James Lovelock is one hundred years old. Yet he remains right at the sharpest of cutting edges regarding deep, existential questions about our planet, indeed, about the entire ‘cosmos’ (as he terms the universe). Nearly 50 years ago, as chief instigator of the Gaia hypothesis – that the Earth is essentially a self-regulating organism – he once upturned a major scientific consensus. Novacene is evidence that becoming a centenarian is no barrier to continuing such a disruptive practice.
While the scientific community squabbles over whether or not the Anthropocene is a real thing, and if so, when exactly it began, Lovelock argues that this debate is old news. In his mind, we’ve been in the Anthropocene for roughly 300 years, and, much more importantly, he believes we are soon to leave it for an entirely new geological era. This he terms the Novacene: the age of hyperintelligence.
To understand this argument, it is necessary, as he dutifully does, to review the many ways in which the fate of the planet is now tied up in the actions of Homo sapiens. As advocates of the Anthropocene have pointed out, we have harnessed control of processes once the sole domain of the natural world, and, through nuclear weaponry and more, even gained the power to destroy ourselves. We are the first species to become truly self-aware, argues Lovelock, in the entirety of the history of the cosmos. ‘Assuming I am right and there are no intelligent aliens, then the end of life on Earth would mean the end of all knowing and understanding,’ he writes. ‘The knowing cosmos would die.’
But this is just the warm up. Natural selection has performed well in creating life so far, he asserts. But its achievements have since been eclipsed by accelerating inorganic innovations, culminating in Moore’s Law regarding the exponential growth in the processing speed of silicon computer chips. Here the book takes a relatively unexpected twist. Lovelock is quite comfortable making his central prediction for the Novacene, namely that a species of artificially intelligent cyborgs will soon rise to live alongside and quickly supersede humanity. While he believes ‘a war between humans and machines... is highly unlikely’ (primarily due to a mutual need to focus on preventing our fragile and ageing planet from excessively overheating) he argues that the supreme intelligence of our new electronic co-inhabitants means they will, aided by intentional natural selection, quickly come to see us as slow and stupid, perhaps comparable to our view of dogs or plants. ‘It may be that the Novacene becomes one of the most peaceful ages of the Earth,’ he writes. ‘But we humans will for the first time be sharing the Earth with other beings more intelligent than we are.’ Ultimately, he predicts that the inorganic nature of the planet’s new primary occupants will mean the importance of maintaining a self-regulating biosphere will cease. Gaia will be allowed to die.
It is truly a treat to read Lovelock. He remains an excellent communicator, witty and concise in his teachings, and capable of dropping facts that are so pivotal to the topics he discusses, you find yourself in shock that you could ever have been so ignorant as to believe otherwise. Brief anecdotes are immensely engaging, everything from burning his own skin with copper rods to test the limits of cell regeneration, to the revelation that he once held an infant Stephen Hawking in his arms. His polymathic knowledge of diverse disciplines allows him to speak with confidence right across the scientific spectrum, and his advancing years ensures he has the historical credibility to back up his somewhat controversial provocations.
Nevertheless, the Novacene hypothesis is a bold and outlandish thought experiment, surely equal to Gaia itself. Less prestigious and celebrated writers wouldn’t be taken seriously for such statements; it is only Lovelock’s track record that really makes his thoughts worthy of consideration. Will the imminent Novacene really herald the end of four billion years of biological life on Earth? Might cyborg scientists one day ‘exhibit collections of live humans’ as he muses? It sounds unbelievable, the stuff of science fiction. Then again, when Lovelock was born back in 1919, so would much of our humdrum modern lives. As the world grapples with the radical implications of the Anthropocene, it would certainly be wise to spend a few moments also considering what comes next. The Novacene might well be it.
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