Food for thought……
Scientifically speaking, does the Earth have its own spirit?
For hundreds, maybe even thousands of years people have questioned the
why and how of things that occur in, on and around the Earth.
Its almost as if the Earth itself has its own life force or spirit.
The “anima mundi,” the World Soul described by Plato and so many aboriginal societies, tribes, religions and spiritual peoples have honored and worshiped a “Gaia” or “Earth Spirit” and have many names, ceremonies, and celebrations for it.
This has never been a part of the scientific community until now……
The Gaia Theory
This will serve as an introduction to the Gaia hypothesis;
It is a review (published in 1989) of James Lovelock‘s The Ages of Gaia
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.
More precisely: that 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 coevolve 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.
Encountering the Earth from space, a witness would know immediately that the planet was alive. The atmosphere would give it away. 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. For example, 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.
That is how James Lovelock discovered Gaia; from outer space.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 equilib rium” 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.
“The name of the living planet, Gaia, is not a synonym for the biosphere-that part of the Earth where living things are seen normally to exist. Still less is Gaia the same as the biota, which is simply the collection of all individual living organisms. The biota and the biosphere taken together form a part but not all of Gaia. Just as the shell is part of the snail, so the rocks, the air, and the oceans are part of Gaia.
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Gaia, as we shall see, has continuity with the past back to the origins of life, and in the future as long as life persists. Gaia, as a total planetary being, has properties that are not necesarily discernable by just knowing individual species or populations of organisms living together… Specifically, the Gaia hypothesis says that the temperature,oxidation, state, acidity, and certain aspects of the rocks and waters are kept constant, and that this homeostasis is maintained by active feedback processes operated automatically and unconsciously by the biota.”
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.
“You may find it hard to swallow the notion that anything as large and apparently inanimate as the Earth is alive. Surely, you may say, the Earth is almost wholly rock, and nearly all incandescent with heat. The difficulty can be lessened if you let the image of a giant redwood tree enter your mind.The tree undoubtedly is alive, yet 99% of it is dead.The great tree is an ancient spire of dead wood,made of lignin and cellulose by the ancestors of the thin layer of living cells which constitute its bark. How like the Earth, and more so when we realize that many of the atoms of the rocks far down into the magma were once part of the ancestral life of which we all have come.” 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, experience.
Recent scientific work, such as in the field of complex systems, have begun to give us the impression that this opposition of terms, the larger caused by its constituents, or the costituents created by the larger, may be one of those oppositions which are the constructs of our own minds, and must be dropped if we are to understand the truth, which is neither the one nor the other, but more difficult to comprehend and more fascinating to behold. Perhaps there is awareness appropriate at every level.Perhaps that is a property of life.
And what might be the nature of its evolution, this planetary being called Gaia? 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: are we part of her arsenal of interplanetary spores ?
And what might constitute a life cycle for such a being- might it be as strange as that of the slime mold ?
What stage would Gaia be in now? Is our species part of her maturity or an incubation period ? Is Gaia herself somehow part of a larger living being, perhaps on a galactic scale ? If so how do the cells of this larger being remain in communication? Will we eventually be able to experience something of the awareness which Gaia has ?
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 depradations of the human species, as it befouls and cripples the
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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.
He adds the caveat however, that the passage of a bullet is also momentary, but the damage nonetheless lethal, and that we are not in a position yet to say whether or not some sudden, human caused imbalance, at a critical juncture, might be catastrophic to Gaia.
Lovelock first exposed his idea in his 1979 book, Gaia, a New Look at Life on Earth. The science behind the hypothesis was still sketchy, and it provoked a storm of criticism. It also provoked a lot of research, and the resulting body of information has encouraged Lovelock to publish this second book, a more confident and complete exposition of the Gaia hypothesis.The Ages of Gaia is easily readable for the educated layperson, but includes plenty of scientific depth.
Those of us who consider ourselves to be somehow involved in the birthing of a new age, should discover Gaia as well. 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.
Stephen Miller, 1989
All quotes from James Lovelock, taken from The Ages of Gaia
Gaia: The Wisdom of the Earth
1991 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute
The object of this activity is to introduce students to a controversial new theory that offers an explanation for the organization and function of the Earth. After completing this activity, students will be able to:
- describe, diagram, and give examples of homeostatic mechanisms in individual organisms, communities, ecosystems, and the biosphere.
- outline the Earth’s history in terms of solar, geologic, and atmospheric evolution.
- describe organic evolution in terms of the relationships of organisms to each other and to the Biosphere.
- describe and give examples of how living things affect climate.
- prepare and interpret graphs that show changes in the Earth’s temperature and atmospheric gases.
- describe and give examples of how human activity has affected the biosphere.
- apply homeostatic mechanisms to make predictions about the future of the Earth in terms of relationships between living things and components of the atmosphere.
- describe some controversies that surround the theory of Gaia. This should include scientific, social, and, if possible, religious and philosophical components.
- explain why Lovelock and Margulis are not concerned about whether life on Earth will continue. In other words, why they believe that Gaia will “survive” even if humans seriously damage to the environment.
The Gaia Theory, first proposed by British scientist James Lovelock in the early 1970’s, is gaining an increasing number of advocates throughout the world’s scientific community. In the United States, its most notable supporter is Dr. Lynn Margulis of the University of Massachusetts, whose explanation of the origin of eukaryotic cells through symbiotic relationships among prokaryotic organisms revolutionized evolutionary thought in the late 1960’s. Gaian theory holds that the Earth can be described as a vast, autopoietic system of many components, all of which have evolved together to enhance and regulate conditions for the perpetuation of life.
Simple examples of how the Earth regulates itself include the maintaining an atmospheric oxygen level at close to 20 per cent for several hundred million years. If this level were to fluctuate to as high as 25 per cent, a single spark could ignite a conflagration that would sweep across the continent. If the oxygen level were 15 per cent or less, lighting a match would be impossible. Also, geologic evidence indicates that for the same length of time the salinity of the ocean has remained remarkably constant at somewhat less than 10 per cent of saturation. This is particularly remarkable because dissolved minerals have been transported by water toward oceans almost since Earth was formed. No satisfactory explanation has been advanced for this constancy, which affects all life on Earth.
The scientific community remains divided about the Gaia Theory. Many well-known scientists argue that since they know of no way to test Gaia scientifically, it is little more than a metaphor explaining phenomena that can be explained mechanistically. As more evidence becomes available, including recent work by Mazumder (1991), and Ramanathan (1991), the case for a Gaian regulation system becomes stronger. Scientists and science educators owe it to themselves to be informed about developments in the Gaian issues. Gaia is based upon true science. It provides opportunities for testing, predicting, and challenging established scientific thought at all academic and scientific levels. Also, it offers many ideas for scientific experimentation.
Terminology. The following terms are useful in understanding the nature of Gaian theory. It is suggested that teachers list them on the board and briefly discuss them with students to establish a setting for activities to follow.
- Albedo. This is the reflectivity of the Earth’s atmosphere. It is increased by clouds and atmospheric particles, including those from combustion, dust storms, and volcanoes.
- “Goldilocks Phenomenon” . This is a simple way of stating that Venus is too hot for life to exist, Mars too cold, and Earth is just right.
- Greenhouse effect. The warming of the Earth due to the tendency of heat to be trapped within the lower levels of the atmosphere by atmospheric gases, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons. Since human activity has increased the quantities of these gases in the atmosphere, there is concern that the temperature of the Earth in increasing. Theoretically, this could lead to vast disruptions of ecosystems, flooding of coastal areas because of the melting of polar icecaps, and desertification of previously productive areas.
- Homeostasis. This has been described by American physiologist Walter B. Cannon as the “wisdom of the body”. It is the tendency of living things to sustain themselves by maintaining a dynamic equilibrium with the environment. Temperature regulation in mammals provides an excellent example of this: a mammal exposed to cold first perceives lowered temperature with sensory receptors in its skin. In short order, the central nervous system emits signals for peripheral blood vessels to contract, body hair to become erect, and muscle tissue to start shivering, thus increasing surface temperature. So in short order, the body increases its natural insulation and increases its metabolism.
- Oxygen – carbon dioxide cycling. This describes the uptake of carbon dioxide and production of oxygen by photosynthetic organisms, which when combined with the uptake of oxygen and production of carbon dioxide by respiration and burning, creates a cycle.
Since 900 A. D. the average temperature of the Earth has fluctuated around 15o C. The following data show the average fluctuations above or below 15o C per 50 years from 900 A. D. until 2000 A. D. (projected).
Make a graph of these data, with time on the horizontal axis and temperature on the vertical axis. On the vertical axis, write the numbers 14o C, 15o C, and 16o C, with at least 3 divisions between each degree (14.2o C, 14.4o C, etc). Discuss trends shown on the graph.
Show students the NOVA program, The Goddess of the Earth (1986). Discussion afterwards should include questions about the research of various scientists in the program, evidence for various scientific ideas, and attitudes different groups of people have toward Gaia.
Other audiovisual programs include the computer activity SimEarth, the Living Planet (Maxis, Inc., 1990), and Daisyworld, available through audiovisual supply companies.
Activities associated with Gaia include the construction and monitoring of environmental chambers containing plants and other organisms (including simple systems that can be enclosed in plastic bottles), outdoor environmental monitoring and sampling, and population studies with simple organisms such as earthworms, planaria, and pill bugs. These activities can be adapted to a variety of grade levels.
There is no real way to conclude studies of Gaian systems, any more than there is a way to conclude the study of life in a biology class. It is a concept that lends itself to a class or to the curriculum of an entire school. The significance of its role in a school can be determined by teachers. Its importance in understanding the Earth is still emerging.
Eddy, John A. “Global Change: Where Are We? Where Are We Going?” Earthquest. Spring, 1991. Pp. 38-42.
Eddy, John A. “Global Changes of the Past,” In Bradley, R. S., Ed. Global Changes of the Past. Boulder: OIES, 1991.
Goddess of the Earth. NOVA program from WGBH, Boston. 60 minutes. 1986.
Greadel, T. E., and P. J. Crutzen. “The Changing Atmosphere.” Readings from Scientific American. 1990.
Lovelock, James E. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford University Press, 1972.
Lovelock, James E. The Ages of Gaia. New York: W. W. Norton. 1988.
Mann, Charles. “Lynn Margulis: Science’s Unruly Earth Mother.” Science, Vol. 252, April 19, 1991. Pp. 378-381.
Mazumba, Asit. “Ripple Effects.” The Sciences. November/December, 1990. Pp. 38-42.
Mitchell, J. F. B. “The Greenhouse Effect and Climate Change.” Reviews of Geophysics. Vol 27, 115-139.
Rowland, F. S., and I. S. A. Isakson, Eds. The Changing Atmosphere. New. York: John Wiley and Sons, 1988.
Stevens, William K. “An Oceanic Indication That Earth’s Climate Might Regulate Itself.” New York Times, Tuesday, May 7, 1991. P. B6.