In the 1970s, a scientist took a new look at life on Earth and came up with the Gaia hypothesis a brand new approach to Earth system science that suggested that the Earth was a single self-regulating organism.
Gaia theory has become very popular since it was developed but it’s not without its critics either. Here’s why.
The Gaia Hypothesis & The Basics Of Earth System Science
The inventor of the Gaia theory was James Lovelock, a British chemist recognized by the Royal Society, with a Ph.D. in medicine.
He believed that self-regulation was the reason that the Earth was different from Mars. He said that if you accepted this idea, then it was clear that Gaia (“Earth”) was a large self-regulating system that acted as a single living organism.
His views were not immediately popular but thanks to the work of Lynn Margulis another credible scientist whose work in molecular biology, in particular, had won her significant recognition, the idea of a living Earth began to catch on.
In particular, they felt that the Earth’s ability to resist climate change demonstrated that the planet was using a complex system of science to keep temperatures under control given that rising carbon dioxide levels should have led to rampant warming of the planet.
This was not met with applause from the scientific community, however, but rather with wholesale scorn.
Other Scientists And The Gaia Theory And Life On Earth
The first critic out of the gate was Richard Dawkins, his objection, perhaps unsurprisingly given his background was based on the theory of evolution.
Dawkins noted that plants don’t exist to benefit the planet, they don’t make things to repair the atmosphere, and the evolution and natural selection of organisms require an immediate benefit to the organism itself.
He said that the Gaia hypothesis was in direct contradiction with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and that the idea of “ages of Gaia” or the “vanishing face of Gaia” was nonsense that Lovelock and Margulis had pulled out of thin air.
John Postgate, also a fellow of the Royal Society, was no more complimentary when in 1988 he said in the New Scientist magazine, “Gaia — the Great Earth Mother! The planetary organism! Am I the only biologist to suffer a nasty twitch, a feeling of unreality, when the media invite me yet again to take it seriously?”
And then added; “When Lovelock introduced it in 1972, Gaia was an amusing, fanciful name for a familiar concept; today he would have it be a theory, one which tells us that the Earth is a living organism. Will tomorrow bring hordes of militant Gaia activists enforcing some pseudoscientific idiocy on the community, crying ‘There is no God but Gaia and Lovelock is her prophet’? All too easily.”
The Public Didn’t Care
The science community might have loathed Gaia theory (and to be fair to Lovelock and Margulis much of the criticism leveled at their ideas while, technically, correct was simply based in disciplines outside of their own expertise – Dawkins and, indeed, Postgate were no better acquainted with the pair’s ideas of “homeostasis” than they were with Darwinism as the fundamental basis of all biological systems).
It’s easy to tell this because of the huge popularity in literature – there are an incredible number of books on the subject.
The masses were happy to give Gaia a new look and the idea of the physical and chemical control of the Earth being carried out by a single organism had an almost spiritual nature to it – scientists be damned, this was the love of our environment and planet.
Where Does The Truth Lie?
We could, of course, take the easy route here and say “it depends” or “science is yet to unearth the truth.”
But the while the ideas of Lovelock remain popular with the public even today, it’s fair to say that the Gaia theory has become a starting point rather than an end for fascinating discussions around the environment, climate change, and how organisms interact with the larger system around them including the atmosphere and seas.
The angry feedback of a confused scientific community has died down and Lovelock and Margulis are recognised for having the courage to support their own ideas in the face of the hostility that was wrought against them.
Ecology and evolutionary theory have managed to find accommodation to build a better global understanding of life on this planet and that’s probably a good thing.
It may have been echoes of Plato’s view on the world that triggered so much resentment from scientists at Lovelock’s imagination of Gaia as a single organism, we’ll never know.
What we do know is that once the scorn had died down, we all became better able to bring the idea of Gaia into theories of ecology and consider how human survival might just depend on our continued positive interaction with the planet around us.