The coincidence of a huge and growing environmental crisis and a disease which threatens to crush humanity like some insecticide sprayed onto an infested plant is probably just that – a coincidence.
But proponents of the Gaia Hypothesis might well beg to disagree. They see the Earth as a complex, integrated system of living and inorganic components which work together to maintain an environmental balance which can support life. Put another way, they think of the Earth as a living “super-organism” – a live creature.
The hypothesis, named after Gaia (sometimes Gaea), the Greek goddess who personified Earth, was first propounded by chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis, back in the 1970s. It’s easy to dismiss it as quirky claptrap, if one doesn’t go to the trouble of listening to Lovelock’s well-worked argument. But he’s no fool. In 2006, he was awarded the Woolaston medal by the Geological Society of London.
Lovelock argued part of his case in his book The Revenge of Gaia: Why The Earth Is Fighting Back And How We Can Still Save Humanity, published in 2006.
One important aspect of Lovelock’s analysis is his contention that science is too compartmentalised. By being composed only of specialists who are blinkered to see no further than their own small sector of the nature of the universe, scientific thought misses the bigger picture. Although put forward around fifty years ago, the hypothesis has prompted enormous discussion in many of these fields of study down the years. There are various flavours, many debates and large amounts of both agreement and skepticism around different aspects of the hypothesis. If nothing else, it has induced scientists from many specialisms to re-examine their fundamental beliefs.
So … wildfires, tornadoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, pollution of all kinds, climate change. At a time when many believe that the planet is headed for environmental catastrophe because of the devastation wrought on it by Man’s uncontrolled exploitation, the idea that Earth as a living being might now be striking back via a virus is seductive. Just occasionally, it feels like a battle between two mega-powers – Man and the Earth – for their very existence.
James Lovelock CH CBE FRS, is still going strong at the age of 100. At the time of writing, it’s almost exactly a year since he introduced a discussion of the hypothesis as part of the Cambridge Climate Lecture Series.
In 2011, Lovelock had the opportunity to expand on and update knowledge of his hypothesis at a conference entitled Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity at California State University, Monterey. I’ve included a link to a video of his talk below but pulled out some of the more interesting quotes after it.
“The goal of self-regulation is to keep the Earth habitable.”
Whilst Lovelock rejects the idea of intelligent design or an intelligent designer, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an initial plan.
“What or who sets the goals for Gaia? …[ ]…the goal of the Earth’s system was set by the specifications of the universe itself. The properties of the constituent atoms of carbon-based life have a very limited range of conditions in which they can exist. And it’s this narrow range of physical and chemical states that sets the goal of Gaia. Natural selection by its never-ending iteration has ensured that organisms and the planet evolve to stay within those limits”.
Life is an important constituent part of the Earth’s self-regulatory system …
“Were it not for the regulation made possible by the presence of abundant life, the Earth would now be a hot, waterless desert, with carbon dioxide as the main component of the atmosphere and a surface temperature well over 60C. and it would be a mere interpolation between Mars and Venus”.
” … Darwinism is incomplete when it tries to explain the world beyond a phenotype”.
Lynn Margulis‘ controversial work on Gaia focussed on cells. Having at first been utterly rejected by the scientific community, her endosymbiosis work is now seen as important in our understanding of how some life forms evolve via the merging of cells which had lived in symbiosis. She examined symbiosis between different types of bacteria, which led to the evolution of eukaryotic, or nucleated, cells – the building blocks of life. Her theories applied to both plants and animals. Lovelock praises the way she emphasised the importance of small things – micro-organisms – in the development of life.
She died in 2011. What a pity she’s not around today to give her thoughts on a micro-organism that is in all our thoughts nowadays.
Illustration: Anselm Feuerbach: Gaea (1875). Ceiling painting, Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna