James Lovelock: Gaïa: A New Look at Life on Earth

Summary

Focus on one of the founding works of modern ecology: the Gaia hypothesis, unveiled to the world by scientist James Lovelock at the end of the 1970’s

15Mar.
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In 1979, British scientist James E. Lovelock published Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, the first in a series of works in which he would tirelessly expose the discovery which was his life’s work: the Gaia hypothesis. His theory came as a shock to many scientists and to the public, and durably framed the ecological approach to environmental issues. Flashback on a book, and its author, that created a new way of looking at the world that we live in, and of how to interact with it.

 

From Mars to Gaia

 

James Lovelock warns his readers: “This book is about a search for life, and the quest for Gaia is an attempt to find the largest living creature on Earth.” He explains that this quest started while he was working, in the mid-sixties, as a consultant to a team in the Jet Propulsion Laboratories at the California Institute of Technology, whose goal was to “devise ways and means of detecting life on Mars”. This job led him to wonder what the real nature of life was, and how it could be recognized – and to discover that there was almost nothing in scientific literature which resembled “a comprehensive definition of life as a physical process, on which one could base the design of life-detection experiments”. This lack of understanding of life itself was an issue, given that a scientific process needed to be defined to evidence the presence of life on Mars, or lack thereof. Lovelock then thought of life detection by atmospheric analysis, which was especially pertinent since Mars has no oceans: if there was life there, it certainly had made use of the atmosphere to establish itself. Lovelock started to dig into how it all worked on Earth, and how the study of the atmosphere could lead to the scientific and unquestionable conclusion that there was indeed life on our planet. Conclusion:

the only feasible explanation of the Earth’s highly improbable atmosphere was that it was being manipulated on a day-to-day basis from the surface, and that the manipulator was life itself.

In other words, that life was maintaining the conditions of its own subsistence by manipulating and regulating the atmosphere. Lovelock’s mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories then ended, but the idea had taken root deep inside his mind – where it had first been planted by the conquest of space!

 

A planet-sized organism

 

Lovelock, in the introduction to his book, defines his hypothesis in these terms:

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.

A “super-organism”, more powerful than the sum of its parts, that looked out for itself. A “planet-sized entity” named Gaia, after the Greek mother goddess. In 1979, Lovelock presented Gaia to the world, and completely upset the understanding of the biosphere which existed at the time: “Our findings and conclusions were, of course, very much out of the step with conventional geochemical wisdom in the mid-sixties.” At the time, it was commonly agreed that “life merely borrowed gases from the atmosphere and returned them unchanged. Our contrasting view required an atmosphere which was a dynamic extension of the biosphere itself.” Gaia thus immediately drew as much criticism as it raised enthusiasm, and certainly did not leave anyone indifferent. Ecologists would be thrilled by the implications that the Gaia hypothesis had for our relationship with nature and for environmental concern. Sceptics would see it as a “New Age” theory, deeply rooted in a mystical, religious and theological vision of the world. Some scientists would criticize the lack of serious scientific bases. And neo-Darwinists such as W. Ford Doolittle and Richard Dawkins would maintain that nothing in the genome of organisms can provide retroaction mechanisms that are profitable to the Earth. In Dawkins’ words, “J. Lovelock’s ideas are inconsistent with everything we now think we know about the evolutionary process” and the planet as a whole has little to do with a living organism. Nonetheless, Lovelock imposed a new way of seeing life on Earth, that had never been thought of before, and as such the Gaia hypothesis has a powerful legacy.

 

The heirs of Gaia

 

James Lovelock is not only a scientist. He is also considered to be one of the main figures of ecology. But a surprising one, to say the least. In the seventies, Lovelock took a stance against political ecologists because he thought they were fighting for an anthropocentric vision of the world: rather than being concerned with the Earth and working from a scientific perspective, they were concerned about themselves. Notably, Lovelock refuted opposition to nuclear energy and supported ecological associations for nuclear energy because he believed that it was far less dangerous for Gaia than the use of fossil energies. On the other hand, he issued warnings about the urgency to act to redefine our relationship to Nature, which would otherwise kill mankind in “retaliation” for what it had been made to suffer. He also criticized growing demography, which causes pollution and over-exploitation of natural resources, stating that if the world population amounted to 500 million people none of the environmental problems that the world was then (and still is) facing would exist. This again led many to criticize him, this time for being a neo-Malthusian. But the main inheritance of Lovelock and Gaia is that they imposed on us the idea that we inhabit a vast yet fragile ecosystem, which we impact constantly:

If Gaia exists, the relationship between her and man, a dominant animal species in the complex living system, and the possibly shifting balance of power between them, are questions of obvious importance.

That was in 1979, years before the explosion of concern around global warming, when we still knewlittle about our own planet and the effects we had on it. Thirty-three years later, these questions are more valid than ever.

Photo © Shutterstock / Zurijeta