This is an archive story, published in the August 2000 edition of Geographical.
All facts, figures and statistics were accurate at the time of original publication. The text has been lightly edited solely for current house style reasons but otherwise remains unchanged.
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Although similar beliefs have been held by indigenous cultures around the globe, James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory is the first Western scientific model to see the planet and the biosphere as one integrated self-regulating organism. His research has shown that processes as fundamental and diverse as weather patterns, salt levels in the sea and cloud formation are inextricably linked to the function of micro-organisms like plankton and algae. Through simple computerised models, Lovelock has shown that the composition of the atmosphere and the planet’s temperature are kept at remarkably constant levels by complex systemic processes.
The theory sprang from Lovelock’s previous work with NASA, developing instruments for detecting life on other planets, and when first published in 1979 was scathingly attacked by the mainstream scientific community – partly because of its close parallels to animistic beliefs, seeing the planet as somehow alive, but also because his holistic approach was in direct contrast to the reductionist, mechanistic approach of conventional modern science. His theory has gained more and more recognition over the last 20 years and is now being accepted by the scientific establishment – although they still refuse to call it Gaia.
It seems ironic that your theories about the Earth developed from your work with NASA, looking for life on other planets.
Well it’s not so odd really. You never realise how beautiful your wife is until you see her in comparison with other women! It’s the same with the Earth. When you see the surfaces of Mars and Venus you realise what an incredible planet we happen to be on. But it wasn’t just that iconic view of Earth seen from space. When we analysed the composition of the atmospheres of Mars and Venus, we found that they were primarily made of carbon dioxide. This showed that the planets were in what chemists call the ‘equilibrium state’, whereby an atmosphere made of carbon dioxide indicates a lifeless state. When we looked at the atmosphere of the Earth, it was such a rich mixture, almost like the gas that goes into the intake manifold of your car – hydrocarbons mixed with oxygen. Mars’ atmosphere, in comparison, is more like the exhaust gases that come out the other end. So it appears that life on Mars and Venus may have exhausted itself.
The image of the planet from space seems to have had a profound impact on global consciousness. Some people cite it as the birth of the environmental movement. Do you think it awakened us to various problems in our own biosphere?
Yes, I think it did. Though I think the environmental movement was born with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 – with the negative discovery that there were pesticides everywhere, from Antarctica to the North Pole. Interestingly, she would not have been able to write that book without the electron capture detector, which I had invented a few years previously and which enabled us to measure levels of pesticide traces around the world.
There is an obvious analogy between Gaia as a scientific theory and the animistic beliefs of indigenous cultures and their reverence for the Earth as The Mother, or even Plato’s belief that the planet was one living organism. Why do you think it took so long for a theory to develop from a scientific perspective?
Well, there is a sort of thread of revolutionary thinking going right through science back to the Enlightenment in the 18th century. The great bulk of scientists, even now, are just straightforward reductionists. Now there’s nothing wrong with that. Most of the triumphs of science have come from taking things apart and seeing how they tick. But they’ve got so successful they tend to overlook how helpful it can be to take a top-down or holistic view.
So you first published the theory in 1979 and the scientific establishment reacted quite negatively. Has it since become a more accepted perspective?
Well, scientists are like any other human organisation. Ninety per cent are fence-sitters. They don’t make decisions that might upset their career prospects. So they wait until somebody eminent says, ‘Maybe there is something in what that chap’s saying after all.’ It just takes that. And it took until about two years ago for one of the most eminent biologists in the world, William Hamilton, after a lot of agonised discussions that we had, to say, ‘I think you may have something in it.’ We’ve certainly made the case that the planet self-regulates. There’s no way that this can happen by natural selection so we’ve got a big puzzle here. Shortly after, Bill produced a paper called Spora and Gaia, about one of the self-regulating mechanisms we had discovered, namely that algae in the ocean produce a gas that makes the condensation nuclei that produce clouds. Without the clouds the planet would be 20 degrees hotter and none of us would be here. Biologists have the problem of wondering what the hell the algae know about what is going on. Why do they make this stuff for the benefit of the clouds?
The first working hypothesis towards an answer came from Bill. Perhaps the most important thing that organisms face is how to disperse their seeds. Bill saw that one of the consequences of creating clouds was stirring up wind. I thought the algae did it to stir up more nutrients from deeper water but what he saw was that when you stir up storms, the breaking waves produce an aerosol above the surface and the algal spores get carried up by clouds and get dispersed. So the theory has reached a really interesting stage where people are looking at the mechanisms by which it can work, rather than saying it can’t happen.
So much seems to come down to the micro-organisms which maintain this state of equilibrium, or homeostasis?
The term homeostasis actually came from physiologists, a different breed of scientists. They have a natural holistic approach compared to the reductionism of microbiologists and biochemists. So it wasn’t surprising that they discovered the human body’s ability to regulate its own chemical composition extraordinarily accurately and maintain a constant temperature, even when the external environments vary.
So in that way we can see Gaia as a macrocosmic extension of our own bodies?
Well exactly. But saying the Earth behaves like an animal got me into a lot of hot water. But I was using a metaphor, in the same way that ‘the selfish gene’ is a metaphor. But nobody thinks that foresight and planning are needed for a gene to be selfish.
You clearly see global warming as the Earth’s most serious problem?
Of course it is. Everything else is secondary. The real problems facing everybody today are the combination of expanding greenhouse emissions and loss of habitats which contain the systems responsible for regulating the planet. We are now in what I would term a state of ‘positive feedback’, in which, far from ameliorating the harm that we do, the system is actually increasing so that as it warms, the systems are wiped out and the process speeds up. I think that we are going to find in the next ten years or so that global warming is taking place considerably faster than we had previously thought. In fact, I think that we already know that. And what do the Greens do about it? They start fussing about genetically modified foods and other issues, all of which may be important in their own small way but pale into insignificance when compared to the extinction of all life on the planet. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns!
A lot has been written in recent years about the emergence of a new paradigm in science replacing the reductionist, mechanistic paradigm of Newton and Descartes. This corresponds with a shift from seeing the planet as a machine to seeing it as an organism?
Yes. Bill Hamilton put it very well. He called it the second Copernican Revolution, the first being about the Earth’s actual position in the solar system. But the scientific establishment can’t handle the metaphor of the Earth being alive. They see organisms as things that reproduce and obey the laws of natural selection. In that sense the Earth is clearly not an organism. My reply is that the Earth has other attributes of life just as important as reproduction, such as metabolism and the capacity for homeostasis. These are qualities that inanimate matter never shows. Gaia is unique in that it has had a lifespan of at least 3.8 billion years. Who knows whether it reproduces or not!
It seems that treating the planet as a machine has got us into an awful lot of trouble and that Gaia Theory reawakens a sense of the sacred in nature?
Well, one of the most famous neo-Darwinists, John Maynard Smith, came along to some of our meetings and started discussing Gaia as a scientific theory, having previously dismissed it as an ‘evil religion’, which gives you some idea how people have changed their minds! He said that part of the trouble was that neo-Darwinists are always in battle with themselves about animism. People saw Gaia as another form of animism and thought ‘Oh no! I thought we’d finished with all that!’
The most important thing to remember with science is that it is provisional. It can never be certain about anything. Although Newton’s world was modified by Einstein, Newtonian physics remains a perfectly good way to navigate yourself around the solar system, except in the orbit of Mercury, where relativity begins to rear its head. Now Einstein’s notions are coming under threat, but the theory of relativity will continue to be of great importance. But there will always be something else if you like. Humans are full of hubris. They always think they’ve worked it all out. One human characteristic, which may go back to our being tribal carnivores, is that we need something to worship and respect, it’s in our nature to want this and therefore that side of our nature is something that science cannot help with, because of its complete provisionality. The fact that it can never be certain about anything means that it is not very satisfying to the person in the street. It’s probably why there’s been no great music written to science, no great works of art attached to expounding science, in the way they do religions. One of my hopes was that our vision of the Earth might fill a gap, especially now that religions have taken a downturn, largely because they provided the information about cosmology and biology before science replaced them. It’s not that religions have been discredited, just shown to be inadequate as sources of information.
It was the historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, who said that science has become the new priesthood. Do you agree?
Yes, but science can’t provide moral guidance. Having supplanted religion, science has left the world in a moral vacuum. However, being accountable to Gaia clearly has strong moral implications. One of the laws of Gaia is that any species that damages its environment makes it worse for its progeny. Therefore, if it continues to do so it will become extinct. Conversely, any species that makes its environment better for its progeny has an advantage.
You do some teaching at Schumacher College in Dartington, Devon, but is Gaia Theory being taught anywhere at national university level?
I believe it is. But as Earth systems science, or bio-geochemistry, not Gaia Theory. In other words, they have swallowed the holistic science of Gaia, they look at the Earth as a system, but they are not going to call it Gaia. People feel threatened because Gaia pulls together so many different disciplines.
Finally, how has your work affected your own sense of place in the universe?
The most important thing is that has given me a reason to exist. Most people are forced into retirement in their sixties and I have been fortunate to start my most interesting work during that time. I’ve been lucky to be part of something which is hugely controversial, about which new things are being discovered all the time. I was 80 last year and retirement still feels like a long way away!
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