James Lovelock and Gaia Theory

Lovelock (born 1919) is an independent scientist from Devon who,
after developing his famous Gaia Hypothesis,
gained a notorious status in the scientific community.
is the name for the Greek goddess of the Earth or Mother Earth, as
she is also called. This goddess is referenced to in
Homeric Hymns
which date back to
the 7
Century BC. In the hymn, Gaia is described as “mother of all” and
as the goddess that “feeds all the creatures in the world.” The
ancient Greeks saw the planet Earth as sacred and something to be
worshipped, since it had its own intelligence.

This ancient idea is
also similar to the concept of anima mundi
(which means ‘soul of the world’) which has been a popular concept in
Daoist, Hindu and Buddhist thought. In the late 60s, the scientist
James Lovelock would come to develop his own ideas about the Earth.
His idea would bear some resemblance to more ancient outlooks on the
Earth, but his would have a much more scientific basis. Or as
ecologist Stephan Harding puts it in his book Animate
, the Greeks understood the
sacredness of the Earth through intuition and feeling, while Lovelock
understood it through rationality and thinking.

was introduced to the idea of a ‘living Earth’ through his work for
NASA in the 60s, who at the time were trying to figure out the
easiest way to detect life on Mars. Lovelock was already famous as an
inventor at the time (he would controversially claim that he invented
the first prototype of the microwave as we know it). He invented the
electron capture detector (ECD) which Rachel Carson would use in
detecting DDT and other dangerous pesticides, which can cause serious
damage to the environment, not to mention our health. NASA needed
Lovelock to devise an instrument which could detect life on Mars.
However, Lovelock already favoured a holistic
perspective, which means he viewed natural systems as wholes, instead
of focusing the isolated, individual parts of the whole. For example,
it is clear the life on Earth affects the Earth’s atmosphere – it is
only because of photosynthetic organisms that oxygen exists in our

So Lovelock decided to analyse the atmosphere of Mars in
order to see if it reflected any signs of life. Based on data from
the astronomer Lou Kaplan, Lovelock could clearly see that the
atmosphere of both Venus and Mars was composed mostly of carbon
dioxide, with no chemical reactions going on. This is very different
to how things operate in Earth’s atmosphere. Lovelock told NASA then
that it looked like Mars was a dead planet.

next insight Lovelock received was that the ratio of oxygen to carbon
dioxide to nitrogen in our atmosphere has remained pretty much
constant for the past 300 million years. How could our atmosphere be
suitable for life for so long? In an atmosphere in which chemical
reactions were constantly taking place you would think that levels of
oxygen would rise and fall unpredictably, especially given such a
long period of time. A thought then came to Lovelock. Maybe life on
Earth is involved in not just providing the chemicals of the
atmosphere, but also in regulating
the amounts of them, so that the environment would always be suitable
for life.

It was already well known that organisms perform this kind
of self-regulation within their own bodies, called homeostasis.
Lovelock thought to himself: if organisms can create a
life-sustaining balance of chemicals in their bodies, why couldn’t
the Earth do the same? It was in the autumn of 1965 that Lovelock
first considered the idea that the Earth is a huge, living,
self-regulating organism.

second piece of evidence for the Gaia Theory was that the surface
temperature of the Earth has remained relatively constant for the
time life has existed on it. Lovelock had a difficult time persuading
other scientists of his revelation, since the term Gaia
is not a very scientific one and is associated with ancient ideas,
spirituality and the New Age movement. One famous scientist did take
a liking to the idea however.

Lynn Margulis (1938-2011) was famous
for developing the endosymbiotic theory,
which says that the eukaryotic cell (which makes up plant, fungal and
animal life) is a symbiotic union of more primitive prokaryotic
cells. Like Lovelock, her ideas were very unorthodox at the time, so
she could probably sympathise with the negative reactions the Gaia
Theory was receiving. Margulis would help Lovelock work out the
details of how microbes affected the atmosphere of the Earth, as well
as its surface temperature. As a side not, it was actually William
Golding who gave the name Gaia to Lovelock’s idea of a
self-regulating Earth, not Lovelock himself.

is now quite a lot of evidence for the Gaia Theory. For example, it
was previously thought that cloud formation was a purely physical or
chemical process. But it turns out that life is actually heavily
involved in the process – algae release sulphur that helps the
condensation of clouds which hang above the open ocean. These clouds
not only help regulate the Earth’s temperature, but help return
sulphur to ecosystems as well when it rains. Oceanic salinity
(or the amount of salt in the water) has remained constant at about
3.4% for a very long time, without the oceans ever becoming too salty
or not salty enough for life to flourish.

Gaia Theory has received a number of criticisms. Richard Dawkins in
The Extended Phenotype (1982),
for example, argued that the planet cannot be ‘alive’ because it did
not evolve through natural selection. If it did, then our planet
would be the offspring of other parent planets, but clearly it would
be crazy to think that. You could say that the most basic feature of
all living things is the ability to reproduce and since the Earth
cannot reproduce (it has no DNA) then it cannot be alive. I think Lovelock would accept that he probably used the terms ‘alive’ and ‘organism’ in more of a metaphorical sense, just to get his point across about how the Earth is self-regulating.

A more
general criticism of the theory was that it was teleological;
the view that all things have a predetermined purpose. However, the
Gaian view of the world isn’t any more ‘teleological’ than the view
of the parts of the body working together to achieve a healthy body.
Margulis responded to the criticism from Dawkins by claiming that
Darwin’s vision of the world is not wrong, only incomplete given the
overwhelming evidence for the Gaia Theory. There doesn’t seem to be
any obvious conflict between seeing each individual organism and its
genes as selfish (as Dawkins does) and seeing groups of organisms and
ecosystems as maintaining habitable conditions on Earth. Symbiosis
and co-operation is common in nature, even with all the competition
that goes on.

for the Gaia Theory comes from modern ecology which stresses a
holistic view of the world, claiming that the planet as a whole has
its own set of properties, distinct from the properties of the
Earth’s individual parts. Another important concept to modern ecology
is the biosphere which
is the total sum of ecosystems on the planet. The different
ecosystems interact with each other to regulate the flow of energy
and nutrients on a planetary scale.

Aldo Leopold, in his book A
Sand County Almanac
(1949) would
promote his environmental ethic which took the holistic view of the
planet into consideration. In the chapter “The Land Ethic”,
Leopold includes soils, waters, plants and animals as having value
and said that: “A thing is right when it tend to preserve the
integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong
when it tends otherwise.” Another interesting environmental ethic, which is consistent with the lessons of the Gaian view of the world, is the ‘Deep Ecology Platform’, developed by philosopher Arne Naess.


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