Tired of Old Gaia? Try This: New Gaia
James Lovelock gets the stage without flying fruit (yet) in the December 18 issue of Nature.1 His 1970-ish “living earth” view of evolution, the Gaia hypothesis, in which life and the earth co-evolve together as one big living system, gets a new screening as what might be called neo-Gaia in an unrefuted Concepts piece in the world’s most prestigious science journal. But he hastens to emphasize, more than once, that Gaia is not in contention with the leading biological paradigm, and explains carefully what Gaia does not mean (emphasis added in all quotes):
Gaia theory does not contradict darwinism, rather it extends it to include evolutionary biology and evolutionary geology as a single science [sic]. In Gaia theory, organisms change their material environment as well as adapt to it. Selection favours the improvers, and the expansion of favourable traits extends local improvement and can make it global. Inevitably there will be extinctions and losers, winners may gain in the short term, but the only long-term beneficiary is life itself. Its persistence for over three billion years in spite of numerous catastrophes, internal or external, lends support to the theory. I have never intended the powerful metaphor ‘the living Earth’ more seriously than the metaphor of ‘the selfish gene’. I have used it, along with my neologism geophysiology, to draw attention to the similarity between Gaian and physiological regulation.
So if Dawkins can use an anthropomorphic catch-phrase and get away with it, why can’t I, he seems to be saying. James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis appear to be still smarting from reputations, deserved or not, that they (or their disciples) were imputing divine attributes to mother Earth and empowering the New Age movement. They’ve learned their lesson, he claims, and modified Gaia according to valid criticisms. New Gaia has been shown to be “fruitful and makes successful or useful predictions” which he displays in a table, and seems to be making a favorable comeback in some circles.
In his conclusion, however, he can’t seem to resist romanticizing, and politicizing, his pet theory, in picturesque prose, with Grandmother Nature gently nodding from her wheelchair in the background:
As the Earth ages, the Sun’s heat ineluctably intensifies; in approximately one billion years the Earth will pass the limit of climatic stability and irreversibly return to inorganic chemistry. Moreover, as it grows older the Earth system weakens, and before long a large planetesimal impact may throw our planet prematurely into its final hot, dry state. A few thermophiles in oasis ecosystems might survive, but we could never recapture the abundant life and lush environment we now enjoy. The Earth system is elderly and we should treat it with respect and care.
Gaia theory reconciles current thinking in evolutionary biology with that in evolutionary geology It extends, not contradicts, Darwin’s vision, just as relativity enhances, not denies, Newtonian physics. The theory is provisional, but provides an intellectual habitat where understanding of the Earth can evolve and grow. Perhaps its greatest value lies in its metaphor of a living Earth, which reminds us that we are part of it and that human rights are constrained by the needs of our planetary partners.
1James Lovelock, “Gaia: the living Earth,” Nature 426, 769 – 770 (18 December 2003); doi:10.1038/426769a.
Well, it’s going to be interesting to see the letters to the editor on this one. Advice: stay out of the line of fire. Maybe Nature has had it with Lovelock and Margulis’ incessant whining about how closed-minded establishment scientists are, and acquiesced, “All right already, here’s a forum, give us your best shot,” expecting Lovelock to implode in full public view. It appears he did.
What’s funny about Gaia is not just its cute new-age, daisy-holding-hands metaphorical imagery, but the rancor it has generated among its adherents against the reigning Darwin Party.* Like Simon Conway Morris’s demiurge orchestra-conductor model (see Dec. 7 headline), Gaia is just not mindless enough. Darwinists hate minds. They want a blind, aimless, purposeless, impersonal, mechanistic process from eternity to eternity. Even our minds are supposed to be chemical illusions (see Oct. 3 headline). Despite Lovelock’s valiant performance, trying to portray Gaia as an act without an actor, he blows it by talking about “the Earth system” being elderly and deserving of our respect. One does not respect mindless, purposeless, undirected processes. Darwin Party members in the audience will have a cow when he delivers his soliloquy about his pet theory being an extension to Darwinism comparable to relativity being an extension to Newtonian mechanics.
Well, Lovelock, you got your fifteen minutes on stage. Gong. Next.
*For fun reading, look at the nasty things Margulis (and other evolutionists who are not deemed naturalistic enough) have said against the Darwin Party, as quoted in Henry Morris’s December commentary, “Willingly Ignorant,” from ICR. If you think the Big Science establishment is open to unorthodox views, wait’ll you read these seething quotes.