Saturday, July 30, 2011

Getting to know Gaia 1


I have run out of inspiration on my sequence of posts on Spirituality per se, and shall leave the topic there for the moment.  Over the next several editions I should like to discuss the Gaia hypothesis.  However, it is beyond denial that spirituality is deeply linked with ecology and the earth in any case.  Hence, the next short sequence of posts is related to the foregoing ones.

Forging Connections

My own personal understanding of Spirituality is that it is about forging connections between persons, and indeed between persons and the universe, or more specifically and practically still between persons and the planet they inhabit.  Spirituality is all about a thrust to unity, union or communion.

The Interconnectedness of things

One does not have to be an Einstein to notice that in this universe one thing depends upon another and so on down the line as in an infinite domino effect.  Just look at the domino effect as we witnessed and still witness it in the global economic depression that is now hitting the world.  Same thing in the environment, as soon as one small essential element is disturbed, it has a knock-on effect on all animal life (including human animal life obviously) on this planet. 

Enter James Lovelock stage right

Planet Earth: Mother Gaia
James Lovelock, CH, CBE, FRS (1919 -      ) an independent scientist, environmentalist and futurologist who lives in Devon, England.  This great contemporary scientist proposed the Gaia hypothesis, which postulates that the biosphere is a self-regulating entity with the capacity to keep our planet healthy by controlling the chemical and physical environment.  He formulated his famous theory during the 1960s as a result of work he was doing for NASA that was concerned with the detection of life on Mars.  Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis proposes that living and non-living parts of the Earth form a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism.  He named his theory after the Greek goddess Gaia at the suggestion of one of his friends, the great English novelist William Golding.  

Needless to say, a theory suggesting that the Earth itself could be a living organism drew much criticism and even scholarly and controversial debate.  The Green and environmentalist community, and those more holistically and spiritually inclined, readily accepted this theory, feeling very much at home in such a warm cuddly theory, if I may indulge momentarily in metaphor.  However, it drew the wrath of many mainline scientists who were more rigid in their approach to scientific knowledge, such as the evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins, Ford Doolittle, and Stephen Jay Gould – notable, given the diversity of this trio's views on other scientific matters. The WIKI puts it succinctly thus: "These (and other) critics have questioned how natural selection operating on individual organisms can lead to the evolution of planetary-scale homeostasis." (See James Lovelock )

Let's look at other ways of explaining Lovelock's famous hypothesis. I will base what I have to say in these posts on the following books by James Lovelock which I have in my library: (i) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (OUP, 1979, 1987, 1995, 2000), (ii) The Ages of Gaia (OUP, 1988, 1995, 2000), (iii)The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning. (Allen Lane, Penguin, 2005) and finally (iv) The Revenge of Gaia (OUP, 2006).

Stated simply, the idea is that we may have discovered a living being bigger, more ancient, and more complex than anything from our wildest dreams. That being, called Gaia, is the Earth.  Looking at the earth over its evolutionary period we can say that roughly about one billion years after it's formation, our planet was occupied by a meta-life form which began an ongoing process of transforming this planet into its own substance. All the life forms of the planet are part of Gaia. In a way analogous to the myriad different cell colonies which make up our organs and bodies, the life forms of earth in their diversity co-evolve and contribute interactively to produce and sustain the optimal conditions for the growth and prosperity not of themselves, but of the larger whole, Gaia. That the very makeup of the atmosphere, seas, and terrestrial crust is the result of radical interventions carried out by Gaia through the evolving diversity of living creatures.

Link with Lewis Thomas

Another face of Mother Earth
Lewis Thomas (1913 – 1993) was a physician, poet, etymologist, essayist, administrator, educator, policy advisor, and researcher who became Dean of Yale Medical School and New York University School of Medicine, and President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute. His formative years as an independent medical researcher were at Tulane University School of Medicine.  In the book The Lives of a Cell, Thomas makes an observation very similar to James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis:

I have been trying to think of the earth as a kind of organism, but it is no go. I cannot think of it this way. It is too big, too complex, with too many working parts lacking visible connections. The other night, driving through a hilly, wooded part of southern New England, I wondered about this. If not like an organism, what is it like, what is it most like? Then, satisfactorily for that moment, it came to me: it is most like a single cell.  (See Lewis Thomas )
Indeed James Lovelock actually quotes from Lewis Thomas' famous book on the flyleaf of The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Planet:

Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive.  The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground, dead as an old bone.  Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos.  If you could look long enough, you would see the swirling of the great drifts of white cloud, covering and uncovering the half-hidden masses of land.  If you had been looking a very long, geologic time, you could have seen the continents themselves in motion, drifting apart on their crustal plates, held aloft by the fire beneath.  It has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvelously (sic) skilled in handling the sun.

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