces outside of Gaia: collisions with massive planetary bodies, explosive tectonics, possibly run-away climate shifts. One of the earliest grand extinctions was the result of evolutionary changes in Gaia, when microbes invented photosynthesis and slowly populated the atmosphere with oxygen. Oxygen was very toxic to all prior life, most of whom became extinct. Life forms that produced oxygen during respiration had developed protection against oxygen toxicity.
- Was this (photosynthesis & solar energy) a necessary step in the emergence of a biosphere? We might imagine environments on other planets where life formed, but there was no useful sunlight and no need for photosynthesis or an oxygen atmosphere. Early life on Earth did not get their energy from sunlight. Like the explosion of human population with the discovery and exploitation of fossil petrochemicals and the subsequent Industrial Revolution in humankind, there was a massive explosion of new life forms with the new fuel of solar energy.
Today, Gaia is teeming with large multi-cellular life forms: plants of many kinds, mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, insects which make up visible (to humans) life. Recently we have re-discovered invisible life – the microbial domain, upon which visible life is totally dependent. The complex ecology of all life forms continues to be explored. What would happen if there were another mass extinction equivalent to that which killed off all large life (the dinosaurs) 65 million years ago? All large mammals dead, including humans, possibly most of the fish. The emergence of Gaia after such an extinction may not be more complex and beautiful than what now exists. Indeed, it may be less complex and less beautiful than our current era. I will not talk here about the special extinction on Gaia caused by humankind; we are here concerned about a massive attack from causes external to Gaia, that WILL come even if humankind comes to its senses and stops attacking Gaia (as a rapidly metastasizing cancer on Gaia). Whether these future attacks results in other mass extinctions will be determined by actions of a future humanity. Humankind, a subsystem of Gaia, has emerged to ensure Gaia a future of continued evolution/emergence. BUT, Humankind has another, different purpose for Gaia.
The next major positive step in the emergence of Gaia, for which humans are the budding edge, may be wiped out before it gets started. A more advanced emergence of Gaia required that Gaia create for itself (and from itself) a means to survive/thrive after any future potential extinction events – and hopefully, eventually be able to prevent future disasters.
Let us speculate that Gaia has a “mind” and is capable of “knowing” of these dangers and how its future may be stunted, if something isn’t “done”. For the time being, let us assume this is possible. Elsewhere I will explore how this might be scientifically possible – even though contemporary scientific establishments will claim it to be impossible. Scientific establishments (human social, economic and political systems – with fallible humans as members) have been wrong many times before. There is no reason why our current scientific establishment is now approaching perfection.
The rise of vertebrates, mammals, primates, humanoids, and eventually contemporary humans – with their increased neural competencies – is the direction the next major breakthrough in life forms appears focused. I will return to this story later, which is a very exciting story. But first I want to explore a more immediate function Gaia has for the rapid emergence of a scientific-technological humankind: to protect Gaia from future extinctions. This is a great risk, as contemporary humankind is about to be the cause of a major extinction itself. I have difficulty imagining how Gaia chose to take this risk. There is finite probability that the climate changes coming may be so extreme as to shift Earth to a Venus like atmosphere of extremely high temperatures that would exterminate nearly all life on Earth and block any further emergence. But, this is where we are and it is up to us humans to change and become what Gaia had intended us to be. Details of our specific nature was not intended or determined, as humankind had some agency in its own emergence – evolution/emergence is not causally deterministic.
Might Gaia intervene to stop the coming catastrophe? It seems a bit late; but to stop technological progress (that has been awesome in spite of being held back by greedy and shortsighted societal systems) would also threaten the very scientific-technological systems intended to protect Gaia from future grand extinctions. The easiest way would be for Gaia to drastically reduce the human population by major pandemics. This may yet happen, with or without Gaia’s assistance.
COMMENT NEEDED PERIODICALLY. I speak of Gaia doing something to effect humans; but humans are also part of Gaia. It would be like you operating on yourself. EVERYTHING happening is happening within Gaia. [For this essay I ignore possible intervention from alien species or metaphysical entities. These alternative DO need to be considered, but later.]
Later, I will also discuss how some humans can change and begin acting in a coordinated way that could avert catastrophe and turn humankind back on the path initially intended for it by Gaia.