Superorganisms - The Gaia Hypothesis
Consider now another level of communication, a level where individual units transcend their separateness and join to form a new unit. This new superorganism then functions with a life of its own. Lewis Thomas, in his Lives of a Cell, gives the example of ants as a group of individuals combining to create a larger individual. The colony becomes the new organism, taking a shape to which it is automatically restored if it is disturbed, and having long tentacles that reach out to the surrounding area, gathering food and materials to support it. When fish form schools, they are also so closely integrated they function as a great multifish organism. A certain type of slug is created by the union of separate slime mold cells; to complete its life cycle, the slug produces more slime mold cells that form the next generation.
These examples point to uncommon modes of communication and extraordinary levels of intimacy and cooperation. This level of communication is not yet well understood, even though it can be said to apply to everything from the creation of a single cell to the operation of the entire universe. Complex interactions of many separate organisms made up of cells permit you to function as a human being. The town you live in is a collection of human beings; through organization, the town functions as a unit, too. The chain is endless.
By expanding our concept of communication, we can see how entire superorganisms can result from intimate contact and cooperation. This then provides a basis for considering that perhaps our entire planet is a single organism.
The hypothesis that the planet is a single organism was first suggested by Johannes Kepler hundreds of years ago. It was more recently expounded by James Lovelock in The Gaia Hypothesis. (In Greek mythology, Gaia was the earth goddess.) Observing that the planet, Gaia, has systems that can regulate temperature, oxygen concentration, and other variables, he reasoned that the earth is much more than a hunk of rock with different species of plants and animals living on it; it is a whole system made up of many smaller systems, including humankind.
As with any organism, earth's life depends on the integrated functioning of all her components. There are many signs that all is not well, that the planet is ailing. The recent upsurge of volcanic action, earthquakes, and unusual weather patterns may well be messages from Gaia, calling us to pay attention to her needs. If we continue to ignore her communications, there may be even harsher outbursts as Gaia is forced to take more drastic action to regain balance. Our survival may depend upon our listening to her and responding to her needs.