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Gaia - A New Look at Life on Earth
The Earth is not a disparate collection of oceans, land and air populated by simple and complex life forms. It is a single entity where everything within the planets biosphere colludes to form a cybernetic system which actively seeks to maintain an optimal physical and chemical environment suitable for sustaining life.
This is the underlying theory of Gaia as first proposed by Professor James Lovelock in his book 'Gaia - A New Look at Life on Earth'.
Published in 1979, Gaia is a refreshing and challenging proposition that seeks to redefine how we view the planet we live on. Since it was first published the Gaia theory has had a rocky time, variously attacked by the scientific community and championed by some of the more extreme environmental groups. In many ways Lovelock hasn't helped himself with this book as it is rather unfocused in its approach. It is clearly a popular science book aimed at the general reader rather than the academic but he tends to over egg both the science bits and the everyman explanatory parts. Despite being a relatively short book at 130 pages it does have the whiff of padding about it. His comparison of a control system to a thermostatic electric oven runs to several pages when his point had been made in the first paragraph. Likewise his scientific analysis is repetitive and the same analysis is repeated several times over.
The Gaia theory~
The name Gaia refers to the ancient Greek Goddess of the Earth and was suggested by the writer William Goldman. What Lovelock has done is take three observable facts and build his proposition upon them:
The global surface temperature of the Earth has remained constant, despite an increase in the energy provided by the Sun.
Atmospheric composition remains constant, even though it should be unstable.
Ocean salinity is constant.
These are certainly questions that have vexed scientists for centuries and Lovelock has brought together an argument to explain that this can only be possible if the planet operates as an enormous self regulating system to actively deploy its component parts to maintain this optimum life-supporting environment.
Cybernetics, in terms of Gaia theory, refers to the traditional study of controlled feedback systems, whereby a closed system has the ability to maintain an equilibrium state in the face of external influences. This complicated sounding idea is actually quite easy to understand if we use ourselves as an example. Humans are an excellent representation of a cybernetic system, it can be said that our equilibrium state is standing upright at an internal temperature of 37 degrees. As a cybernetic system we can adjust our posture to maintain that upright state even on a rocking ship, likewise if our environmental temperature changes we can take steps to maintain our internal temperature by sweating or shivering and so on. What Lovelock is proposing is that the Earth operates in the same way and that it will take steps to maintain its equilibrium state in the face of external influences. This is a startling theory in that it flies in the face of most modern scientific thought in that it is purely holistic when science for the past couple of centuries has been decidedly reductionist.
Holistic v Reductionist~
Holistic is something of a buzzword at times, particularly when used by Governments or in business, but in essence it means to view the whole of something and the inter-dependence of its parts rather than a specific analysis of those constituent parts. Reductionism is the polar opposite in that it propounds the study of ever smaller parts with the intention of then building up those parts into a greater understanding of the whole. Reductionism has been the basis for the majority of all study into the natural sciences for the past 400 years, while holism is more naturally at home in the social sciences.
By taking an entirely holistic stance Lovelock, a respected scientist and engineer remember, has placed himself firmly at odds with the wider scientific community.
Lovelock's viewpoint is founded on his work with NASA during the 1960's. As a consultant he was part of the team working on the Viking missions to Mars and his role was to help devise tests to determine the presence, currently or historically, of life on that planet. This led him to question the nature and core definition of life itself. It also exposed him to the then still startlingly fresh views of Earth from space. Through the information available to him there he was able to compare the geophysical similarities between Earth and its nearest neighbours, Mars and Venus, and ask himself the question of why our planet had been so successful in developing and maintaining life when the others had failed. Taking the holistic view he questioned why of the three planets that had started life so similarly only Earth, once it had established life, had managed to maintain an environment conducive to supporting life for so many aeons. His theory is that Earth's biosphere works in concert to maintain its equilibrium through a series of measures and counter measures that has kept the environment in a narrow operating band for three and a half billion years.
The publication of the Gaia theory caused significant controversy when it was first released and has continued to bubble away ever since. The criticism tends to come from two angles, firstly that the theory represents bad science and secondly that it is badly presented. Scientific work tends to go through three phases; observation, investigation and explanation. Take gravity: earliest man would have observed that if you threw something it will always fall to the ground, through medieval and renaissance times thinkers investigated the properties of gravity but it was people like Isaac Newton and those who came after who were able to explain how and why gravity works. With Gaia Lovelock has taken the observations above and leapt to an explanation without providing any degree of rigorous investigation. That's not to say that he's wrong just that he hasn't made a scientifically strong case. As for presentation, he too easily plays the conspiracy theorist's card of basing his premise on assumption: 'if we assume the Gaia theory to be true, can we therefore assume that ' and so on. He makes no attempt to explain how Gaia came to be although he his confident that it didn't exist for the first billion years of the planets existence.
'Gaia - A New Look at Life on Earth' is an intriguing read that works to encourage a wider view of the world and an appreciation of the co-dependence of aspects of the environment. The idea of a pre-programmed or even semi-sentient planet-wide force may be hard to swallow but the underlying observations and interpretations make for some interesting debate making it well worth a read.
This book is available in paperback from Amazon for £5.99.
In this classic work that continues to inspire its many readers, Jim Lovelock puts forward his idea that life on earth functions as a single organism. Written for non-scientists, Gaia is a journey through time and space in search of evidence with which to support a new and radically different model of our planet. In contrast to conventional belief that living matter is passive in the face of threats to its existence, the book explores the hypothesis that the earth's living matter air, ocean, and land surfaces forms a complex system that has the capacity to keep the Earth a fit place for life. Since Gaia was first published, many of Jim Lovelock's predictions have come true and his theory has become a hotly argued topic in scientific circles. In a new Preface to this reissued title, he outlines his present state of the debate.