Gaia Theory – in a Nutshell

Gaia from Greek mythology is the primordial earth goddess. In some, interpretations she is the earth itself or a spiritual representation of it. She gave rise to all life on earth.

What is Gaia Theory

According to Gaia theory, the earth is a place where life can flourish not just because it happened to be in the right place (from the sun) and the right time (4 billion years ago). Rather life itself has shaped the planet to be more sustainable. Much like a living organism the earth maintains a degree of equilibrium over time and when this is disturbed it has buffer systems that can bring it back. This whole process is achieved through the interaction between the earth’s natural cycles and living organisms all of which are working symbiotically.

Science and criticisms of Gaia Theory

Gaia theory was developed by Dr. James Lovelock in 1965 whilst he was working for NASA researching methods to detect life on other planets, specifically on Mars. It has been received skeptically by mainstream science to this day and is only considered a hypothesis by most. Yet others claim it to be totally unscientific.

According to Dr. Lovelock, Gaia has been a successful theory and has made no less than 10 predictions which have been observed to be true. A few of the processes which it claims to have a say in explaining are (i) how ocean salinity is kept at low levels for life, (ii) Regulation of global temperatures, (iii) Regulation of oxygen in the atmosphere and the processing of CO2 etc.

One could see how Gaia theory can give us a sense of comfort and even have a spiritual dimension. Mother earth takes care of life and is able to protect and heal itself. We are a natural part of this larger organism and through us, the earth has been able to look at the universe in which it was born. (As an example, global warming due to human misadventures could also be taken care of by Gaia. Increased cloud formation, which would reflect more of the sun’s energy, controlling the global warming.)

It is precisely this sense of comfort and also as Dr. Lovelock claims the name of the Theory ‘Gaia’ (representing something supernatural) which might have caused it to garner so much criticism. A lot of criticism comes from scientists who feel the theory is ‘teleological‘ (having a sense of purpose) and against the concepts of evolution by natural selection. Dr. Richard Dawkins states “for organisms to act in concert would require foresight and planning, which is contrary to the current scientific understanding of evolution”.

Other’s like Dr. Peter Ward see it as a dangerous misconception. He feels it appeals to New Age nonsense, as he ridicules “only if we could return to nature the world would heal itself”. Claiming this would mean abandoning civilized and scientific progress. He gives examples of how then there would be a return of high infant mortality, disease, and suffering etc. This view mostly appears to be a misguided understanding of Gaia theory as no such claims appear to have been made.

The theory did find a staunch supporter in Dr. Lynn Margulis. She has argued against Dawkin’s claims and states Darwinian evolution is incomplete in that it has considered the environment a static arena, whereas the evidence suggests it is not. That the organisms shape the environment as the environment shapes the organisms.

Dr. Lovelock argues that actually Gaia theory is now widely accepted science, although with a different name of ‘Earth System Sciences‘.

What seems obvious is that the sense of purpose and comfort one could potentially drive from a theory like Gaia is exactly what is most abhorrent about it. The science and observations in support or against it seem less of an issue. One also wonders that there is this fear that we may lull ourselves into a false sense of security (as with global warming) if we were to cling to this. It seems we feel the need to remind ourselves that we have to take matters into our own hands. We alone have agency and there is nothing grander at work. Everything else is happenstance.

That being said the theory itself does not claim to propose any sense of purpose. It does not view humans as special either, rather the earth’s natural cycles and spheres, one of them being the biosphere, as being in symbiosis. In a sense, the homeostatic mechanisms of earth could rather well be working against humans much like the body tries to work against cancer.

Yet this disgust and fear of Gaia are certainly interesting.