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Homni: The new superorganism taking over Earth

July 8, 2014
by

In Ancient Greek mythology, the Earth Goddess Gaia had nine titan sons, who attempted to control not just the Earth, but the entire Universe. I’d like to introduce another. It’s a new creature who emerged only in recent decades. But it’s a creature who is already as influential over life on the planet as the phytoplankton or forests that regulate global temperature, the weather and the air we breathe.

That new creature is us, or more precisely, what humanity is becoming. The entirety of our species, Homo sapiens, is evolving into a superorganism; I’ll call this new life force Homo omnis, or ‘Homni’.

We have now become the dominant force shaping our planet. Some say that because of our actions we have entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, or the age of man. Homni is a product of this age, a product of human industrialisation, population expansion, globalisation and the revolution in communications technology, and he is immensely powerful. Homni can influence the biosphere, and has needs – currently, he uses 18 terawatts (trillion watts) of energy at any time, 9,000 billion cubic metres of water per year, 40% of global land area for farming, and a plethora of other natural and mineral resources.

Only time will tell if he will be a benign caretaker, or a monster that destroys life and with it himself. But there are clues, and here I will examine what Homni is, and what he means for our species, the planet and the rest of life on Earth.

Crowd power

To understand Homni, let me first take you down into the soil to consider one of the most simple and ancient single-celled organisms, an amoeba called a slime mould. It evolved some 600 million years ago, and occupies soils across the world, from Antarctica to the Arctic. For most of its life-cycle, the cell lives the unexceptional life of most amoeba. But sometimes, these single cells gather in their thousands to create an organism, encased in its own slime, that can creep, crawl, pulsate, grow tentacles and even negotiate a maze.

Scientists describe these slime moulds as ‘societies’ because of the way the individual amoebae work together towards a common cause, sometimes sacrificing themselves on the way. For example, if food is scarce in their soil patch, the amoeba coalesce together forming a tendril that creeps up to the light. Once it has reached the surface, a portion of them form a stalk above ground, by turning their bodies into hard cellulose – a process that kills them. The rest of the mould then climbs the stalk and waits in a blob at the top for a passing animal to transport them to new soils. All this, from the simplest organism.

The human brain is a bit like the mould. Each single brain cell, or neuron, cannot be described as conscious or sentient, and yet, when all 86 billion neurons are networked together, the human brain is far, far more than the sum of its parts, capable of thinking and processing ideas in original ways. We still don’t understand how thoughts or personality or behaviours are seeded and take root in this network, or how the neurons become organised to drive such processes, but somehow consciousness is created from the most prosaic building materials.

rocina

We can describe the intelligence, creativity and sociability of Homni as being comparable to the networked, linked-up, conversational accumulation of all the human brains, including those from the past who have left a cultural and intellectual legacy, and also the artificial ‘brains’ of our technological inventions, such as computer programs and Wikipedia. Homni is a global network of civilisations with a stream of knowledge already being channelled for human protection. Just as a cloud of starlings suddenly flips direction en masse, it is difficult to predict how Homni’s behaviour will play out.

But this is just one aspect of Homni.

‘Artificial Man’

Not long ago, I sat in a rainforest in Belize, watching a troop of fire ants at work. Individually, each is a formidable beast, a few centimetres long but with a powerful bite. But together, they form what entomologist EO Wilson described as a superorganism of thousands of organised ants that systematically devours everything in its path, tearing down trees and crops and stripping the insulation off wiring and other electrical equipment. In some places the ants run a protection racket for other aphids and bugs, which supply them with nectar. And the superorganism has even figured out a way of surviving heavy rainfall, by clinging to each other and forming a floating life raft in times of flooding. Once they’ve exhausted their environment’s resources, the entire community ups and moves to pastures new. Ants are sophisticated farmers – pre-dating human farmers by more than 50 million years – and they also raise and milk livestock (aphids), they build complex residences, keep slaves, and wage massive battles that involve psychological warfare. The comparisons with humans are multiple.

Applying the idea of superorganisms to humanity is more complicated – individually, we are more autonomous than cells, or even ants. But over the centuries, the idea has emerged in many different guises. The Ancient Greeks imagined each of us as cells in the greater being. Others have referred to the roles that different parts of society play – such as generating energy or food – as analogous to organs in a body. The 17th Century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes also described society as forming an ‘Artificial Man’ that functions (through civilisation) in a way as to ensure its own survival.

Now, as we advance into the Anthropocene, we are seeing these ideas put into practice on an unprecedented scale. While individual humans or societies can exert a local or regional effect on landscapes, water flow or biodiversity, the impact of our superspecies is planetary. Homni now controls three-quarters of Earth’s freshwater supplies, has modified more than three-quarters of ice-free land surface, and modulates the planet’s air, biodiversity, and oceanic chemistry and biology. Homni has even started littering space with telescopes, satellites and other artificial junk. Homni’s actions are like the environmental rampaging of Argentinian ants on a global scale.

Increasingly, individual people are less and less able to function independently in modern society – we rely on the superorganism to feed, clothe and power our many tools, to inform and heal us, even to help us reproduce through surrogacy or IVF. In coming decades, it is likely that access to the internet will have reached almost every part of the globe and, as we become more cohesive as a networked society, individuals who remain outside of the new superorganism will find themselves isolated culturally and technologically from what it means to be a human in the Anthropocene.

In the coming decades, it is also likely that access to electricity, sanitation and antibiotics will become near universal – thus, describing a human in the Anthropocene will increasingly assume a doubled lifespan and basic awareness of the scientific, geopolitical, cultural and social factors behind how the world operates. The result will be a new way of living that is almost akin to being a new subspecies. It is the new modern human that created the Anthropocene and gave rise to Homni, but it is Homni who now sculpts the new human.

Monster issues

And here lies an interesting paradox. Humans may have evolved through a process of natural selection – essentially outcompeting rivals to death – but as palaeontologist Tim Flannery says, this has led not to a “dog-eat-dog world”, but to a cooperative society. He believes we are in the process of forming an interdependent global society with a set of shared beliefs – a “civilisation of ideas” – that will transform Earth into a more equitable and ecologically curated planet. It’s an optimistic view of Homni, based on the fact that most people want to get on with each other and look after their neighbourhood environment. Whether, or to what degree, Flannery’s altruistic view of humanity bears out is the big question.

Individuals may exert an influence over Homni to some degree, rather like the single neuron that fires off a signal, starting an original thought, which then progresses to a painting, song or an invention like the iPod. Or the individual who sends a single tweet that then becomes an internet meme propagating and evolving through the internet. The “tipping point” is thought to be low: just 10% are needed to hold a new belief before it spreads to the majority of the population.

Although individuals may be able to steer Homni to some level, it is far from obvious how we might do this to ensure our survival through the Anthropocene. Homni’s influence is already being seen in planetary changes unprecedented for millions of years, affecting humans and our relationship to the natural world. We are changing the climate by increasing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; we’re reducing the planet’s biodiversity, causing what scientists fear may be the sixth mass extinction in its history; and terraforming Earth’s land surface with multiple megacities of concrete, steel and glass. Deciding as an individual to reduce freshwater waste, or cut my carbon footprint has negligible impact on the state of the world’s rivers or global temperature.

Homni is essentially a concept – I invented him because our superorganism has characteristics that go beyond the simple accumulation of humans. In other examples from the animal world, like bee hives or ant nests, killing the queen results in the collapse of the entire colony. Homni has no single queen, though, and in this way he is as robust as a forest. It would take a catastrophe on an epic scale – an epidemic, massive environmental change, an asteroid impact, or nuclear war – to possibly kill Homni, leaving a straggle of human survivors.

But our impulse would always be to strengthen rather than kill Homni – we are social collaborators and most of our recent discoveries, inventions and successes have been born out of group effort. And the secret to ensuring a better Anthropocene is in recognising Homni’s power, but also nurturing his human side, the side committed to improving relations with the neighbours and cleaning up the neighbourhood. Will we achieve this through global international agreements? Possibly. I think that increasingly, as we see through a network of eyes, in the form of the many powerful satellites and remote cameras that track individual trees in rainforests or reveal the extent of glacial carving, we will start to read Homni’s mind, and have more nuanced control over his actions.

Maybe then we will begin to use the power of Homni to restore and curate the planet. The alternative is too monstrous to contemplate.

This article first appeared on BBC Future. My book Adventures In The Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made is available online and in bookstores.

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64 Comments leave one →
  1. Thomas Jack Swayne III permalink
    July 29, 2014 7:13 pm

    Gaia! I have been working on a very similar theory for months (basically the same) and had been searching for someone who had the same ideas, when a friend showed me this on BBC. I got so excited I thought my heart was going to burst! In my article, I simply referred to Homni as Humanity, but have used your word in a revision of my article (it’s so nice to find congruence). I would love to share it with you, please, please, please, contact me!

    • Gaia permalink*
      July 30, 2014 1:49 pm

      That’s great Thomas. Good luck with the article!

    • November 20, 2015 9:09 am

      I just heard a report on how our own cells communicate with each other. Homni is not unique. Will we use it to avoid our own extinction is the million dollar question.

  2. November 19, 2015 5:11 pm

    Enlightening and educational. Thank you.

  3. November 19, 2015 6:26 pm

    Super interesting read

  4. November 19, 2015 7:52 pm

    beautiful, and well written. this immediately brought to my mind what stephen hawking, elon musk and others fear about an ‘artificial intelligence’. your homni might be in the beginning stages of this awareness. I do have a question though, why do you assume we might not already be part of a scalar mind-consciousness system, as if humans are at the apex of consciousness? if individual cells can integrate and work together (like your cells creating your body’s organs) and then integrate further (creating your CNS, immune system, skeletal, etc.) and then eventually creating what you call ‘yourself’, the collection of all these components integrated as ‘I’, then would it not make sense we as a collective, already exist in such a system, and homni, might just be a derivative of this process of integration, and it too might call itself ‘I’ as a collection of ‘we’ the human cells ? and what happens in our own bodies when cells take control of each other and hijack the natural homeostatic process? is that not cancer? is that not what humans seem to be in this current stage of our evolution? i’m ranting now, but thank you for the article! will definitely follow your writing 🙂

  5. November 19, 2015 8:33 pm

    What an amazing read. Thanks!

  6. November 20, 2015 12:08 am

    Great read

  7. November 20, 2015 2:20 am

    Thank you for the great post!

  8. November 20, 2015 4:18 am

    Nice article….deep

  9. November 20, 2015 5:21 am

    Superb! so glad this was pressed, or I wouldn’t have come across it. EAch bit of in-depth information is mind-boggling and thought-provoking. And calling him Homni (not her, right?) is a touch of genius. I’m buying your book asap.

  10. November 20, 2015 5:45 am

    Good luck

  11. November 20, 2015 7:41 am

    Reblogged this on nancitajoy.

  12. November 20, 2015 9:00 am

    Nice read. Great work. Check out my blog, https://danixkamau.wordpress.com/
    Feel free to share your thoughts

  13. November 20, 2015 9:06 am

    We became a super organism when we started speaking. It gave us an edge in survival. Will we use it to prevent our own extinction? I doubt it.

  14. anisha81 permalink
    November 20, 2015 9:08 am

    Nice article, great job..

  15. November 20, 2015 10:03 am

    I think this is one of the most important information for me. And I’m glad reading your article.

  16. November 20, 2015 1:27 pm

    Wow! So exciting and thought provoking.

    • November 20, 2015 10:36 pm

      It’s not amazing generate an imagination that could break barriers through the writing project.

  17. November 20, 2015 1:44 pm

    Very good article, good read and convenient in view

  18. November 20, 2015 4:16 pm

    Great article! I’m now curious about your book. I hope one at a time, we’ll be able to convince the others of the absolute necessity of taking care of each other and of the planet. Changing little things so life on Earth doesn’t only seem like we’re a virus sucking its blood to the last drop before realizing we’re killing ourselves at the same time.
    Your futuristic and anthropological view is super interesting! Loved every single word of it!

  19. November 20, 2015 7:45 pm

    Fascinating. Does Homni ultimately survive, or get replaced by AI?

  20. November 20, 2015 9:42 pm

    Very well placed ideas.. Indeed, we are a superorgansim.. not quite a superiororgansism, however much we’d like to think it true.

  21. November 20, 2015 9:51 pm

    This was a really interesting read, and I like how your thought about the direction we are heading towards.Lets hope that us being intelligent and having so many possibilities, leads to something else than mass extinction, because these are exciting times, and I don`t want it to end.

  22. November 20, 2015 10:12 pm

    This article is extremely interesting!

  23. November 20, 2015 10:36 pm

    Inequality is becoming increasingly popular in Western Hemisphere

  24. November 21, 2015 1:08 am

    Interesting idea. Good article

  25. November 21, 2015 2:11 am

    This is a little scary but very interesting

  26. Pura Ilusión by Adelina permalink
    November 21, 2015 2:20 am

    Very educational and interesting! I really enjoyed reading it! Thank you for sharing

  27. November 21, 2015 3:40 am

    What are we mostly into people

  28. November 21, 2015 5:51 am

    Well argued even though I’m not convinced we need to keep whupping ourselves – my bet’s on the optimistic side!

  29. November 21, 2015 9:37 am

    What an amazing read. Thanks!

  30. November 21, 2015 11:52 am

    Reblogged this on careemclinichomeandonline and commented:
    This myth is closely related to my Yoruba mythology of Obantala.

  31. November 21, 2015 3:36 pm

    Reblogged this on vidauniversitariaunimagdalena.

  32. November 21, 2015 9:23 pm

    Great article. Towards the end you mention that you “invented Homni”. Since Homni existed long before any of us, I would argue it is not your invention, but instead that you “Named Homni”. Keep up the great work.

  33. November 21, 2015 10:01 pm

    What a fascinating article. I’m very interested in reading your book.

  34. November 22, 2015 9:49 am

    Reblogged this on The Blunt Smoker's Guide and commented:
    THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF THE FUTURE.

  35. November 22, 2015 11:56 am

    Excellent, thoughtful read and I enjoyed it…however, I’m concerned that you speak only of the scientific aspects of Homni’s future leaving out the influence of religion and the role it has always played in man’s survival.

  36. Gaia permalink*
    November 22, 2015 3:12 pm

    Wow, thanks for all the lovely comments! I’m so glad this resonated with people. Let’s hope the leaders meeting in Paris next month feel inspired to agree change for a positive future.

  37. November 23, 2015 3:14 am

    Nice article. You make some good points. I do not agree with the dangers of rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, but I do agree that some of the extreme land use changes need to be considered as a negative for the future well being of ourselves and animals alike. The catastrophic climate change group is antithetical to having a good future though.

  38. November 23, 2015 4:51 am

    Reblogged this on furqannisarsheikh and commented:
    Good read, delineates a soft claim as to how humankind has evolved into a super-organism, ‘homni’.
    Sth for a little morning brainstorming 🙂

  39. November 24, 2015 2:20 pm

    I am excited to see more and more cooperation and common love promoted. Thanks for this. Also, if we’re going to make a giant ant like raft, I call middle.

  40. November 26, 2015 1:43 am

    I really enjoyed it!

  41. November 27, 2015 1:00 pm

    Reblogged this on Just Zmrs and commented:
    Excellent

  42. November 27, 2015 1:03 pm

    Reblogged this on Just Zmrs and commented:
    Excellent

  43. November 28, 2015 8:17 pm

    Nice article

  44. Vincci0horsplay permalink
    November 29, 2015 8:41 pm

    Reblogged this on vincci0horsplay's Blog.

  45. December 3, 2015 12:32 am

    This is so beautifully written, a great read! The depth of this matter is so well laid out, from writer to writer, interesting and insightful 🙂

  46. December 3, 2015 3:40 pm

    Right nice article thanks for post

  47. December 12, 2015 2:52 am

    A fascinating exploration into enlightenment. Each time we have approached this phase of humankind we are sorely reminded of our animal instincts. It’s nice to read a positive message to achieve this will be equal to the miracle of life itself.

  48. December 23, 2015 5:05 am

    Wow i want to visit there

  49. December 29, 2015 6:05 pm

    Very thought provoking, opened my eyes a little.

  50. January 4, 2016 11:13 am

    Reblogged this on sohaiberupt's Blog and commented:
    A very interesting post indeed. You will enjoy it very much. It is bit long but still your reading will not go vain.

  51. Maverick permalink
    January 10, 2016 2:03 pm

    Reblogged this on fazal4u and commented:
    “Only time will tell if he will be a benign caretaker, or a monster that destroys the planet and with it himself”. Homni is in many ways Unlike ants and microorganisms which cooperate and sacrifice for each other for the survival of the species. Homni, the superorganism has been in a contest with himself and in this contest to survive it has become a monster that is most likely to destroy the planet and with it himself.

  52. January 30, 2016 5:47 pm

    Excellent post!
    I liked it very much. I only disagree in the following affirmation :
    “…somehow consciousness is created from the most prosaic building materials.”

    It’s exactly the other way around !

  53. February 29, 2016 11:17 am

    Reblogged this on Charles Clanton Rogers and commented:
    HAVE WE BECOME A SUPERORGANISM?
    Adventures In The Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet,

  54. March 1, 2016 3:43 pm

    Educational and in many ways an emotional article.
    Very thought provoking!
    It would be wonderful if this worked towards more understanding and better communication.

  55. March 19, 2016 12:18 am

    Are used to teach about Greek mythology and Mother Earth
    Janice

  56. Shiva Lisa Paul permalink
    March 28, 2016 12:39 pm

    Thank you! I must factor this theory into my revisioning of the Ubermensch as the hieros gamos!

  57. July 23, 2016 5:48 am

    Hi,
    This was interesting from many perspectives. For example, I am an English teacher. I teach about Greek mythology, so I enjoyed your piece on that level. I also enjoyed it from the scientific perspective. Maybe you can check out my site if you could use a blogging tip or two. That’s what I write about.
    Janice

  58. March 14, 2017 2:50 am

    Nice articel !

Trackbacks

  1. ‘Who Will We Be?’ by Dr. David Eagleman | DirtNKids Blog
  2. Homni: The new superorganism taking over Earth | Dark Matters
  3. Homni: The new superorganism taking over Earth | cricknews24

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