The Name of Gaia

To recap: The stronger formulations of the Gaia hypothesis have been authoritatively debunked, but the weaker formulations remain intact. For more, read Gaia Is Dead and Long Live Gaia.

Deep

Toby Tyrrell, author of On Gaia, finds in favor of a coevolutionary hypothesis, the notion that life and the environment are “somehow coupled.” This hypothesis is equivalent to what James Kirchner labels coevolutionary Gaia.

A brief review of the literature

Peter Ward writes that coevolutionary Gaia is “already viewed as true,” that it is “virtually no hypothesis at all.”

In a similar vein, Arthur C. Petersen holds that the weaker formulations of the Gaia hypothesis are really just “basic assumptions,” from the view of Earth systems science.

Kirchner holds that coevolution between biota and environment “is not original or unique to Gaia,” tracing the idea back to 1844 — long before James Lovelock published the Gaia hypothesis. Kirchner calls coevolution a “fact,” one that is so widely recognized that “it would seem odd to call it a hypothesis.”

What’s in a name

One question that seems to remain is that of nomenclature. Are the weaker forms of Gaia worthy of the name Gaia at all?

Tyrrell doesn’t think so. He writes that attaching the coevolutionary hypothesis to the name Gaia “only generates semantic confusion,” as this form of the hypothesis haven’t been used in any major Gaian publication. Clearly, Tyrrell has not read Primavesi’s Sacred Gaia, which concentrates on a coevolutionary model, but in fairness her theological work would seem to be outside his scope.

If Tyrrell’s work is well-received in the scientific community, the name Gaia may fall from favor as a label for any credible model of how the Earth works. But the Gaia hypothesis is notable for being known and discussed well outside of the scientific community.

And yet…

This question of naming would seem to be a matter of poetry rather than strict scientific nomenclature. Lovelock originally wanted to call his idea the “Earth feedback hypothesis”; the name Gaia is credited to the novelist and poet William Golding. It’s doubtful that Lovelock’s work would have captured the public’s imagination without this poetic license.

We might do well to inquire into the overall value of the name Gaia in the context of our modern understanding of the Earth and our relation to it. As a metaphor, Kirchner says, Gaia is “unusually rich, colorful and evocative.” In a splendid recent essay, Michael Ruse writes that “even if Gaia is not literally true, it is a metaphor worth cherishing.” The name Gaia has increased general interest in a holistic view of the Earth and its systems. Gaia can inspire feelings of gratitude, reverence and mature responsibility. That is positive.

But the name Gaia may also confuse people. The powerful image of the ancient mother goddess may lead to muddled thinking and a complacent mindset. People may lose sight of a weaker coevolutionary model and gravitate toward the stronger homeostatic and teleological models. People may think “Gaia will protect us” though the evidence does not support such hope.

It is possible to hold an image of Gaia that is both resonant with ancient wisdom and consonant with current scientific thinking. But is this an esoteric exercise limited to an intellectual elite? Can such an image capture the popular imagination?

What do you think? If you have any thoughts on the subject, please leave a comment.

References

“The Gaia Hypothesis: Can It Be Tested?” by James W. Kirchner

The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? by Peter Ward

Sacred Gaia : holistic theology and earth system science by Anne Primavesi

On Gaia : a critical investigation of the relationship between life and earth by Toby Tyrrell

“Earth’s Holy Fool?” by Michael Ruse

“Models and Geophysiological Hypotheses” by Arthur C. Petersen in Scientists Debate Gaia: the next century

Long Live Gaia

Gaia is dead. Long live Gaia!

The Gaia hypothesis is one of those bold proposals that has captured the imagination of the general public. It has been embraced and celebrated well beyond the domain of conventional science. Gaia has been held to have deep spiritual ramifications.

Hope for the planet

Such matters are beyond the scope of Toby Tyrrell’s recent book, On Gaia (review) which offers a devastating critique of the Gaia hypothesis. Yet for those who have taken the Gaia hypothesis to heart, who have found it a source of inspiration and wonder, it’s important to discern what exactly Tyrrell has discounted and what he has not.

As Tyrrell points out, Gaia is “not a well-defined concept.” He cites the work of James Kirchner, who identified no less than five variations on the hypothesis, ranging from weak to strong.

(1) influential Gaia, which asserts only that biology affects the physical and chemical environment to some degree; (2) coevolutionary Gaia, which limits itself to stating that the biota and environment are somehow coupled; (3) homeostatic Gaia, which emphasizes the stabilizing effect of the biota; (4) teleological Gaia, which implies that the biosphere is a contrivance specifically arranged for the benefit of the biota; and (5) optimizing Gaia, which suggests that the biosphere is optimized in favor of the biota.

As one might imagine, the stronger versions of Gaia are more controversial. The two strongest forms have been abandoned even by James Lovelock, the originator of the hypothesis, while the two weakest forms are deemed largely uncontroversial. Therefore it’s the middle version, the question of homeostatic Gaia, which constitutes the prime interest of Tyrrell’s work.

Far from debunking all five versions of the Gaia hypothesis, Tyrrell to the contrary finds in favor of a coevolutionary hypothesis, the notion that life and the environment are “somehow coupled.” This hypothesis is equivalent to what Kirchner labels coevolutionary Gaia.

Thus, while the idea of a strong, self-regulating Gaia may be in question, the concept of an evolutionary coupling between living creatures and the environment is not.

Religious Implications

One of the most comprehensive and thoughtful treatments of Gaia’s implications for religion and spirituality may be found the work of Anne Primavesi. Her book Sacred Gaia, published in 2000, is a radical reappraisal of Christian theology in light of Earth system science.

As such, it is instructive to inquire as to which model of Gaia informs Primavesi’s writing. What vision drives her work along? Does she place importance on the purported homeostasic and regulatory effects of Gaia? Does she portray Gaia as an optimizing force that keeps the Earth “comfy” for us?

Indeed not. Primavesi writes almost exclusively about a coevolutionary Gaia (to use Kirchner’s term). She describes Gaia as “the planet-sized system where the living and non-living components interact as two tightly coupled forces, each one shaping the other through systemic feedback loops.” Amongst the significant implications of this fact, she finds that “a Gaian perspective… does not support a view of ourselves in radical discontinuity with other species. On the contrary, our common origins with other multicellular organisms bind us ineluctably to past and present communities of life forms on earth.” Coevolutionary coupling means that we are situated in a web of interdependent relations, and this realization has profound moral consequences.

The awakening to such dependence is disorienting to a species which has believed and preached that God has given it dominion over all living creatures. Or, in a secular version, that our brains/technology/higher consciousness have given us the ability to dominate every other life form and the right to exercise that dominion.

This is a radical revisioning of Western thought. However, it does not call upon the more radical formulations of the Gaia hypothesis for support.

To state the matter bluntly, Tyrrell’s debunking of homeostatic Gaia does no damage to Primavesi’s thesis.

This is but one example. The effects of Tyrrell’s critique will vary according to one’s thealogy. If one is seeking scientific support for the comforting metaphor of an all-powerful Earth Mother who protects herself from the vagaries of the cosmos (and the depredations of humanity) then Tyrrell brings bad tidings indeed. On the other hand, a metaphor of Gaia in process, striving with us and through us to make a better world, remains as a source of both inspiration and spiritual sustenance.

It should also be noted that, despite Tyrrell’s critique of Gaia, the Earth remains a coherent whole, a complex of interconnected systems. This may be the substantial and lasting scientific contribution of Lovelock and his collaborators. The holistic view is now taken as a given, as the bedrock foundation for Earth system science.

Next week: Is a coevolutionary Gaia worthy of the name Gaia at all?

References

The Gaia Hypothesis: Can It Be Tested? by James W. Kirchner

Sacred Gaia : holistic theology and earth system science by Anne Primavesi

On Gaia : a critical investigation of the relationship between life and earth by Toby Tyrrell

Photo: Hope for the planet / CC BY 2.0