Emergence of an Integrated Human-Earth Organism

Several under-reported stories come to mind. Almost all powerful stories concern human beings in some way or another, metaphorically or directly. One result of globalization, let's call it cultural unity, is a story of such power. I'll mention only one facet of this story. Over the past 50,000 years, the vast diversification of human culture ? the creation of quasi distinct cultures, the plural ? stands as a peculiarity of Homo sapiens (relative to earlier humans and other organisms). Human life has divided into diverse languages and ways of organizing kin, technologies, economies, even mating and demographic systems. It's a process that reflects our ken for doing things differently from the people in the next valley.

Globalization may mean the dissolving (all too gradually) of tribal mentality. But there's more to it. The related extinction of languages, loss of local cultural information, and decay of cultural barriers, all point toward an eventual homogenization of behavior that hasn't existed at such a scale (across all humans) since the Paleolithic prior to 50,000 years ago, or even much earlier. The result: the loss of alternative adaptive strategies and behavioral options, which have been rather important in the history of human adaptability.

That's pretty big.

In seeking a truly unreported story, though, it's wise to think a little further out, to make an unexpected prediction. How can that be done? "Unexpected prediction" seems contradictory. Well, the history of life is full of curious experiments, and careful study lets one fathom its rash opportunism and rises and erasures of biotic complexity. The history offers hints. An intriguing case is the evolution of the complex cell, the basis of all eukaryotic life, including multicellular organisms. The cell, with its nucleus, mitochrondria, centrioles, and other components, represents an ecosystem of earlier organisms. The cell emerged evidently by symbiosis of a few early organisms brought together in a single, coordinated system. It's complex internally, but it evolved by simplifying, by gleaning from the surrounding ecosystem. Each of us carries around about a hundred trillion of these simplified early ecosystems, which are coordinated at even higher levels of organization ? tissues, organ systems, the individual.

The big unreported story that I fancy is a latter-day parallel to this fateful development in life's history. Human alteration of ecosystems presents the parallel ? a sweeping simplification of a previously diverse biotic system. Homo sapiens has slashed, culled, and gleaned. It has forged symbiotic relationships with a few other species (domesticates) that help fuel its metabolism (economic functions) as humans enhance the replication of those few at other species' expense.

While these observations are somewhat familiar, the unreported part is this: The global reach of this process threatens/promises to create a single extended organism. The superorganism continues to alter the planet and promises to touch virtually every place on the third rock from the sun. Will this strange organism eventually harness the intricate linkages of ocean, atmosphere, land, and deep Earth? Will it seize control over the circulation of heat, moisture, energy, and materials ? that is, the core operations of the planet? Hard to say without a crystal ball. At its current trajectory, the process seems destined to turn the planet into a cell, highly complex in its own right but evolved by vast simplification of its original setting. Certainly a different Gaia than is usually envisioned. If this story has any validity, it's interesting that the initial loss of cultural alternatives due to globalization roughly coincides with the emergence of this incipient planetary organism.

What I suggest here is the onset of a Bizarre New World, not an especially brave one. It might take more bravery to conserve Earth's biological diversity and diverse ways of being human, salvaging species and cultures from oblivion in a globalized world. Then again...this may already be old fashioned sentiment.

Any important story, even as complicated as this one, needs a headline:

Human-Earth Organism Evolves

Will It Survive? What Will It Become?