Skip to main content.
Enviropaedia Sponsors and Supporters


Author: Glen Ashton

( Article Type: Opinion )

Could Lovelock's legacy be our salvation?
James Lovelock is the grand old man of environmental science whose expansive ideas carry considerable weight. His Gaia Hypothesis has been described as the second Copernican revolution. Gaia is an idea whose time has come.
In the late 1960s Lovelock was working as an atmospheric scientist with the North American Space Administration (NASA). He evolved his hypothesis about our planet acting much like an organism when he was considering systems and procedures to discern the presence of life on Mars for the NASA Viking project.
Lovelock is a brilliant practical and theoretical scientist who was responsible for inventing the electron capture detector, which assisted Rachel Carson in measuring global pesticides for her seminal work Silent Spring, often cited as the start of the global environmental movement. His inventions also assisted accurate measurement of CFCs above the South Pole, which gave credence to theories of ozone depletion.
In spite of his practical excellence, it is for the Gaia Hypothesis that he will be remembered. Together with Lynn Margulis and others Lovelock laid the foundation of his hypothesis in his 1979 book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.
Ge, Ga or Gaia was the Greek Goddess of the earth; the root of the word can be traced in the names of earth sciences such as geography and geology.
The beauty of Gaia is its capacity to include a broad range of interpretations of life on Earth, which are restricted only by the infinite possibilities of Planetary/Gaian interaction with the rest of 'Life, the Universe and Everything'. The Hypothesis proposes that life does not act in isolation but in concert with all natural events. Our world is compared to a single organism, in which life is intrinsic to the operation of global systems, to the extent that it modifies and is modified by the global environment, in order to maximise successful interactions. Lovelock defines Gaia - as a complex entity involving the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet. The Gaia Hypothesis is not simply an extension of Darwinian evolutionary theory but a quantum leap into interdependent complexity. It has been described as a 'systemic wisdom', and as a multidimensional bio-geographical planetary matrix.
In the Gaia Hypothesis, the planet is not viewed simply as a dead rock with individual life forms tenuously hanging on, but as a repository of raw materials that has been altered by all the varieties of life and environment over the last 3.5 billion years. Gaia is a mix of rocks, gases, radiation, liquids, magnetism, movement and life that is bound together in its complexity, forming an interconnected web. When any aspect is altered, adjustments are made in the system in order to move in the direction of homeostasis or toward beneficial change. Thus the Gaian matrix is sustained and constantly evolves in myriad ways through its integral selfregulatory systems.
The wisdom of the philosophy behind the Gaia theory naturally attracts many people. Similar beliefs have long been held by numerous global cultures but Gaia is the first Western scientific model to describe the planet and the biosphere as an integrated, self-regulating organism. Gaia has predictably drawn a strong following from environmentalists, feminists, new-agers, environmental theologians, communists, deep-ecologists and many other so-called fringe groups that compliment its growing mainstream support. The irony is that so many fringe groups have claimed and adapted the concept that it has gained broad acceptance by default.
The entire Gaia Hypothesis cannot be defined or claimed by a single branch of science. Even evolutionary biology, a broad discipline that examines aspects of Gaian thought, has limitations in its ability to analyse all the relevant factors that may play a role in moderating the system. Narrow and rigid scientific disciplines have been especially slow to accept the hypothesis but a perceptible shift is becoming apparent. However, the concept remains more easily accepted by systems thinkers such as biologists and physiologists, than by reductionists, such as microbiologists, working at the coalface of detail.
Nevertheless, sceptics continue to question some of the core concepts of the Gaia Hypothesis. The antithesis of Lovelock's theory is typified by the ideas contained in Steven Dawkins' acclaimed books the Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene. Dawkins' central tenet is that evolution as explained by classical scientific theory is responsible for our diversity. Dawkins' books broaden evolution by systematically working through the steps of evolutionary reductionism, where complex issues are analysed through their individual parts. He suggests that the processes that govern life on earth are predictable and consequently are able to be controlled.
There are valid points in both the Selfish Gene and the Gaia theories. However the Gaia Hypothesis can readily assimilate Dawkins' theory while Dawkins cannot comfortably accommodate Gaia. This is mainly because of the prevalent system of scientific reductionism. Reductionism is very good at examining details but often misses (or purposefully ignores) the larger, often more relevant picture of the infinite variability of the Gaian matrix. Because of this 'Mechanistic' and 'Reductionist' thinking, the Gaia Hypothesis lies largely outside the boundaries of the present, dominant scientific viewpoint.
Gaia can readily accept both the Selfish Gene and the Darwinian evolutionary theories, both of which it asserts are incomplete. Instead of a single theory, Gaia is a group of kindred theories that complement and inform one another. Gaia is certainly a lot more humanly satisfying than the detached and dangerous scientific objectivity that results in our present mechanistic myopia of looking at details whilst ignoring the view. It can be argued that scientific reductionism is a major factor in our perception and acceptance of present 'progress' that consists of an extractive and destructive cycle of exploitative consumption.
The Gaia Hypothesis is far more complex than most other explanations of life on earth. It would seem to be closer to life than either Darwin's or Dawkins' model. Interestingly, Dawkins' mentor, the eminent evolutionary biologist William Hamilton (who coined the term 'the selfish gene' and opposed the Gaia Hypothesis) has recently called Lovelock's a Copernicus awaiting his Newton. After overcoming his significant scepticism of the Gaia Hypothesis, Hamilton even went so far as to examine a case study that extends classic Darwinian analysis to more closely fit the Gaian model, perhaps in a quest to become that Newton!
Hamilton's example is a wonderfully elegant illustration of how algae create and sustain their own clouds to assist their survival. They do this by creating their own sulphur-based aerosol, around which water vapour readily condenses. The algae can thus regulate their local climate, thereby showing how life and natural systems work toward an interdependent equilibrium. After all, clouds are critical in modifying climate (without clouds the earth would be 20 degrees warmer). Hamilton's example neatly shows how local effects are induced in a feedback system that has global implications, as suggested by Lovelock.
In fact we owe a lot to algae and Lovelock is convinced that the most serious danger to life on earth is posed by global warming. This has profound ramifications for algal and planktonic life, which are critical links in the chain of life. His insists that most other environmental concerns are secondary.
Lovelock's perception views the world as more than a rock pointlessly orbiting the sun, populated by humans pitted against nature in a struggle of survival. Acceptance of the Gaia Hypothesis indicates that we have moved beyond this inbred insecurity and our acceptance of the Gaia Hypothesis offers a hope of redemption from our destructive and exploitative cycle. By acceptance, we are confronted by our role in planetary metabolic systems.
Another common objection to the Gaia Hypothesis is its teleology (teleology being the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes). Teleology implies that a divinity or 'godness' is inherent in the system. This implication creates a further barrier for mechanistic, reductionist analysis. However, it can easily be argued that teleology lies within in the perception of the beholder and is essentially dependent on personal belief systems. Even so, surely there can be little moral objection to seeing the hand of God evident in our support systems? After all, many scientists today are able to safely embrace religious beliefs without undue conflict!
Religious beliefs need be neither integral to nor separate from the Gaia Hypothesis. They may remain simply as components and form subsets of the Gaian matrix. Nevertheless, Lovelock was so concerned about this criticism that he modelled a theoretical planet called 'Daisyworld' to counter it. With a mathematical world populated by white and black daisies he constructed a system that was both adaptable and self-regulating. This model is complemented by Hamilton's algae and cloud relationship. Lovelock has sketched the evolution of our planet from the primeval soup to the present time, looking mainly at the interconnectedness of living organisms with the natural resources available at that time. Thus the patterns that emerge provide glimpses of an infinite matrix.
The beauty of the hypothesis is the manner in which existing, evolving and new information may be incorporated. Each detail can be shown or assumed to form an aspect or part of Gaia. We are constantly introduced to fresh and powerful ways of perceiving our role amongst all that surrounds and supports us. Recognition of Gaia offers a way to end our present environmental deadlock by recognising and admitting our dependence on the Gaian matrix. This, in turn, emphasises our obligation to demonstrate evolutionary intelligence by recognition of this interdependence. More importantly, Gaia allows a feasible transition between a more satisfactory integration of the theoretical and the practical, the scientific and the divine. It comprises the strongest single thrust toward an integrated theory of life.
Human intervention in the planetary balance is accelerating the tempo of extinction. We are unravelling the very fabric of our support system, by causing the extinction of thousands of species. Humanity faces two choices; either to indirectly cause our own extinction by the destruction of our support system, or to recognise our integral role in Gaian systems and reverse the impacts that we have on them. A more widespread acceptance of the Gaia Hypothesis will improve the prospects for the collective health of life on this small, blue planet.