The idea that the earth’s biosphere constitutes a single, living (or at least life-like) organism first came to UK scientist James Lovelock in 1965. The year might seem significant. This was an era when the materialist assumptions of mainstream science were coming under attack, both for their coldness and apparent inhumanity, but also against the background of the burgeoning Vietnam War and its use of chemical weapons — the first US ground troops were deployed there that year.
So was Lovelock’s famous Gaia hypothesis the result less of scientific calculation and more of an emotional reaction against the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age? Is it, then, to be seen as essentially pseudo-science, or even a kind of Mother Earth-worshipping religion, rather than hard, verifiable actuality?
Michael Ruse’s The Gaia Hypothesis doesn’t, astonishingly, have a great deal to say about the hypothesis itself. Instead, the author is largely concerned to fill in the background to the theory, and appears to take every opportunity to write about anything other than the hypothesis itself. Plato, Plotinus, Aristotle, Copernicus, Newton, Tycho Brahe, Descartes, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Schelling and Wordsworth all make appearances, not to mention Darwin, Lyell and Richard Dawkins. Even the novelist William Golding features, credited with supplying Lovelock with the name “Gaia” in the remote UK village where they both happened to be living.
What Ruse is at pains to point out is that Lovelock is not some spawner of a cult creed and set of related modish nostrums, but a hard-bitten chemist working in the very materialist-reductionist traditions of those who most vehemently decry him.
And Lovelock has certainly been decried. Scientists such as Oxford’s Richard Dawkins, UK microbiologist John Postgate and Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould have all weighed in against his idea, often in scornful terms. Arguments deployed have included that the biosphere can’t be an organism because it isn’t capable of reproduction, and therefore can’t have been subject to evolution, and that, being unique in the universe as far as we know, it can’t be demonstrated as related to anything else.
“Gaia – the Great Earth Mother! The planetary organism! Am I the only biologist to suffer a nasty twitch, a feeling of unreality, when the media invite me yet again to take it seriously?” So said Postgate, like Lovelock a fellow of the UK’s Royal Society (The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge; motto: “Take nobody’s word for it”). At least he left it to a future president of the society to call Lovelock a “holy fool.”
But your attitude to the hypothesis, according to Ruse, depends on where you stand in the ongoing history of scientific thought. This book’s subtitle, “Science on a Pagan Planet,” refers to the long tradition of non-Christian thought, from Plato to Richard Dawkins. This tradition is seen as bifurcating in the 19th century, leading to, on the one hand, hardline materialists such as Darwin, and, on the other, to thinkers who allowed some sort of spiritual quality in “Nature” (characteristically spelt by them with an upper-case “N”). Today’s orthodox evolutionary biologists are in the materialist tradition, and Lovelock very much in the opposing camp.
The point here is that, as far as the scientific community is concerned, the materialists won the battle in the later years of the 19th century. The Gaia Hypothesis, therefore, belongs to the discredited “opposition,” comparable to Wordsworth’s belief that flowers enjoyed the air they breathed.
So, in the fullness of time, will Lovelock be remembered as a visionary whose grand concept became the basis for a new, world-wide religion, or will he be remembered as an amiable crank whose hopeful prognosis bore no hint of the catastrophes that were to follow him?
The problem with this book is that it doesn’t tell you the answer to this question. Almost all it does is establish the context in which such an idea came into being, and argue that Lovelock is a qualified scientist, a member of London’s Royal Society, and that his late US colleague Lynn Margulis had similar credentials. He is a brave pioneer, claims Ruse, and at one point he is even forced to cite in his defense that he was employed as a technician in the service of the military.
“Lovelock was into space science,” he writes, “not beads and long hair. His funding came from the military and from industry.”
For the rest it’s left to you to endorse or not endorse the theory itself. You get little help in this. All you do get is a clearer sense of the tradition you might be closest to once you have made such a choice.
I found this disappointing. I would rather have experienced the arguments for in one of Lovelock’s own books — Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979), Ages of Gaia: A Biography of our Living Earth (1988), Healing Gaia: Practical Medicine for the Planet (1991), Homage to Gaia (2000), The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity (2006) and The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning (2009) — or one of the attacks on the idea from, say, Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould.
All I can say in conclusion is that, for me, it would be wonderful if the Gaia hypothesis were true, but that I’m in no position to decide on the matter for or against. I feel like Thomas Hardy (in his poem The Oxen) imagining himself on Christmas Eve going with friends to witness what they expected to see, the cattle by the manger kneeling in veneration on the stroke of midnight. He would accompany them, he says, “hoping it might be so.”
By Michael Ruse
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