Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Review of "Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth" by James Lovelock

While scholars such as Capra, Laszlo, Bohm and others have continued to examine the unexplainable anomalies impenetrable to physics, scientists in the field of chemistry have simultaneously been hypothesizing on the fundamental nature of life on earth based on atmospheric and ecological data. Like their physicist colleagues, rather than dividing the molecule into smaller components as an atom is sub-divided by classic physics, these scientists have approached the interaction of elements and compounds holistically, seeking the underlying patterns which fashion the manner in which primary changes, reformations, and coexistence in compound matter occur.  One such theory, controversial since its emergence in 1979, is Gaia Theory, expounded by James Lovelock in his bestselling book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.  

Immediately clashing with the mechanistic worldview, Lovelock contends that modern science’s approach to knowledge is like reading only specific subsections, let alone whole chapters, of a book.  The ensuing narrow view renders knowledge of the book as a whole—a holistic view of the earth—“unnoticed and unexamined” (xii).  For Lovelock, putting the known pieces—the subsections—together into a cohesive and meaningful whole is of utmost importance when seeking a path toward mitigating the concerns raised by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, that is, of the environmental issues seemingly brought about by modern technological development. 

Employing a “top-down” instead of a “bottom-up” perspective on life on earth, Lovelock’s Gaia Theory, rather than seeing earth as a collection of parts functioning independently, proposes that the whole of earth and its biosphere are in fact a large “meta-organism,” an entity he names Gaia after the Greek goddess (x).  Lovelock defines Gaia as “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” (10).

Lovelock’s arguments for the existence of Gaia are founded upon simple logic and draw upon intuitive experience to conceptualize the structure and processes of his model, namely the stability of the earth’s temperature through the eons, the consistent existence of life in a state of non-equilibrium, and the planet we know seems representative of the cybernetic system all other forms of life exhibit.  From these observations Lovelock infers that the earth, the biosphere and its inherent interactive systems cannot be seen as anything but an interconnected being.  “The entire range of living matter on Earth,” he writes, “from whales to viruses, and from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity, capable of manipulating the Earth’s atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers beyond those of its constituent parts” (9).  No more a holistic version of life on earth could be imagined.  

Gaia Theory proposes that the earth, as a living organism, is a collection of systems within a larger system wherein each system maintains importance relative to the others, like the heart compared to a finger.  In such an organic system, Lovelock, not surprisingly, considers human life equal to other animate forms of life, each fighting for their space and resources in true Darwinian style.  However, it is important to note he does not accord humans the particular importance Protagoras did when he said “man is the measure of all things.”  Nor does Lovelock subscribe to what Christianity affirms in the book of Genesis, according mankind dominion over “the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground”.  Rather, Lovelock explicitly states: “it can now be demonstrated… that a diverse chain of predators and prey is more stable and a stronger ecosystem than a single self-contained species” (21).  Implied in this statement is a thought that one species’ attempt to isolate themselves in the overall web of life does not lead to a strong and healthy ecosystem.  In fact, Lovelock relegates humanity and the variety of animals and plants to the periphery of importance, seeing other, more significant forms of life as existing closer to the heart of being, more crucial to the healthy functioning of the overall organism.  Places such as continental shelves, salt marshes, forest ecosystems, and freshwater wetlands which cycle oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and other important chemicals through the air to keep our biosphere stable are given precedence.  

Despite early criticism, Gaia Theory has since come to be considered a viable scientific theory.  Numerous books, papers, and articles have been written either directly utilizing Lovelock’s tenets.  Regardless whether the theory is correct, the environmental sensitivity and awareness of need to alter humanity’s present course remains an even more fundamental message of Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, and is worthy of reading for that alone.

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