Oxygon, a reader of this site writes:
I am having trouble understanding what GAIA is… Dictionary says it a goddess or something to that effect… Do you think there is a goddess…
Is GAIA the collective will or the direction things are going anthropomorphised…? You know, what works works and what doesn’t doesn’t kind of thing? Evolutionary type synergy? I know that some things work in synergy like bees and plants but what is this GAIA having anything to do with it?
Any help will be appreciated… I get somewhat lost whenever someone brings her up… is that right? Everbody refers to “her”… is this a mis-understanding? Thanks…
Gaia Theory: Science of the Living Earth
Here is a brief introduction to Gaia theory, as developed by Lovelock, Margulis and others.
In the early 1960’s, James Lovelock was invited by NASA to participate in the scientific research for evidence of life on Mars. His job was to design instruments, capable of detecting the presence of life, which could be sent on a spacecraft to Mars. This wasn’t straightforward, since it was hard to know what to test for: any life forms on Mars may be radically different from those on Earth.
This led him to think about what constitutes life, and how it can be detected. He decided that the most general characteristic of life was that it takes in energy and matter and discards waste products. He also reasoned that organisms would use the planet’s atmosphere as a medium for this cyclic exchange, just as we breathe in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. He speculated that life would therefore leave a detectable chemical signature on the Martian atmosphere. Maybe it could be detected from Earth, so it wouldn’t even be necessary to send a spaceship.
To test his idea, he and a colleague, Dian Hitchcock, began to analyse the chemical makeup of Mars, and compare it with that of the Earth. The results showed a strong contrast. The atmosphere of Mars, like Venus, was about 95% carbon dioxide, with some oxygen and no methane. The Earth was 77% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and a relatively large amount of methane. Mars was chemically dead; all the reactions that were going to take place had already done so. The Earth, however, was far from chemical equilibrium. For example, methane and oxygen will react with each other very easily, and yet they are both present in the atmosphere. Lovelock concluded that for this to be the case the gases must be in constant circulation, and that the pump driving this circulation was life.
Lovelock began to look back at the history of life’s interaction with the atmosphere. He noted that about three billion years ago, bacteria and photosynthetic algae started to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, producing oxygen as a waste product. Over enormous time periods, this process changed the chemical content of the atmosphere – to the point where organisms began to suffer from oxygen poisoning! The situation was only relieved with the advent of organisms powered by aerobic consumption.
It was life processes, the cumulative actions of countless organisms, that were controlling the atmosphere. And viewed from outer space, the mass effect of these processes was that the Earth itself appeared as a living entity – especially in comparison with its dead neighbours. Lovelock had a sudden realisation that the Earth could best be described as a kind of super-organism:
“For me, the personal revelation of Gaia came quite suddenly – like a flash of enlightenment. I was in a small room on the top floor of a building at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. It was the autumn of 1965 … and I was talking with a colleague, Dian Hitchcock, about a paper we were preparing … It was at that moment that I glimpsed Gaia. An awesome thought came to me. The Earth’s atmosphere was an extraordinary and unstable mixture of gases, yet I knew that it was constant in composition over quite long periods of time. Could it be that life on Earth not only made the atmosphere, but also regulated it – keeping it at a constant composition, and at a level favourable for organisms?” (1991)
On a stroll with his novelist neighbour William Golding, Lovelock described his idea, and asked advice for a name. Golding suggested Gaia, after the Greek Earth Goddess. The Gaia Hypothesis was born.
Gaia: Science, Metaphor, or Myth?
Few ideas have ignited more contentious debate within the modern scientific community than James Lovelock‘s Gaia hypothesis — the proposal that the Earth can be viewed as a superorganism with the capacity to regulate its internal environment. Lovelock, an atmospheric chemist employed in the 1960s by NASA, first proposed the Gaia concept to account for the anomalous composition of Earth’s atmosphere relative to those of neighboring Mars and Venus. The peculiar mix of gases that envelope Earth and support life on the planet, Lovelock argues, is created and maintained by Life itself. The composition of the atmosphere, in turn, profoundly affects Earth’s climate, which has remained favorable for life for at least 3.5 billion years. Lovelock’s thesis, then, is that organisms have collectively acted throughout the history of the planet to make the global environment hospitable for the biosphere as a whole.
In the three decades since ‘Gaia’ (named for the Greek goddess of Earth) was first posited, the reactions the idea has evoked from mainstream scientists have ranged from polemical opposition, to interested skepticism, to acclaim as a new scientific paradigm. Gaia has also found its way into popular culture, where it has been embraced by both environmentalists and anti-environmentalists as well as advocates of woman-centered spiritualism.
Is Gaia a testable scientific hypothesis or little more than a metaphor? If only a metaphor, does it still have a role in scientific discourse? To what extent is Gaia an expression of modern environmental consciousness? An affirmation of ‘female’ values of community and cooperation (vs. ‘male’ values of individualism and competition)? Can an idea with profound religious implications be credible in the scientific arena? If Gaia is an accurate way of viewing Earth, what are the implications for human stewardship of the planet?
Yesterday, I published an article at CommUnity of Minds that suggests September 11 will mark the official start of Worl War III. This article is frightening, but when examined closely seems to genuine. The focus of Future Positive has been to encourage humantiy to transcend our neutral-adversary strategies. It is time to grow up humanity. R. Buckminster Fuller gave his last public statement on February 14, 1983. “Whether humanity is to continue and comprehensively prosper on Spaceship Earth depends entirely on the integrity of the human individuals and not on the political and economic systems. “The cosmic question has been asked– “Are humans a worthwhile to universe invention?” -R. Buckminster Fuller
“Human integrity is the uncompromising courage of self determining whether or not to take initiatives, support or cooperate with others in accord with “All the truth and nothing but the truth” as it is conceived by the divine mind always available in each individual.
“Whether humanity is to continue and comprehensively prosper on Spaceship Earth depends entirely on the integrity of the human individuals and not on the political and economic systems.
“The cosmic question has been asked–
“Are humans a worthwhile to universe invention?”
-R. Buckminster Fuller