The Technium

Technology, a Geological Force

The theory of “mineral evolution” — the idea that the Earth’s rocks are dynamic “species” which emerged over time, sometimes in concert with living things — is a radical new idea introduced by this paper. The theory, called Mineral Evolution, states that:

Biochemical processes may be responsible, directly or indirectly, for most of Earth’s 4300 known mineral species.

According to this theory, life is a geological force. Life has shaped the physical shape and form of the rocky planet we live on. Life, a standing wave of ephemeral organisms, each one who lives a nano-second in geological time, shapes the seemingly eternal rocks beneath them. It is not just layers of pre-living organisms in marble and limestone, but the very mountains may be influenced by life.

The paper offers a brief timeline of the accumulation of species on Earth in geological time might look like this.

60 species of mineral >4.56 Ga (mostly chondrites — the material found in meteorites)

250 species of mineral 4.56 — 4.55 Ga  (achondrites and iron)

350 species of mineral 4.55  — 4.0 Ga (igneous rock)

1000 species of mineral 4.0 – 3.2 Ga (granitoids, primitive granites)

1500 species of mineral 3.2 — 2.8 Ga (new sulfate ores, due to plate tectonics and first life)

4000 species of mineral 2.5 — 1.9 Ga (great oxidation)

4300 species of mineral 0.54 > now (calcites, dolomite, opal and clays)

By this account, there are 3 stages to mineral evolution. (The primary author Robert Hazen uses the term evolution to mean progressive change, rather than natural selection. )The first is the progressive separation of elements from the primordial mix of the original gas nebula before the planets and sun formed. Elements like carbon, silicon separate and recombine to form basic building blocks. The second stage is geological pressure and temperature and chemical oxidation upon these blocks, which produced new minerals. The third stage is “the generation of far-from-equilibrium conditions by living systems” which unleash a multitude of new mineral forms.

Thus biology began to affect the Earth’s surface about 3.8 Ga when life changed its atmosphere and ocean chemistry, precipitating out carbonate and iron formations. Later around 2.2 to 2.0 Ga, during the “great oxidation event” the rise of multicellular life yielded massive amounts of skeletal biomineralization (limestone, dolomites, marbles, shales, etc.), which in turn, transformed the surface minerals on the planet.

6 Bandediron

An example of pre-oxidation life making minerals are these Iron banding rocks formed 2.5 to 4 billion years ago (Ga). Image from Hazen.

According to this article about Hazen’s theory,

As the materials that formed Earth “clumped” together and were subject to thermal pressures and other forces, the number of distinct minerals increased to about 250, the study says. Then, due to volcanic activity, plate tectonics and other processes that churned the surface of the planet before life emerged, the population of mineral “species” had grown to about 1,500 by four billion years ago. That’s when changes to ocean chemistry and atmospheric conditions, coupled with the emergence of life, sparked an unprecedented diversification of the world’s minerals.

“For at least 2.5 billion years, and possibly since the emergence of life, Earth’s mineralogy has evolved in parallel with biology,” Mr. Hazen added. “One implication of this finding is that remote observations of the mineralogy of other moons and planets may provide crucial evidence for biological influences beyond Earth.”

In other words, one might be able to detect life on other planets by looking at the planet’s mineral diversity, which, like its atmosphere, may be detectable from a great distance.

But if the mineralogy of a terrestrial planet evolves as a consequence of a range of physical, chemical, and biological processes, then why should it stop with natural life?

We should expect that over the very long term, if technology continues to increase its presence and scope, our planet will see anthropogenic rock. Technology will produce species of minerals birthed via technological pollution, or by products of agriculture and manufacturing. Indeed, since agriculture has been affecting the Earth for at least 10,000 years, we may be able to find the first evidence of anthropogenic minerals in soils disturbed by tilling, or layers of dust liberated by constant plowing or over-grazing, or in deposits from salt generated by over-irrigation. In the long-term perhaps layers of plastic in landfills, or exposure to acid rain, or sulfur particulates may clump into some new kind of mineral under pressure. These minerals can also form far from the centers of technology, because the lithosphere, like the biosphere, is a complex system of interacting forces.

Just as it may be possible for us to learn how to detect life on a planet by the detecting the presence of certain biogenic minerals, it may also be possible to detect technology by the presence of technogenic minerals. In some cases, the technogenic minerals may be all that is left of a technological civilization.

  • Kent Schnake

    Very likely you remember this song:

    Jefferson Airplane, Crown of Creation

    You are the crown of creation
    You are the crown of creation
    And you’ve got no place to go

    Soon you’ll attain the stability you strive for
    In the only way that it’s granted
    In a place among the fossils of our time

    In loyalty to their kind
    They cannot tolerate our minds
    And in loyalty to our kind
    We cannot tolerate their obstruction

    Life is change
    How it differs from the rocks
    I’ve seen their ways too often for my liking
    New worlds to gain
    My life is to survive
    And be alive
    For you

    “Life is change, How it differs from the rocks” was one of my all time favorite lyrics. Now I will have to think of it differently.

  • Stephanie Gerson

    hence the term Anthropocene.

    I’m tickled by the possibility the the presence of technology, and perhaps what technology IS, could be defined according to the presence of particular minerals.

    in what specific/absolute/observable ways are biogenic and technogenic minerals different? I presume it’s more of a spectrum than a discrete dichotomy, but the question still holds.

  • Tom Buckner

    Well, ceramics, obviously. (Any non-organic solid that is not a metal is considered a ceramic, if I recall).

    I had a beautiful little blue drum, of glazed pottery with a rawhide head, that I sent off to a friend. With it, a note saying “The head may rot, but if you can avoid breaking it, this drum will still be in playable condition in twenty thousand years.”

  • Alex Tolley

    The surest signs are those that archeologists use:

    Fired clays or ceramics, cut stone (shape rather than mineralization – but they seem to last a long while), reduced metals (although the most obvious would be alloys and manufactured shapes). Future archaeologists will note plastics (e.g. polythene in waste dumps).

    If we ever make stable super heavy element isotopes, that would be an obvious sign of technology.

    Finally, why think only in terms of non-living minerals? Gene engineered organisms that would continue to evolve might have some clear signs of technological manipulation.

  • Alex Tolley

    Forgot the most obvious – concrete – although it probably cannot be classified as a mineral, rather an agglomerate of minerals.

    • Kevin Kelly

      Concrete is an excellent candidate. One might imagine the ruins of huge megaopolis being overlaid with sediments and in geological time, the concrete becoming a new mineral.

  • jerry

    This theory fits very well with the theory of biological transmutation as espoused by C L Kervran.. Apparently there is insurmountable evidence of biological processes changing the atomic number of elements~ for instance a spectroscopic analysis of a seed will yield different results after germination (in pure h2o) with elements appearing and disappearing. This is the really Big elephant lurking in the rooms of chemistry and physics….!

  • BrianR

    Very interesting … along these lines, I recommend a paper by paleobiologist Andy Knoll from several years ago that discusses how life, and specifically, the evolutionary history of life, has influenced the geologic evolution of Earth.

    Knoll, A.H. (2003) The geological consequences of evolution. Geobiology 1: 3-14.

  • bernd

    The time arrow and related increasing number of minerals is also related to increasing volume of outcrop (there are only very few chondrites but the earth surface is covered with sediments) – more volume – more chance to discover a new mineral.
    In addition most new minerals discoverd in recent years stem from quite old igneous rocks (older than Cambrian, i.e. 0.54 GA)

  • bernd

    The time arrow and related increasing number of minerals is also related to increasing volume of outcrop (there are only very few chondrites but the earth surface is covered with sediments) – more volume – more chance to discover a new mineral.
    In addition most new minerals discoverd in recent years stem from quite old igneous rocks (older than Cambrian, i.e. 0.54 GA)