Visionary creator of the Gaia theory, James Lovelock on AEWCH 171.

23 Nov

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What an honor to finally meet scientific genius James Lovelock. I write “finally” because James has been a huge part of my life and education and way of thinking, though I’ve never met him. His major theoretical contribution, the Gaia theory, was co-developed with my main mentor, Lynn Margulis. In fact, you can view this as a companion episode to AEWCH 91 with Lynn Margulis (it’s the last recorded conversation with her before her death), who developed the Gaia theory with Jim. And I’ve released this episode to coincide with Lynn’s death, in 2011 – 10 years ago to the day, just one day before I’m releasing this episode with Jim.

So…what is Gaia?

Gaia is the work of the relational loops of push and pull between bacteria, other organisms, and the environment. The clouds, the atmospheric gasses, the pH and salinity of the ocean, and other Earth systems express the “dialogue” between the organisms and the Earth.  This dialogue is Gaia Theory.  Particularly relevant to these relational (often called “feedback”) loops are the smallest living beings, the bacteria.  In this dialogue, the information yielded from and received by the bacteria and environment is absolutely crucial to the existence of life on this planet. Remove the bacteria and everything dies. The world becomes a Mars or a Venus, overtaken by harshness or billowing clouds so thick that everything is obscured.

The theory was long-resisted especially by biologists, even though the science behind Gaia, particularly that found in Lovelock’s formulations, is complex and detailed, not guesswork.Lovelock named it after his friend – novelist William Golding’s – suggestion: Gaia. While many people – especially journalists, it seems, try to trace resistance to Gaia theory to its mystical and religious sounding name, the truth is, Gaia is just hard for people to understand because it requires interdisciplinary and systems thinking.

A bit on the difficulty below, but before that, let me not skip past the arrogance and laziness of a lot of people in the scientific community who just said it was just magical thinking – many without actually reading the research that Lovelock had done.

To counter this, Jim came up with an understandable and accessible metaphor in the form of a computer program called Daisyworld.  Daisyworld is not the “proof” of Gaia but a powerful model and metaphor: Lovelock and his colleague Andrew Watson devised the program to see if living and environmental factors could theoretically interact without intention.  This was a rebuff to the many criticisms that Gaia had to act through some sort of new age benevolence.In Daisyworld, there are black daisies, which absorb the sun’s heat, and white daisies, which reflect heat.  Both flowers grow and produce offspring, and both have the same thresholds for life and growth — they cannot grow at a low temperature and die at too high a temperature.  The black daisies, which absorb heat, grow faster in cooler conditions; since the heat accumulates in their petals. White daisies, which reflect the heat, need warmer conditions to produce more offspring and thrive. The sun that shines on Daisyworld is dynamic.  It grows in luminosity over millions of years. Here is Lynn Margulis, quoted at length to make clear the results:“Without any extraneous assumptions, without sex or evolution, without mystical presuppositions of planetary consciousness, the daisies of Daisyworld cool their world despite their warming sun. As the sun increases in luminosity, the black daisies grow, expanding their surface area, absorbing heat, and heating up their surroundings. As the black daisies heat up more of the surrounding land surface, the surface itself warms, permitting even more population growth.  The positive feedback continues until daisy growth has so heated the surroundings that white daisies began to crowd out the black ones.  Being less absorbent and more reflective, the white daisies begin to cool down the planet…Despite the ever-hotter sun, the planet maintains a long plateau of stable temperatures.”

Many additional factors have been added into subsequent Daisyworld models. Because people were still skeptical, “cheats” – factorss that could have thrown the model off – were introduced; and even with the cheats, Daisyworld has always displayed a deep relationship between species selection and planetary temperature regulation.After Daisyworld, much less the mountains of observable evidence gathered afterward, the environment could no longer be seen as a tyrant, lording over selection; it was now a co-evolving field.  And by implication all the organisms on the planet are connected by this vast system of regulation and dynamism. Gaian processes are real and observable (and sometimes referred to as “biogeochemistry”, a term more acceptable to mainstream science).

Because of this, Gaia theory is an intense examination of natural selection, since Gaia’s processes of regulation are the “natural selectors.”  The push and pull of the biota (the total sum of all organisms) and the inorganic — their weaving and separations, their gestures of relationship — set the framework of regulation.  There is no need to be vague about “fitness” and just what the environment “selects” with Gaia in the picture. Gaia’s processes of regulations are what is at play here.We should resist funneling this into a “purpose” in a new age way – whether it’s the scientistic new age of neo-Darwinists misunderstanding Gaia as a living organism. Or the standard new age (think the Gaia network) line that Gaia is a “goddess” trying to contain Gaia’s complexity in a simple and inadequate metaphor.

Lynn Margulis expressed her solution to the error once by saying, “Gaia is not merely an organism.”

Gaia is beyond stale conception. It is more magnificent and active than we can imagine. Gaia is object and process. Gaia houses geosystems and the beings – people – who thought up the organizing principles behind those geosystems. It houses volcanos and every book, every word on volcanos ever written, and at the same time is those volcanos.  It is where our greatest loves live, and where every human heartbeat has ever rhythmically pulsed.

And if Gaia is conscious, it possesses a consciousness of a different magnitude, probably of a different order all together. People like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne are just ill-equipped to understand complexity like that because it not only doesn’t fit in with their linear and reductive understanding of life, it also exposes their understanding as false.So: We are part of Gaia, and Gaia lives through us. This also has huge implications for “climate change” which Jim has been writing about now for years. If we are part of Gaia, that means our decision-making and our thought processes are also part of it. Which ultimately in a way means that morality – the way we approach Gaia – is a selection pressure.Morality is not shaped by evolution so much as it shapes it now.

But just to be clear Jim’s picture of climate change is much more complex even than the one we’re constantly presented with with charts and graphs and a dose of guilt constantly. Jim does lay the blame on humans in a way, but sometimes in surprising ways – it’s not just industrialism that has caused all of the problems before us, but our very exhalations are a massive part of climate change. Furthermore, there are factors beyond our control – the sun heating up contributes, as well as other geosystems.

Rather than feel guilty and helpless, we should recognize ourselves as part of Gaian processes. And where he goes from there in his latest book, Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, is controversial and also moving: computer-beings are evolving into life as a result of our actions. And rather than being here to destroy us, these computer-beings will help Gaian homeorhesis along as well, since it will be in their best interest to regulate the climate along Gaian lines.It’s a challenging but ultimately positive view of technology that dismissed the reductiveness of “singularity” thinking and also anti-tech sentiment. It’s one that echoes statements made by occultist Rudolf Steiner – who I talk about with Jim on the episode (including Steiner’s influence on Rachel Carson, who used one of Jim’s inventions) – about a hundred years ago, around the time of Jim’s birth. Yes, he’s 102 now!

What an honor to speak with Jim after years of being influenced by his work.


• For more on Jim, there’s a whole lot on his website. And you can read his excellent memoir, Homage to Gaia. And one of my favorite books on Gaia is from MIT Press: From Gaia to Selfish Genes. And here’s a site devoted to Daisyworld. The Economist article on Gaia that Jim mentions is behind a paywall, but worth checking into.

• For a bit on Moore’s law (and why Jim says it no longer applies) wikipedia is probably the easiest intro.

• “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

• I talk about code and alienation on AEWCH 144 with religious studies and UFO scholar Diana Walsh Pasulka.

• Evolutionary biologist Ford Doolittle was once a fierce opponent of the Gaia theory and has recently relented.

Until next time, friends,

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