Tag Archives: biology

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,

Lynn Margulis in conversation with Conner Habib on AEWCH 91.

19 Nov

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This is the most important episode of AEWCH for me. In it I talk with my friend and intellectual mentor, biologist and geoscientist Lynn Margulis. This is, I believe, the last recorded discussion with Lynn before her death from a stroke on November 22, 2011. Lynn was a profound intellect, and, I believe, the most important thinker in the last 50 years.
With James Lovelock, she developed the Gaia theory – that organisms interact with the non-living aspects of the Earth to regulate Earth systems like cloud cover, oceanic salinity, atmospheric gas abundance, and more. She also proved and popularized the notion that organelles in nucleated cells are symbioses of bacterial mergers.
Along with her son Dorion Sagan (from her marriage to Carl Sagan), she developed a new theory of evolution, symbiogenesis, which boldly asserts, and with ample evidence, that new species arise out of symbiotic mergers with bacteria, not through random genetic mutation-meets-natural selection.
The episode is a wide-ranging exploration of Lynn’s work and thought. Because Lynn offer so much, I’ve started this episode off with a lengthy introduction to all her efforts. It’s an intro adapted from the essay I wrote shortly after her death (and it appears in the book Lynn Margulis: The Life And Legacy Of A Scientific Rebel). Feel free to skip past the intro if you’re familiar with her work, or to listen to it as a primer afterward, to get your bearings in the dizzying array of names and scientific concepts on the episode.
On this episode, among many other things:
  • the difference between ecological association and symbiosis
  • why Darwin never mentioned the origin of species
  • why the mainstream pop-science version of evolution is religion, not science
  • “there’s this concept that almost all scientists have that there really is an objective reality, but there’s no evidence whatsoever (for that) because everything observed is through an observer, and that observer tends to be a person…”
  • How all science starts as esoterica
  • How scientific facts are accepted – and not accepted until capitalism approves
  • Is life process or entity
  • Why zoologists have such a hard time understanding evolution
  • “‘Medical science’ is an oxymoron, like ‘military intelligence’.”
  • Why Lynn just wanted to avoid people and read her whole life
  • Emily Dickinson and the Matster
• For more on Lynn, read her countless publications. The two that everyone should read are Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution and (with Dorion Sagan) Acquiring Genomes: A Theory Of The Origin Of Species. Also, I recommend the text book I had to read for my first course with her, Environmental Evolution – 2nd Edition: Effects of the Origin and Evolution of Life on Planet Earth and her book of essays, Dazzle Gradually: Reflections on the Nature of Nature. A documentary about Lynn’s life and work, Symbiotic Earth, was released in 2017. Here’s Lynn interviewed by geneticist Jay Tischfield and here’s Lynn presenting the Gaia theory to NASA.
• In the episode, we talk several times about the “Homage To Darwin” event, which was organized around Lynn’s year at Oxford. The event featured Lynn, Richard Dawkins, paleobiologist Martin Brasier, biologist Steve Bell, and systems biologist Denis Noble. It’s one of many occasions wherein Lynn revealed the stupidity of Richard Dawkins’s ideas about evolution. It appears in three parts. Part One, Part Two, Part Three. I highly recommend watching all of them.
• Alfred North Whitehead was a profound influence on Lynn’s thinking, especially later in life. She mentions him at the top, and later in the episode, brings up his book The Function Of Reason.
• Lynn says, “We are all Schwendenerists!” means we all accept symbiosis because we accept the truth that lichens are symbiotic organisms. This was discovered by Simon Schwendener, a Swiss botanist.
• Lynn mentions James Watson’s book, DNA: The Secret of Life.
Rosemary and Peter Grant studied the finches on the Galápagos Islands for years.
• An amazing book that expresses clashes between neo-Darwinism and Gaia and symbiogenesis (this is before Lynn and Dorion fully developed the theory of symbiogenesis) is From Gaia to Selfish Genes: Selected Writings in the Life Sciences.
• Would you like to learn about the photosynthetic sea slug? That’s a rehtorical question. Of course you would.
• Here’s a lengthy commentary on the debate between Lynn and Richard Dawkins that gets mentioned a few times in the episode.
• Palentologists Niles Eldrege and Stephen Jay Gould observed and popularized the idea of “punctuated equilibrium” – that most populations of organisms are stable and exhibit little change, until sudden and massive changes occur. This theory is expressed consistently in the fossil record, and in many ways, challenges neo-Darwinian theories of evolution.
• Ludwig Fleck’s book, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact is a precursor to Thomas Kuhn‘s famous concept of a “paradigm shift,” and it’s a great look into how facts are made, how they inhere, and…then what?
• “The Experiment As Mediator Of Object And Subject” by Goethe (yes, Goethe!) changed my life, and it should be evoked again and again until it changes the face of science.
• A mind-blowing short essay on where organisms start and stop is “Where Do Organisms End?”
• We talked about some of this waaaay back on AEWCH 6 with Alex Tsakiris (and my first chat with Alex, “Fight Science With Science“)
• Lynn often raved about Max King’s book Species Evolution: The Role of Chromosome Change which I (still!) have yet to read.
• Lynn’s book of short stories, Luminous Fish, is quite good. I remember being a little scared to read it and then thinking – why did I expect anything less?
• Here’s a small bit on Swiss Emily Dickinson translator Hans Werner Lüscher.
You can expect a bit more on Lynn’s work – particularly on the origins of sex – from me in the near future.
Until next time, friends,