Sunday, January 3, 2010

Gaia

Being a complete book worm, it's probably not a good idea for me to spend lots of time in a library. I was already in the middle of reading a bunch of books when I attended a lecture at the main Boston Public Library. Because I was traveling by public transit, I arrived 45 minutes early. What could I do? I prowled around the library, found a book on New England's flora and fauna and read it while waiting for the lecture to begin. I got what I needed out of the book and was returning it to where I found it when I noticed that the library had a whole bunch of books on the Gaia hypothesis. I had an old BPL card that I hadn't used in years in my pocket and so...

As I've been writing lately, I'm very interested in systems, especially ecosystems. Gaia is about the biggest ecosystem that I can think of--the whole planet as an interconnected system. I've been reading three books about Gaia: James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth; Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan, Slanted Truths: Essays on Gaia, Symbiosis, and Evolution; and Lawrence Joseph, Gaia: The Growth of an Idea.

What is the Gaia hypothesis? From an essay by Sagan and Margulis: "Innovated by the atmospheric chemist James Lovelock, supported by microbiologist Lynn Margulis, and named by novelist William Golding [author of Lord of the Flies], the Gaia hypothesis states that the composition of all the reactive gases as well as the temperature of the lower atmosphere have remained relatively constant over eons." In other words the Earth itself is a self-maintaining system. Gaia theorists use words like 'cybernetic' (coming from the way machines ranging from thermostats to computer systems control themselves) and 'homeostatic' (used to describe the way our bodies maintain themselves) to describe the process. Just as a thermostat maintains the temperature of the house and our bodies maintain a constant temperature, so does the Earth maintain it's near constant overall temperature--and all of them use feedback mechanisms. It's basic systems theory.

Not that the Gaia theory doesn't have it's detractors. Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, and Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould, among many other scientists, have criticised the theory. But there are scientists that support it as well. When biochemist Ford Doolittle (who wrote one of the first critical essays against the Gaia hypothesis, "Is Nature Really Motherly", in a 1981 issue of CoEvolution Quarterly) suggested that the supposed ability of Gaia to maintain its temperature implied that Gaia was conscious, Lewis Thomas (Dean of Yale Medical School and author of Lives of a Cell) pointed out: "...we do not understand, in anything like real detail, how even Dr. Doolittle manages the stability and control of his own internal environment, including his body temperature. One thing is certain, none of us can instruct our body's systems to make the needed corrections beyond a very limited number of rather trivial tricks made possible through biofeedback techniques. If anything goes wrong with my liver or kidneys... I rely on the system to fix itself, which it usually does with no help from me beyond my crossing my fingers." (There's a quote that I can't track down the source of although I'm sure I got it from CoEvolution Quarterly and I think it was said by Hazel Henderson: "You can't manage a system; a system manages a system."--or something to that effect. It's useful to remember as I talk about systems theory.)

If the Gaia theory had no other benefits, it got scientists from very different disciplines talking to each other. An article from the San Francisco Examiner (excerpted in Gaia: The Growth of an Idea) describes the first conference on the Gaia theory, held by the American Geophysical Union in 1988. "Microbiologists challenged atmospheric scientists. Oceanographers listened intently to volcanologists. Population biologists argued with geologists. Meteorologists, marine biologists, geochemists, geophysicists, botanists, space physicians, exobiologists, mathematicians and computer scientists wrangled, guffawed, laughed, drank, ate, quibbled and quarreled through five long days." Imagine. Scientists listening to each other and learning from each other. By that measure alone, the Gaia hypothesis has had some success. But I am intrigued by the basic idea--systems theory applied to the whole earth. It certainly gives new meaning to the idea of 'thinking globally'.


Quote of the Day: "Those who speak only for the special interests of human beings fail to see how interdependent life on Earth really is. ... Intellectually we separate ourselves ourselves from the rest of life, yet without it we would sink in feces and choke on the carbon dioxide we exhale. Like rats, we have done well separating ourselves from and exploiting other forms of life, but our delusions will not last." - Lynn Margulis

4 comments:

Michaelann Bewsee said...

I think Dawkins et al are thinking too literally-- not their flaw alone, of course. That the earth is a single system is indisputable; debating the earth's consciousness is an impossible task because we can only understand consciousness in human terms and might fail to recognize it in entities much smaller or greater than ourselves. (Look how long it's taken us to recognize that some animals think and have language!)

For a very satisfying read, I want to recommend the science fiction novel Earth by Daid Brin. Think I'll read it again myself!

MoonRaven said...

Thanks, Michaelann!

Those are some good and thought provoking points. And thanks for the book recommendation as well. I've enjoyed reading David Brin.

Jerry said...

The problem with science, which I do respect, is that it tends to distance us from intuition. So my issue with folks like Dawkins, is that they refuse to accept that which cannot be quantified and reproduced experimentally.

While I am not heavily knowledgeable in either systems or Gaia theory specifically, I feel they have always been somewhat apparent to me intuitively. I think this instinct, like so many others, is taught OUT of us...or at least that is the general goal.

Sorry I haven't popped by in awhile. Peace, brother.

MoonRaven said...

Thanks, Jerry. Good points. A lot of this stuff is intuitive. And guys like Dawkins are still stuck in a mechanical model of the universe--which science seems to be increasingly saying is no longer useful. I think that you are absolutely, it is taught out of us. Unfortunately, no matter what science says, the system is going to be more comfortable with a mechanical model that can be manipulated than a model that says we are all part of a larger organism. What products can be sold by that?

I haven't had a chance to visit your blog much lately either. I hope to remedy that soon.