by Stephen Miller
What is the Hypothesis of Gaia?
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.
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.
The atmospheric compositions of our sister planets, Venus and Mars, are: 95-96% carbon dioxide, 3-4% nitrogen, with traces of oxygen, argon and methane. The earth’s atmosphere at present is 79% nitrogen, 21% oxygen with traces of carbon dioxide, methane and argon.
The difference is Gaia, which transforms the outer layer of the planet into environments suitable to its further growth.
bacteria and photosynthetic algae began some 2.8 billions of years
ago extracting the carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen into the
atmosphere, setting the stage for larger and more energetic
creatures powered by combustion, including, ultimately, ourselves.
In the 1960’s, during the space race which followed the launching of Sputnik, he was asked by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA to help design experiments to detect life on Mars.
The Viking lander gathered and tested some Martian soil for life with no results. Lovelock had predicted as much, by analyzing the atmosphere of Mars: it is in a dead equilibrium. By contrast, the atmosphere of Earth is in a "far from equilibrium" state - meaning that there was some other complex process going on which maintained such an unlikely balance. It occurred to him that if the Viking lander had landed on the frozen waste of Antarctica, it might not have found any trace of life on Earth either.
But a sure giveaway would be a complete atmospheric analysis... which the Viking lander was not equipped to do. Lovelock’s approach was not popular at NASA because NASA needed a good reason to land on Mars, and the best was to look for life.
Viking found nothing on Mars, but Lovelock had seen the Earth from the perspective of an ET looking for evidence of life. And he began thinking that what he was seeing was not so much a planet adorned with diverse life forms, but a planet transfigured and transformed by a self-evolving and self-regulating living system. By the nature of its activity it seemed to qualify as a living being.
He named that being Gaia, after the Greek goddess which drew the living world forth from Chaos.
Even the shifting of the tectonic plates, resulting in the changing shapes of the continents, may result from the massive limestone deposits left in the earth by bioforms eons ago.
The root question of Gaia’s critics, and a central point in his theory concerns the difference between a planetary environment which might only be the aggregate result of myriad independent life forms coevolving and sharing the same host, and one which is ultimately created by life forms deployed, so to speak, to accomplish the purpose of the larger being.
Is the idea of Gaia only a romantic and dramatized description of the terrestrial biosphere and its effects, or is there a planetary being, whose life cycle must be counted in the billions of years, which spawns these evolving life forms to suit the purpose of its being. Do our kidney cells ask each other these sorts of questions?
While your white
blood cells thrive and reproduce, going about their business, they
are indisputably serving the life of the larger body which you use,
though whatever consciousness they experience in their realm is
certainly far from that which you, the larger being, the whole,
Anthropocentrists to the last, we might assume that the production of the human species is a great step upward for Gaia, a sort of rapidly evolving brain tissue. Or that she prepares the earth as a cradle and crucible of consciousness evolving.
Other analogies come to mind:
Lovelock points out that Gaia, being ancient and resourceful enough to have carried out these successive changes of the planet in spite of asteroid collisions and other setbacks, is herself probably not endangered by the relatively momentary depredations of the human species, as it befouls and cripples the bio-dynamics of its environment.
Rather, the danger is to the human race, not only from
our own actions, but also by Gaia’s reaction to them.
The idea of Gaia may facilitate the task of converting destructive human
activities to constructive and cooperative behavior. It is an idea
which deeply startles us, and in the process, may help us as a
species to make the necessary jump to planetary awareness.