Sunday, July 31, 2011

Getting to know Gaia 2

In this and the next post I wish to review James Lovelock's little classic book of ground-breaking thought: Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (OUP, 1979, 1987, 1995, 2000). 

More often than not we expect our scientists to be black and white, to say things as clearly as possible with little qualification or nuance.  On the other hand we expect our novelists to be entertaining and highly imaginative and our poets to be forging all types of metaphor and wonderful language in the smithy of their souls - and all of this, unlike science, to be highly nuanced.  We also expect our philosophers to keep on asking the big edgy questions in as sharp and as astute fashion as possible.  And yet, there are those like James Lovelock, Carl Gustave Jung, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, William Golding, Ivor Browne, Anthony Storr, William Blake, S.T. Coleridge, Ronnie Laing, James Joyce and Leo Tolstoy who refuse to be categorised and use everything from religion to science to technology to stories and mythology, to spirituality and ecology and back again as grist to their writing mill.  These authors simply refuse to be pigeon-holed and like to express their opinions - often educated and good ones at that - on any subject under the sun.  They simply do not mind trespassing on the area of another man or woman's expertise.

If James Lovelock did anything in his big theory - his Gaia hypothesis was to refuse to be constrained by and confined to a reductionist notion of what science is or can be about.  This is his great achievement.

Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, is unique in scientific writing in that it is written in a style that combines scientific research with metaphysical musings.  In this great little book, Lovelock explains his theory or hypothesis with the on-going guiding-hand of Professor Lynn Margulis whom he generously thanks in his later preface (p. xix). Essentially, his theory postulates that the physical and chemical condition of the surface of the Earth, of the atmosphere, and of the oceans has been and is actively made fit and comfortable by the presence of life itself. This is in contrast to the conventional wisdom, which holds that life adapted to the planetary conditions as it and they evolved their separate ways. Let's quote a little from the author's preface:

  • I failed to make clear [in 1979] that it was not the biosphere alone that did the regulating but that the whole thing, life, the air, the oceans, and the rocks. The entire surface of the Earth including life is a self-regulating entity and this is what I mean by Gaia.  (Op. cit.,. p. ix)

  • I began more and more to see things through her [Earth's] eyes and slowly dropped off, like an old coat, my loyalty to the humanist Christian belief in the good of mankind as the only thing that mattered.  I began to see us all, as part of the community of living things that unconsciously keep the Earth a comfortable home, and that we humans have no special rights, only obligations to the community of Gaia. (Ibid., p. ix)

  • ... the Gaia theory in which all life and all material parts of the Earth's surface make up a single system, a kind of mega-organism, and a living planet.  (Ibid., p. x)

  • Gaia is the superorganism composed of all life tightly coupled with the air, the oceans, and the surface rocks.  (Ibid., p. xii)

  • It follows that this book is not for hard scientists... Yet I am a scientist and I am deeply committed to science as a way of life.  I did not write this book to irritate my colleagues... I differed from them because the view from space let me see the Earth from the top down, not in the usual reductionist way from the bottom up.  The external, holistic, view unexpectedly puts me in tune with both the post-modern world and with mainstream science before it started its affair with reductionism. (Ibid., p. xii)

All of the above quotations are brilliant to my mind as they clearly set out not alone his particular scientific method - from top down.  They also show that this man is a broad thinker as well as a narrow purist.  In looking under the microscope one has to be aware of dividing and subdividing and so on, right down to from organs to tissues to cells to molecules and to atoms and as far down to sub-atomic structures.  However, we can also take a telescope and look ever outwards to the expanding universe.  We need scientists with broad ideas as well as narrow ones.  Both ways of thinking, both ways of doing science are important.

  • ... I recognize that scientists now, deep into the reduction of a single page are uninterested in the book, or even other chapters of it.  Broad ideas like Gaia are anathema to them.  They see Gaia as metascience, something like a religious faith and therefore from their deeply held materialistic beliefs, something to be rejected.  (Ibid., p. xii)

  • Even metaphorical phrases such as "gaia likes it cool" to express the observation that the Earth system appears to flourish in glacial times must be cast out... (Ibid., p. xiii)

Science, then, according to Lovelock, despises both myth and metaphor.  However, he also recognizes prejudice and defensiveness on the other side of the debate, too, with those Greens and Environmentalists who say that Gaia is too important to be a subject of observation and dissection by science.  Hence, I would argue with Lovelock that there exists ample space for interdiciplinary and transdisciplinary studies.  Areas of knowledge are not totally divided one from the other - like individual cells they must interact to make up tissues and organs etc to force the metaphor somewhat.  If you are a reductionist scientist you won't like my language here.  Why not let your science allow in some metaphor?

To be continued

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