12
$\begingroup$

I need someone to fact-check me and tell me if there's anything immediately bogus or physically impossible with the scenario I'm about to propose.

Billions of years ago, under the ice of Europa, the first single-celled organism developed. Over time, members of this single species began to differentiate and eventually an ecosystem of multicellular organisms evolved from all the different strains, just like what likely happened here on Earth (albeit grossly simplified). However, unlike on Earth, this single progenitor organism never died out or was outcompeted by its offspring, and eventually it even began to group together with other cells of its kind to form simple logic gates (kind of like what we've been doing in the lab). One thing led to another and this ancestral species eventually developed into a bacterial supercomputer, from which emerged crude sentience. As the first and as far as it knew only intelligence underneath the icy surface of Europa, it inevitably came to the conclusion that all these other more complex organisms that it birthed so long ago lacked its collective hive intelligence, or indeed any intelligence, and were there merely to serve as extensions of itself. Relying on their distant evolutionary connection, it began to infiltrate other organisms in its ecosystem and turn them into biological fingerpuppets, as they were to it little more than large colonies of cells marginally differentiated from its own that existed only to serve a specific purpose, like a new limb. At the end of the process, what we have is a single massive colony of this primordial microorganism that has gained intelligence and has differentiated its cells into many different types which each form their own colonies (read: organisms/animals) that are controlled by the central hive intelligence. Thinking as this organism does, the entire ecosystem is then nothing more than one gigantic organism.

Is this plausible/realistic and could it pass as the plot for a hard sci-fi story about exploring the oceans of Europa? Or is it complete garbage psuedoscience that only reveals my admittedly shaky grasp on a bunch of different interconnected fields?

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Related: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/45184/… $\endgroup$ – kingledion Dec 6 '16 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ As far as your setup, the only thing that seems immediately wonky is it began to infiltrate other organisms in its ecosystem and turn them into biological fingerpuppets. I'd have to do some research before I can offer a more science-based opinion. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Dec 6 '16 at 21:29
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The hardest chalenge with these sorts of topics is defining "distributed intelligence." Most definitions lead down roads people don't like, so you have to be careful to sell the idea properly. For example, you'll have to take a hard look at what it actually means to be a "biological fingerpuppet" in terms of capabilities and connectivity. When you are done, you may find that it is closer to our current situation with social media than you are comfortable with. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 6 '16 at 22:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It is, however, a great start for a hard-thinking sci-fi story which explores the nuances of what it means to be intelligent. You could totally make it work, but a major focus of the book would have to be trying to define what you meant by a distributed intelligence in the first place, and by giving it difficult challenges to overcome. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 6 '16 at 22:25
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Apparently it isn't something that could happen naturally. However its a plot core that has been used a coupl dozen times, so nobody would be called on it. $\endgroup$ – Necessity Dec 7 '16 at 8:04
11
$\begingroup$

This is a creative idea, and I would love to see how it turns out. Let's play with it until it works.


Scientific problems and solutions to them

under the ice of Europa

I would caution you with this one. Europa is incredibly cold, so any organisms developing will want to make use of thermal energy below the surface - such as geysers. Consider less of an "all encompassing" creature and more of a web across all geologically active faults and spanning all geysers. Somewhat hard to do, but possible.

However, unlike on Earth, this single progenitor organism never died out or was outcompeted by its offspring

Not necessary to provide the circumstances you desire, and it adds a layer of unlikeliness. Consider killing it anyways, I'm sure its offspring will suffice.

eventually it even began to group together with other cells of its kind to form simple logic gates (kind of like what we've been doing in the lab). One thing led to another and this ancestral species eventually developed into a bacterial supercomputer, from which emerged crude sentience.

This isn't impossible, but as other answers have pointed out, it's also not very likely. Consider something like that described in the second best answer on the recent question you asked, which involves "smart" colonies of algae. While I'm not sure exactly how this evolves, Earth examples prove it's completely possible.

As other answers noted, crude sentience must exist for a purpose - if this organism survives by reaching heat and processing minerals, which can be done through plantlike reflexes, there is no need to evolve higher thinking. Consider evolving a couple predators to refine those reflexes over time.

As the first and as far as it knew only intelligence underneath the icy surface of Europa

See the above - there must be other intelligences to co-evolve if you want a crude sense of consciousness to develop.

Also note that reproduction happens - while this may be one big clump of "algae", with individual cells that reproduce asexually, some are bound to split off and attempt to colonize. You must explain why there are not more of this organism.

You could solve this problem by making your colony analogous to Pando, the largest single tree on Earth. It's beneficial for cells to remain with the main "mind" because it provides nourishment; if they split off, they will be devoured by the newly evolving plankton and other microorganisms.

it inevitably came to the conclusion that all these other more complex organisms that it birthed so long ago lacked its collective hive intelligence, or indeed any intelligence, and were there merely to serve as extensions of itself

I disagree with "inevitable" and I have discussed why there must be other intelligent (though not necessarily self-aware) organisms above. However, the "extensions of itself" idea is somewhat like the original "animals are here to serve humans" as opposed to "they evolved too" mindset, so it is credible.

Relying on their distant evolutionary connection, it began to infiltrate other organisms in its ecosystem and turn them into biological fingerpuppets, as they were to it little more than large colonies of cells marginally differentiated from its own that existed only to serve a specific purpose, like a new limb.

The evolutionary connection part isn't credible - we are connected to primates, but does that mean we can control their minds with ours? I suggest leaving that out.

You could, however, combine some qualities of angler fish - in which the males fuse with the females to reproduce - and of a certain nasty fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis - which has evolved to control the brains of ants at a fundamental level. Perhaps the motivation for this is that new bodies provide nutrients and processing power - but "mind pry" thing will take time to evolve, something which an asexual colony will not be able to do for a very, very long time.

The marginal differentiation part may be important, but would involve creating more mouths to feed with little productivity; dead weight will become a problem. I suggest absorbing much different intelligent species with brains that are of some use - or just absorbing to digest - rather than to add mass.

At the end of the process, what we have is a single massive colony of this primordial microorganism that has gained intelligence and has differentiated its cells into many different types which each form their own colonies (read: organisms/animals)

I've addressed most of what can allow this to happen by now - the "different types" would come from capturing different organisms to use, etc. Sounds good.

central hive intelligence

As TessellatingHeckler pointed out, brains are not fast when considering the size of this thing - so a creature spanning the planet will have some delays. Combining slow metabolism (most of Europa is cold) and long latency issues, expect a fairly slow mind.

Regional intelligences with some overlap might work better - they can all do the same things, but memories may not be consistent, and there will be a delay in spreading any new.


Plot potential

As a character
If the mind is a character instead of an obstacle, it will be extremely complex, and you could create an infinite number of plots around it. The ever-present dementia, confusion, and isolation may be aspects of its personality, a cause for potential suffering, and a reason to sympathize/empathize with it.

As a monster
On the flip side, if it's "evil" or "heartless" and functions just for its own survival, your characters may take advantage of latency and confusion to escape it or destroy it.

As a philosophical discussion driver
I urge you to take advantage of the potential discussions this creature offers you. To list a few:

  • Who defines good and evil?
    • Perhaps this hive mind, growing up alone, isolated, and hungry, will have different morals. Who are we to decide that it's morals are "wrong"?
  • What are the differences between living and being alive?
    • Similar to the above. Sure, its "living" in the biological sense, but can this creature really feel "alive", in constant solitude, cold, and hunger?
  • What happens when you die?
    • A scared, isolated mind may witness the death around it and come up with a religious viewpoint.
    • If it has consistent views with ours, perhaps it proves there is a creator.
    • If it has completely different (but not disprovable) ideas, are they any less valid than ours?
  • Do we have a soul; are we special?
    • Is there a fundamental difference between human consciousness and others out there?
    • Is "soul" just an idea, or do we believe after meeting this that we're special?

Other notes and discussion

hard sci-fi

Hopefully I've brought you close to hard sci-fi, but I can't guarantee anything. Speculative evolution is difficult to call "hard" but I think you're close(ish) now

is it complete garbage psuedoscience

Even if this ends up being pseudoscientific, there's no reason to stick to hardness! The facts and figures explaining a creature can be boring - imagine if Godzilla explained how the creature dealt with crushing gravity! Furthermore, I'm sure your story will be great regardless of how realistic it is.

Closing thoughts
This is an awesome idea, can be justified with a few tweaks, and would make an excellent, complex story that reaches deeper levels of thought. Go for it, dude.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Hmmmm... okay, I might have one or two other ideas for fixes to a few of these problems. What if the colony didn't exist in a vacuum and simply out-competed the other microorganisms that, before it came along, were all that existed on Europa? Then, in a "colony as God" metaphor/bit of solipsism, it tried its hand at creating life after a prolonged period of solitude (I'm assuming there's some way for it to do this). Alternatively, it simply evolved along with the rest of the planet's ecosystem (continued in next comment) $\endgroup$ – Z.Schroeder Dec 7 '16 at 3:46
  • $\begingroup$ And after it became self aware, it at some point developed a method to control the other organisms in its environment via some sort of parasitism like you described. I'm assuming that, as a biological supercomputer, it at some point thought of a way to influence its environment on a macro scale. Perhaps not necessarily technology as humans understand it (complex machines etc.), but it has developed some sort of (bio)technology. $\endgroup$ – Z.Schroeder Dec 7 '16 at 3:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Z.Schroeder In response to 1st comment - out-competing all others means there's nothing to eat, and no biomass to add; the ecosystem will be most stable if other species are allowed to develop. $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Dec 7 '16 at 4:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Z.Schroeder In response to "creator" idea - while creating new life may not be impossible, I don't know how to justify the evolutionary path to obtaining the ability to do so. In response to biotechnology - that may need more specifics to be workable but again, not "impossible"; will def be out of the hard range though $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Dec 7 '16 at 4:25
4
$\begingroup$

@Durandal has already touched on plausibility of that evolution.

I question the plausibility of a single intelligence because of signal travelling time - Europa is ~10,000 Km in circumference, at the speed of light a signal going halfway round and coming back would take 33mS. And that's assuming a direct route, no encoding/decoding costs and no route-switching costs.

Human nerve signals max out at 200 miles per hour which means biological return signal would take 31 hours to get to the other side of the brain and back, if it encompassed the whole planet, so a thought might take days or weeks - difficult to have a single mental state, and I guess regions of the planet would become isolated and split off from the larger whole due to (quakes, ice sheets shifting, etc).

could it pass as the plot for a hard sci-fi story

A sci-fi story yes, planet-sized or wide-area intelligences with movable parts have been written before (Ender's Game, Pandora's Star, I Robot, Dark Side of the Sun) but with a definition of "Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy, technical detail, or both." - I think it needs details to be fleshed out. You have a lot of chains of connections all building to a very very specific outcome, but without (so far) explaining reasons why the chains might connect in that way, to lead to that outcome.

e.g.

  • Billions of years ago. one thing led to another. eventually. inevitably
    • (Invoking a long period of time to gloss over details)
  • began to group together. form simple logic gates. from which emerged crude sentience.
    • (Why would those coincidental and useful things happen, instead of much easier and more boring things happening - like clumping together to form gooey blobs?)
  • came to the conclusion that [they] were there merely to serve as extensions of itself.
    • (Would it need extensions of itself? It doesn't need to fight, or move, or forage for food. And How come it can control cells in a way that we cant control our body cells?).
$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

They main plot hole I see is the development of intelligence. There is no reason for it in the first place, no predation to escape, no prey to hunt. No quickly changing environment to react to (other than maybe chemical, and the answer to that is usually adaption, not intelligence).

Take the biological supercomputer away and you have basically what we expect to see in a development stage where single cell life has just evolved, but not yet taken the step to multicellular organisms.

The next part that seems completely implausible is the progenitor organism not being outcompeted by its offspring. The only way this could happen would be in a stable environment and the organsim being the best adaption to the environment evolution could produce ever. And again, no need for intelligence in such a setting.

A hive-mind would need to go trough development stages that evolve the basic concepts, long distance signal transmission (to keep it a single mind) and development of things like sensory organs and memory. And there is basically no need for anything having a brain-like function if there is no information to process, so sensory comes before brain. This contradicts the progenitor being the one that evolves intelligence. Its much more likely that the latest offspring will have aquired all this over the course of its evolution than the progenitor having all of it from the start.

I fail to see any pressure that leads to the development of intelligence in such a setting.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

The trouble with your scenario is that cells just do out-compete each other, even when they aren't supposed to. I don't claim any expertise in biology (human or otherwise), but my understanding is that the human body has multiple systems in place to kill off cells that multiply when they shouldn't. Multiple systems, and cancer is still a common occurrence for us, even when it's in our cell's best interests to look out for each other. The organisms in your scenario don't have even half of the the advantages that cells in a human body do.

In your scenario, each new organism has every reason to try to out-compete all of the others (including your microscopic "Adam", of course), because it hasn't had time to evolve into something that would treat its relatives differently to strangers. Give them that time to evolve, and - as I understand you - you kill off organisms that were supposed to be part of your network.

I wonder if an alternative approach you could take (also bearing in mind Durandal's concerns about the evolution of intelligence) is to start with a fully developed ecosystem, with an intelligent, predatory organism that can expand to absorb other life forms, then have some big event cause it to become the sole inhabitant of the planet.

Let's say such a creature evolved in such a way that it eats a whole load and grows very big (procreating somewhere along the way), then at some point gets too slow and can't move very fast, whereupon it normally gets eaten by other stuff or starves to death (all of which is fine from an evolutionary point of view, of course, since it has already reproduced). But one day a big event like a natural disaster wipes out the creatures that eat it, along with the rest of its species.

It just got lucky. Shouldn't be alive, but it is. Since plenty of other (less dangerous) stuff also survived, it has plenty to eat (note: it probably doesn't; I'm handwaving like a madman, here). It keeps growing, getting bigger and slower until it doesn't matter how slow it is. It just expands until it consumes everything, and eventually the whole world.

Of course, there are various holes in this setup too, but they might - might - be easier to handwave away, if you're set on this idea.

I would also say, as a final point, that ultimately, if you're creating a fictional world, you're creating a fictional world. Things can be a certain way "just because", and I think if the story or game or whatever else it is that your world is used for is good, most people will forgive you for a few inaccuracies.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

I really like the idea, however one thing bothers me :

"This single progenitor organism never died out "

Anything is subject to decay, how can it not die out? If its cells continuously replace themselves then yes it didn't die but technically it s not the same entity as in the beginning after a few million years.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ That's one thing that surprisingly a lot of people have been misunderstanding. I never meant the very first cell has still survived, I just meant the first species of single-cell organisms that the very first cell belonged to. $\endgroup$ – Z.Schroeder Dec 7 '16 at 5:52
  • $\begingroup$ I understand but then in a sense we are all descendent of the first single cell organism that appeared on earth. From an alien perspective, all living things on earth could be seen as part of a collective. Even if we don't feel connected to the other living animals and plants of the planet, we still interact with them the same way a mitochondria in one of our cell or a bacteria in our instestine is technically not part of "us" but is still part of our body. It could be argued that your giant organism is not really one entity anymore. $\endgroup$ – Fred Dec 7 '16 at 6:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Z.Schroeder so edit the OP to clarify—break up the huge paragraph. And when explaining just what you meant, cover why it emerged perfectly fit and didn’t improve over time. Having the innate ability to tqke over etc. doesn’t seem realistic—that would take generations of evolution in context. So maybe you mean that something about its form is still “primitive” from our point of view but it evolved in different ways? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 7 '16 at 6:45
0
$\begingroup$

You have a detailed and interesting scenario developed, with ideas definitely worth exploring, but I object to the implied assertion that Earth isn't one giant organism.

As far as I can tell there is one and only one reason we don't consider it a single organism today: the conclusion is insulting to us.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.