The Gaia Hypothesis Is Either Trivial And Useless Or False And Ridiculous

Published July 10, 2015

Hans Schellnhuber is an adviser to the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In the peer-reviewed Nature paper “Climbing the co-evolution ladder” (431, 913 (21 October 2004)) he and two co-authors wrote:

Stanislav Lem’s science-fiction masterpiece, Solaris, tells the gripping — and scary — story of a super-intelligent super-organism that has transmuted into a vast ocean covering most of the surface of a distant planet. Thus information-processing (that is, active) life and force-driven (that is, passive) environment have finally merged into a single entity.

Earth, these authors tell us, has not “yet” reached this “this vanishing point of evolutionary history. But modern civilization already perturbs — if not dominates — various large-scale processes and components of the planet.”Dominates. They speak of a global “metabolism” of carbon and other elements, and of a global “anatomy” that is “largely a product of relentless socio-economic action.” Largely.

The remainder of the brief article sketches steps in the evolutionary history of organisms, with open hints that man tends toward or actually is an aberration. The authors point out the trivial truth that all animals evolve inside a system in which other animals live and which is geologically arranged in particular ways.

They end with these words, “Pursing this concept of entwined evolution may reveal where we are ultimately heading — towards Solaris, or something even scarier.”

It is clear from the context, and from this plain statement, that the authors believe the earth—or rather, Earth—may become, or perhaps already is, a self-aware, rational creature. Solaris, incidentally, is summarized on Wikipedia:

Solaris chronicles the ultimate futility of attempted communications with the extraterrestrial life on a far-distant planet. Solaris is almost completely covered with an ocean that is revealed to be a single, planet-encompassing organism, with whom Terran scientists are attempting communication. What appear to be waves on its surface are later revealed to be the equivalents of muscle contractions…

The ocean’s intelligence expresses physical phenomena in ways difficult for the protagonists to explain using conventional scientific method, deeply upsetting the scientists. The alien mind of Solaris is so greatly different from the human mind of (objective) consciousness that attempts at inter-species communications are a dismal failure.

In a separate peer-reviewed paper, also in Nature, “‘Earth system’ analysis and the second Copernican revolution“, Schellnhuber opens what turns out to be a paean to computer simulation with the statement “we see much that is relevant to unravelling the mysteries of the Earth’s physique, or ‘Gaia’s body'”.

He writes later on that

Ecosphere science is therefore coming of age, lending respectability to its romantic companion, Gaia theory, as pioneered by Lovelock and Margulis. This hotly debated ‘geophysiological’ approach to Earth-system analysis argues that the biosphere contributes in an almost cognizant way to self-regulating feedback mechanisms that have kept the Earth’s surface environment stable and habitable for life.

Taken to an extreme, the Gaia approach may even include the influence of biospheric activities on the Earth’s plate-tectonic processes — through modulation of thermal and viscous gradient fields across the upper geological layers…

Schellnhuber asks, “But is it really Gaia who commands the engine room of the Earth system?” He answers there is no “clear answer”. A clear answer would be, for instance, “No: don’t be absurd.” The answer which he prefers might be found in this revealing paragraph:

Although effects such as the glaciations may still be interpreted as over-reactions to small disturbances — a kind of cathartic geophysiological fever — the main events, resulting in accelerated maturation by shock treatment, indicate that Gaia faces a powerful antagonist. Rampino has proposed personifying this opposition as Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.

Interesting how glaciations are a “a kind of cathartic geophysiological fever” and not a chill. Be sure you caught the right word. It is geophysiological, not geological.

He continues:

About four billion years into Earth’s history, a third planetary might emerged, a challenger to these two intransigent forces [Gaia and Shiva, the external shocks such as asteroids]: human civilization. Let us stay with mythological imagery and call this power Prometheus.

Enter his simulations, i.e. models, the second Copernican revolution. “These models seek to integrate the main processes and forces — Gaia, Shiva and Prometheus — through effective quantitative equations.” Curiously, about the use of these models he says “insights acquired during the present climate crisis may enable humanity to suppress future glaciation events by judicious injection of ‘designer greenhouse gases’ into the atmosphere.” Global warming can be a good thing.

Now to Gaia herself, or rather to the idea or hypothesis. Lovelock, one of the originators of the idea, in a peer-reviewed Nature paper “Gaia: The living Earth” (426, 769-770 (18 December 2003); a paper in which he approvingly cites Schellnhuber) said it was his “hypothesis that living organisms regulate the atmosphere in their own interest.” He also said “the concept of a live Earth is ancient”, which is very true. Pantheists, for instance, believed it long ago. His summary of the theory:

Briefly, it states that organisms and their material environment evolve as a single coupled system, from which emerges the sustained self-regulation of climate and chemistry at a habitable state for whatever is the current biota.

Like life, Gaia is an emergent phenomenon, comprehensible intuitively, but difficult or impossible to analyse by reduction — not surprisingly it is often misunderstood…

Gaia theory does not contradict darwinism, rather it extends it to include evolutionary biology and evolutionary geology as a single science. In Gaia theory, organisms change their material environment as well as adapt to it.

It should be plain that the Gaia hypothesis is, in one sense, trivially true and doubted by no one. Obviously, all life is part of one big whole, everything influences everything else to varying degree, and man is one animal among many. If a habitat cannot sustain an organism, that organism moves on or dies. And every organism, including man, influences his environment; indeed, must. Evolution does not happen in a bottle; organisms are adapted to the environment in which they live. There are no penguins in the Sahara.

Since this is true, and trivial, it is silly to put a mythical name to it, particularly one which evokes the idea of sentience or rationality, or worse. Taking Gaia in its purely metaphorical sense adds nothing to our understanding, but it can and does detract.

But there is another sense where Gaia is just plain false. “The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components.” Self-regulating is not true.

Now a body, your body, is self-regulating. It maintains homeostasis: your internal temperature is somewhat constant, as is your salt content, and so forth. You ingest and excrete. Further, you are not aware, for the most part, of these regulations. Your body just carries out its business. But you are aware. And your body—its parts, that is—acts for an end, which is the good of you. Your parts are not independent of you, either. You don’t seen colons walking (slithering?) down the road.

And this is so of other organisms: their bodies act for their ends, which are the good of those organisms. Their parts are also their parts and not independent of them.

The earth, or rather its parts, which includes us and carrots and plastic, is not acting towards the end of the good of the earth. Earth is not an “emergent” system. It is a collection of individual lifeforms and plain stuff, like rocks, lakes, and oceans. And an atmosphere which extends into space, and becomes part of space.

The earth does not note that it is heating up and in response “self-regulate” in some fashion, say, by launching another glaciation. Its “parts” don’t act in unity toward the goal of the good of the Earth-as-life-form. Each species and each thing reacts, as it must, to its ever-changing environment, but the result is only seen as stable by happenstance. Or by—and who will admit this?—divine design.

“Self-regulating” is either wishful thinking or a clear instance of false pattern recognition. For instance, Gaia sure hates most of the plants and animals that she bore. She’s killed off most of them, and ruthlessly. None of us will be having a trilobite salad for dinner tonight. Nor will any of us become a late night snack for a saber-toothed tiger. There are no glaciers perched over Detroit today, though there will be in the future, most likely, nor is there greenery near the north pole, though there used to be.

Gaia is a useless concept. The people who employ it cannot resist the allure of stretching the metaphor past the snapping point. I’ve yet to see where the sympathetic writer doesn’t imply, perhaps indirectly, that he knows what, for instance, the ideal climate is, or the ideal ecosystem. If he thinks he does, let him say so and be done with the mumbo-jumbo. No teasing hints!

Instead, all we get are plaintive whiny warnings that Gaia is angry and will, if we continue to anger her, cause the sky to fall. We also hear absurd statements that while Gaia may be self-regulating, mankind is somehow able to separate himself from his Mother Earth and un-regulate the Earthly self. Nobody ever explains how. If we are part of nature, which we are, then we are part of it, inseparable from it. Just like radishes, aardvarks, and boulders.

Everything, as I said above, effects everything else, and this includes us. As should be obvious to any scientist or philosopher, there is no way to “minimize” man’s effect on nature. Even if we all went the way of the Dutch tomorrow, our corpses and artifacts will forever shape the future.

Now it is a whole other discussion about what our purpose is; that is, what end we are acting toward. But it cannot be that this end is Mother Gaia Earth. Also, if you think about it, this whole other discussion is the only one worth having.

[Originally published at William M Briggs]