Books, Exegesis, Reviews

Gaia – A New Look at Life on Earth :: Review

I found a copy of this book during a visit to Hope, BC, an adorable town and the site where the movie Rambo was filmed. It was in Baker’s Books, one of the cutest book stores I’ve ever been in, that I stumbled on this copy of James Lovelock’s classic, Gaia – A New Look at Life on Earth. It is one of the most important predecessors of Terranic thought and the stimulus for various Gaian religious movements. I was excited to crack open this book and get a sense of what lineage my ideas descend from. My journey was more stimulating than I expected. I find myself disagreeing with Lovelock in important ways, which reinforces my decision to choose Terra as the center of my theology rather than Gaia. This book was important for helping me define clearly what Terra is not.

Quotes

The real bonus has been that for the first time in human history we have had a chance to look at the Earth from space, and the information gained from seeing from the outside our azure-green planet in all its global beauty has given rise to a whole new set of questions and answers. Similarly, thinking about life on Mars gave some of us a fresh standpoint from which to consider life on Earth and led us to formulate a new, or perhapse revive a very ancient, concept of the relationship between Earth and its biosphere. (pg. 8)

The result of this more single-minded approach was the development of the hypothesis that the entire range of living matter on Earth, from whales to viruses, and from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity, capable of manipulating the Earth’s atmophere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts. (pg. 9)

We have since defined 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. (pg. 10)

If Gaia exists, the relationship between her and man, a dominant animal species in the complex living system, and the possibility shifting balance of power between them, are questions of obvious importance. (pg. 11)

Like the nutrients in a hen’s egg, the abundant organic chemicals from which life first evolved would have supplied the infant creature with food needed for its early growth. Unlike the chick, however, for life there was only a limited supply of food beyond the ‘egg’. As soon as vital key compounds grew scarce, the infant would have been faced with the choice of starving or learning to synthesize its own building blocks from the more basic raw materials of the enviornment, suing sunlight as the driving force.
The need to make choices of this kind must have occured many times and hastened the diversification, independance, and sturdiness of the expanding biosphere. (pg. 21)

If we are prepared to consider Gaia as being able, like most living things, to adapt the environment to its needs, there are many ways in which these early critical climatic problems might have been solved. (pg. 23)

Pollution is not, as we are so often told, a product of moral turpitude. It is an invitable consequence of life at work (pg. 25)

A strict regulation of the salts of the ocean is as essential to life as is the need for chemical neutrality…. Yet somehow this very critical control operation evolved as did many others. We are bound to conclude that if Gaia does exist, the need for regulation was as urgent at the start of life as at any time since. (pg. 26)

When oxygen leaked into the air two aeons ago, the biosphere was like the crew of a stricken submarine, needing all hands to rebuild the systems damaged or destroyed and at the same time threatened by an increasing concentration of poisonous gases in the air. Ingenuity triumphed and the danger was overcome, not in the human way by restoring the old order, but in the flexible Gaian way by adapting to change and converting a murderous intruder into a powerful friend. (pg. 29)

The clues to Gaia’s existence are as transient as our sand-castle. If her partners in life were not there, continually repairing and recreating, as children build fresh castles on the beach, all Gaia’s traces would soon vanish.
How, then, do we identify and distinguish between the works of Gaia and the chance structures of natural forces? And how do we recognize the presence of Gaia herself?

It implies that wherever we find a highly improbable molecular assembly it is probably life or one of its products, and if we find such a distribution to be global in extent then perhaps we are seeing something of Gaia, the largest living creature on Earth. (pg. 31)

… [cybernetics is] that branch of study which is concerned with self-regulating systems of communication and control in living organisms and machines. The derivation seems apt, since the primary function of many cybernetic systems is to steer an optimum course through changing conditions towards the predetermined goal. (pg. 44)

One of the most characteristic properties of all living organisms, from the smallest to the largest, is their capacity to develop, operate, and maintain systems which set a goal and then strive to achieve it through the cybernetic process of trial and error. The discovery of such a system, operating on a global scale and having as its goal the establishment and maintenance of optimum physical and chemical conditions for life, would surely provide us with convincing evidence of Gaia’s existence. (pg. 46)

The oven temperature thus swings a few degrees above and below the desired level. This small margin of error in temperature control is a characteristic feature of cybernetic systems. Like living things, they seek or approach perfection but never quite make it. (pg. 47)

In cybernetics, cause and effect no longer apply; it is impossible to tell which comes first, and indeed the question has no relevance. The Greek philosophers abhorred circular argument as firmly as they believed that nature abhorred a vacuum. Their rejection of circular arguments, the key to understanding cybernetics, was as erroneous as their assumption that the universe was filled with the air we breathe. (pg. 48)

The ky to understanding cybernetic systems is that, like life itself, they are always more than the mere assembly of constituent parts. (pg. 48)

It may be used in environmental research but in agriculture all too frequently we may leave the animals alone but destroy their habitats, not as a planned perturbation but simply to satisfy our own real or imaginary needs. Many are revolted by the bloody consequences of the hunter’s gun or the foxhound’s teeth; yet these otherwise sensitive and compassionate people often show little or no concern over the piecemeal death and dispossession wrought by the bulldozer, the plough, and the flame-thrower, in destroying the habitats of our partners in Gaia. (pg. 54)

The constancy of oxygen concentration suggests the presence of an active control system, presumably with a means of sensing and signalling any departure from the optimum oxygen concentration in the air…. (pg. 69)

In our persistent self-imposed alienation from nature, we tend to think that our industrial products are not ‘natural’. In fact, they are just as natural as all the other chemicals of the Earth, for they have been made by us, who surely are living creatures. They may of course be aggressive and dangerous, like nerve gases, but no more so than the toxin manufactured by the botulinus bacillus. (pg. 74)

In fact, the more it seems that inorganic equilibrium or steady-state processes determine the atmospheric concentration of a gas, the greater may be the extent of its biological involvement. This is not surprisng in the context of Gaia which is actively controlling its environment and whose policy is always to turn existing conditions to its own advantage. (pg. 76)

What are we to make of volcanic activity and continential drift? Both are consequences of inner motions of our planet, but could Gaia also be at work? … Speculations of this kind are by no means as far-fetched as they might at first appear. We can speculate that under-sea volcanoes may sometimes be the end results of biological activity. (pg. 91-92)

If Gaia has modified the sea floor, it has been done by exploiting a natural tendency and turning it to her own advantage. I am not, of course, suggesting that all or even most volcanoes are caused by biological activity; but that we should consider the possibility that the tendency towards eruptions is exploited by the biota for their collective needs. (pg. 92)

It may be that the white-hot rash of our technology will in the end prove destructive and painful for our own species, but the evidence for accepting that industrial activities either at their present level or in the immediate future may endanger the life of Gaia as a whole, is very weak indeed. (pg. 100-101)

The very concept of pollution is anthropocentric and it may even be irrelevant in the Gaian context. (pg. 103)

…some sort of harmony [between humans and Gaia] is still possible and to encourage the hope that it might even be the extended as technology advances. (pg. 105-106)

The survival of our own species and of the rich variety of life throughout Gaia seems conclusive evidence either that ozone depletion cannot be as lethal as it is often made out to be or that the theories are wrong and it was never depleted. (pg. 109)

Moreover, even if Gaia is there to regulate and modify the consequences of our disruptive behaviour, we should remember that the devastation of the tropical ecosystems might diminish her capacity to do so. (pg. 113)

Yet it is so often ignored or deliberately forgottent aht the unending death-roll of all creatuers, including ourselves, is the essential complement to the unceasing renewal of life. The death sentence of the Second Law applies only to identities, and could be rephrased: ‘Mortality is the price of identity.’ (pg. 117)

Gaia, the sum of the biota and those parts of the environment coming under its influence, is probably three and a half aeons old. (pg. 117)

Having assumed her existence, let us consider three of Gaia’s principal characteristics which could profoundly modify our interaciton with the rest of the biosphere.
1. The most important property of Gaia is the tendency to keep constant conditions for all terrestrial life. provided that we have not seriously interfered with her state of homeostasis, this tendency should be as predominant now as it was before man’s arrival on the scene.
2. Gaia has vital organs at the core, as well as expendable or redundant ones mainly on the periphery. What we do to our planet may depend greatly on where we do it.
3. Gaian responces to changes for the worse must obey the rules of cybernetics, wehre the time constantand the loop gain are important factors. Thus the regulation of oxygen has a time constant measured in thousands of years. Such slow processes give the least warning of undesirable trends. By the time it is realized that all is not well and action is taken, inerial drag will bring things to a worse state before an equally slow improvement can set in.
For the first of these characteristics, we have assumed that the Gaian world evolves through Darwinian natural selection, its goal being the maintenance of conditions favorable for life in all circumstances, including variations in output from the sun and from the planet’s own interior. We have in addition made the assumption that from its origin the human species has been as much a part of Gaia as have all other species and that like them it has acted unconsciously in the process of planetary homeostasis. (pg. 120)

In other words, like it or not, and whatever we may do to the total system, we shall continue to be drawn, albeit unawares, into the Gaian process of regulation. (pg. 120)

If, for example, the methods of climate control which I have postulated were subject to severe perturbation, we might suffer either a planetary fever or chill of an ice age, or even expereince sustained oscillations between these two uncomfortable states.
This could happen if, at some intolerable population density, man had encroached upon Gaia’s functional power to such an extent that he disabled her. He would wake up one day to find that he had the permanent lifelong job of planetary maintenance engineer. Gaia would have retreated into the muds, and the ceaseless intricate task of keeping all of the global cycles in balance would be ours. (pg. 124)

Man is remarkable because by the combination of [his brain, social development, tool use, and speech] he has created an entirely new entity. …man has the novel capacity to collect, store, and process information, and then use it to manipulate the environment in a purposeful and anticipatory fashion. (pg. 124)

…one thing does seem certain about the near future: there can be no voluntary resignation from technology. (pg. 130)

Where every prospect pleases, and man, accepting his role as a partner in Gaia, need not be vile. (pg. 135)

From a Gaian viewpoint, all attempts to rationalize a subjugated Earth with man in charge are as doomed to failure as the similar concept of benevolent colonialism. … The Gaia hypothesis implies that the stable state of our planet includes man as a part of, or partner in, a very democratic entity. (pg. 137)

If we are a part of Gaia it becomes interesting to ask: ‘To what extent is our collective intelligence also part of Gaia? Do we as a species constitute a Gaian nervous system and a brain which can consciously anticipate environmental changes?’ (pg. 139)

Gaia – A New Look at Life on Earth, James Lovelock

Summary

In Gaia – A New Look at Life on Earth, the author James Lovelock articulates a hypothesis about how our planet functions as a whole. Put simply, he conceptualizes the biosphere as a superorganism, a self-regulating entity which maintains ideal conditions for life.

Lovelock explores this hypothesis by first laying theoretical groundwork and then exploring specific examples. He describes how our planet is uniquely suited for life. Earth’s chemical compositions, energy use, and feedback systems are so suitable for life, Lovelock argues that life must be selected for by a superorganism. This superorganism, Gaia, is responsible for maintaining oxygen levels suitable for life, an appropriate ocean salinity, and holding in enough energy from the sun to keep the planet surface warm. According to Lovelock, Gaia turns the world’s physical systems to it’s advantage to support life.

In the conclusion of the book, Lovelock discusses humanity’s role in Gaia. He postulates that we are not an immediate threat to the planet, but that if homeostasis is sufficiently disrupted, we will either die and out and Gaia will correct towards life again, or we will become the engineers of the world’s biosphere. It is for this reason that Lovelock argues we should pursue a thorough understanding of what it means to be “partners in Gaia” with the rest of the biosphere in order to maintain Gaia’s life-giving functions.

Thoughts

Crucial to the reading of this text is this microcosmic truth; we are unaware of what our bodies do to maintain life. It takes enormous magical effort, through descriptions, philosophical thought, political organization, education, and scientific inquiry, to even begin to understand what happens inside our own bodies. A simple look at the history of medicine will show that it takes a lucky confluence of individual will, systemic support, and collective discussion to unlock a single bit of truth concerning the body. Unless taught, a person cannot know what pH is or what the optimal level should be in the body. A person does not intuitively understand why their cells need certain vitamins or why their blood appears either red or blue. Nothing in our daily experience reveals the trillions of species living in our guts. Intuition cannot give detailed information on why a headache begins, or what causes disease. All we know is what we want, not what we are. It is through our relationships that we learn what and who we are. Without such relationships and magical powers, how can Gaia learn anything about herself, never mind prefer a particular format of existence?

Regardless, Lovelock’s Gaia appears well aware of these things and chooses them willfully. Lovelock emphasizes over and over that Gaia makes choices to optimize the potential for life; in particular, our lives. Lovelock’s Gaia aimed to generate life, preferring it over non-life, and even chose to create particular circumstances befitting our particular life-forms. He describes Gaia modifying the salinity of the oceans towards what they should be even before life required it, indicating that there is a particular kind of life Gaia had in mind which required that particular salinity. He describes cybernetic systems which transform the atmosphere into what it should be, an atmosphere we can breathe. Indeed, Gaia cares about the life within her, attempting to bring about a particular variety of carbon-based, eukaryotic, and aerobic life forms which includes us.

Do you choose to develop a particular kind of bone structure? Do you choose how to read your own DNA? Do you choose what eye colour you’re born with, or hair colour, or skin colour. You cannot. You, the you with a spirit and soul, with a will and future, cannot choose these basic things about yourself. This is because you are emergent of them, not primary to them. If Gaia is supposed to be a living organism like you are, she would be incapable of choosing such qualities about herself as well. She would be the product of a concert of forces well beyond her control. To characterize her as an agent with the capacity to choose whether and how she emerges is to make her a god, not an organism.

For all his talk about emergence and cybernetics, Lovelock continually characterizes Gaia as a primary entity; a sort of primordial will that refined its own features. Gaia stubbornly remains a pan-temporal entity rather than a contemporary one. She does not grow, does not emerge, only creates. But to recognize Gaia as emergent is to notice her as a present being, one that emerged along with us due to chance and evolution. It is to see Gaia as a sister rather than a mother.


I have found a set of Gaian Hypotheses on Wikipedia which are useful for understanding my following criticisms.

“Kirchner claimed that Lovelock and Margulis had not presented one Gaia hypothesis, but four:

  • CoEvolutionary Gaia: that life and the environment had evolved in a coupled way. Kirchner claimed that this was already accepted scientifically and was not new.
  • Homeostatic Gaia: that life maintained the stability of the natural environment, and that this stability enabled life to continue to exist.
  • Geophysical Gaia: that the Gaia hypothesis generated interest in geophysical cycles and therefore led to interesting new research in terrestrial geophysical dynamics.
  • Optimising Gaia: that Gaia shaped the planet in a way that made it an optimal environment for life as a whole. Kirchner claimed that this was not testable and therefore was not scientific.”
    (Source)

For clarity, I agree with the coevolutionary Gaia hypothesis, and the homeostatic Gaia hypothesis, but see the optimising Gaia hypothesis as an essentially spiritual and teleological position that cannot be scientifically falsified.


The quotes on pages 46-48, while I don’t believe they mischaracterize cybernetics, definitely misunderstand how cybernetics functions in an emergent system. Lovelock defaults to valued and teleological language about purpose, perfection, and goals. He uses cybernetics as a sort of justification for using this language, but cybernetics does not justify it at all. I think his analogy is at fault here. He uses a convection oven as his central illustration of a cybernetic system. A convection oven is indeed a cybernetic system, but it is an engineered cybernetic system. As such, it serves a particular purpose and is privy to teleological concepts such as perfection; since humans built the oven, we can safely define what a perfect oven is to us. But nature has no engineer. Again, Lovelock defines Gaia as a living organism but uses her rhetorically as a god, an entity capable of preferring optimal levels and striving for a predetermined goal. What, exactly, is this goal? Lovelock seems to think it is life, but that is preposterous. Do you, as an organism prefer to cultivate one particular strain of gut flora as opposed to another? How could you? You have no intuition of such a thing; if you did cultivate your gut like a garden you wouldn’t be relying on your own intuition, you’d be relying on data the scientific community generates on your behalf; you’d be relying on magical systems beyond yourself. Lacking magic, how then could Gaia 1. be aware of the inner workings of her body, and 2. prefer life over non-life. To answer this we would have to find evidence that Gaia is aware in at least some limited capacity, but that is beyond the scope of this book. So Lovelock ignores this problem and charges on, gesturing towards cybernetic systems in the biosphere as if that provides evidence that his superorganism prefers life.

Lovelock is making a similar mistake here to the watchmaker fallacy I was so familiar with while a Creationist. His analogy of the oven primes us to think of Gaia’s cybernetic systems as engineered and purposeful even though they are not. Perhaps we can call this the oven fallacy; the idea that if a system is cybernetic, it has a predetermined goal. He defends this fallacy by arguing with a non-sequitur on page 48, saying that because circular causality (feedback loop) is evident in a cybernetic system, circular reasoning is then valid concerning a cybernetic system. The only similarity between circular causality and circular reasoning is that they’re both circular. They are, in fact, not the same. Regardless, Lovelock is trying to justify his circular argument, “If Gaia makes life it is because life is her goal, and if she has a goal it is because she makes life,” by conflating it with the circular causality of a cybernetic system. To be clear, a circular causality is valid in this instance because it describes a feedback loop. For example, cellular respiration provides carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, which in turn produces oxygen for cellular respiration. This circular causality is not an issue because 1. it does not have to appear all at once, it can have an instigating event, and 2. it does not use teleological language. It is the teleological language that is the real problem for me. To say that a feedback loop emerged between different organisms is very different from saying the feedback loop is, itself, striving for perfection. The latter statement infers an engineer designing the definition of that perfection for a particular goal.

But science does not indicate this to us. What science tells us clearly is that cybernetic systems are emergent of evolution and that they, in turn, influence evolution. There is no whole without the parts, the parts die without the whole. There is no guiding goal that encouraged cellular respiration and photosynthesis to make the world suitable for us. Rather, our world emerged out of fruitful relationships between organisms that took what they needed and gave what they could. No one told them what was best, no blueprint was given to them. Instead, they built what they could, with whom they could. Life is not, then, a planned goal, but a surprising gift inherited from chance and relationality. To argue otherwise is to lose sight of how precious every breath truly is.


The quotes on pages 76, 92 lay bare a central question that Lovelock does not answer through his book; what, exactly, is Gaia struggling against? His mention of Gaia turning “existing conditions to its own advantage” is so bewilderingly casual it encroaches on negligence. An advantage for what, towards what, in what? To find an answer (if there is one) we should begin with smaller organisms. For other organisms, it is their relationship with their environment that provides answers to these questions. An organism is actively navigating, exploiting, and manipulating its environment in order to find biological, psychological, and social success. What does Gaia need as an organism that she needs to seek out? What does Gaian success look like?

To answer this question let’s try to situate Gaia somewhere. Lovelock describes Gaia as involved in the “biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil” (pg. 10). He does not describe her as in these things or made of them. She is vaguely involved with them. It’s not much but it situates Gaia as being somewhere between the vacuum of space and the tectonic systems of the earth’s mantle and below. Gaia’s environment, then, is the celestial movements above her and the terrestrial movements below her.

With this in mind, what does Gaia need? As an organism, what is her food product or waste product? The simplest answer for this would be sunlight as the income for energy and heat radiating out into space as the waste product. But neither of these things requires Gaia to strive in any meaningful way since the sun freely gives energy and space is an endless sink for waste. So what does Lovelock mean then when he mentions that Gaia works to change a situation to her advantage.

Perhaps it is something in her relationship to the mantle and below? Tectonic activity causes the crust to expand and contract, buckle and fold. Perhaps this endangers Gaia in some way. But what, exactly, is being endangered? Volcanic activity fertilizes the soil. Tsunami activity washes organic material into the oceans. Earthquakes and mountain risings shift the landscape but don’t necessarily harm it. If we imagine Gaia as separate from these phenomena, they don’t endanger her so much as they transform her. The closest thing to danger might be a volcanic winter, but even that only shifts what species are successful and which die out. Since Gaia is a superorganism, it would be improper to imagine that the extinction of a few species reflects a detriment to Gaia, just as the loss of skin cells and hair isn’t a detriment to you. What are great disasters of land and ocean to individual species might be understood by Gaia as a good exfoliating treatment, or a nice shower. But the movements of the crust aren’t the only thing below the surface. The core of our planet generates a magnetic shield that filters out solar radiation dangerous for life. If anything, this function is so important for the biosphere that I wonder why Lovelock didn’t include it in his definition of Gaia. But since he didn’t, we’re left to look at the magnetic field as a part of Gaia’s environment, and like before, we are given no evidence that there is anything for Gaia to strive for.

Indeed, it is unclear what Gaia experiences as a disadvantage in order for her to strive for an advantage at all. If Gaia was a product of life, then we might have something to work with; since life is precarious, and if a superorganism’s existence depended on constituent organisms then we would have a clear source of danger. But this isn’t the case. Lovelock describes Gaia repeatedly as existing before life and paving the way for it (pg. 23, 26, 31, 101, etc. all quoted above). Gaia is not emergent of the biosphere, but primary to it. So we are left, again, with the question of what, exactly, is Gaia struggling against? I see no reason for Lovelock’s Gaia to be any more “advanced” than Mars or Venus, which are interesting planets in their own right. Dead, surely, but still possessing cybernetic systems. Are they superorganisms too?

This line of questioning reveals to me that Lovelock’s Gaia is little more than the biosphere with agency. He wishes it to provide a scientific reason why life is preferred but falls short.


When first approaching this project, I was seriously considering using “Gaia” as the name for the project’s earth-god. I decided against it partly because I preferred the ring of “Terra” and partly because I heard of the Gaia Hypothesis and knew it to be scientific in some capacity. Wanting to distance myself from science and build a religious space, I decided to avoid conflation and confusion and use “Terra” instead. I figured the cost to marketing would be made up for in distance from the scientific hypothesis.

In retrospect, I’m glad I made this choice. Further, after reading this book, I really wish Lovelock did too. While emphasizing very real aspects of our planet’s biosphere and complex systems, Lovelock’s primary project appears to not be scientific, but spiritual. He wants to “place” humanity in a larger, spiritually significant position on our planet which is the same project I’m doing. However, he decides that the best way to do this is by trying to scientifically support his spiritual desire. Though not as offensive as Creationism, the Gaia Hypothesis makes the same critical error of trying to justify a spiritual proposition with fact rather than myth. Unfortunately, this makes bad science and bad religion.

Lovelock’s project is familiar; I also want to justify humanity within the superstructure of our planet. This whole project of Terranism is about canonizing a stable articulation of the very same desire Lovelock has. The difference between us is that Lovelock tries to scientifically articulate a theistic god, while I am mythologically articulating a syntheistic god. Lovelock wants to be able to say that Gaia, a superorganism with a preference for life, can persist without humanity but ultimately wants us. By contrast, Terra is also a superorganism with a preference for life, but Terra cannot persist without humanity. Because They are emergent from us, They need us. This critical difference between Gaia and Terra, actually solves some of the problems with Gaia I outlined above. If Gaia is understood in a syntheistic sense, as a god emergent of humanity, her needs, advantages, and disadvantages would become clear. It would become obvious why we should care. I distance myself from this hypothesis, in name and theology, so that I can confidently say that we are Terra, and we should worship Them. The relationship between humanity and Terra is of mutual need. The goal of Terranism is learning how to navigate that relationship so that it is healthy and beautiful.


Further Study:

Gaia – A New Look at Life on Earth by James Lovelock

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