The Gaia

proposed by

Dr. James Lovelock

in collaboration with

Dr. Lynn Margulis

"Giants of Gaia" - Diana Stanley

Section 2: Dr James Lovelock:
Formulation of the Gaia Hypothesis

Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia in the Southern Autumn of 1996

BACKGROUND: Primitive ExtraTerrestrial Glimpses ...

In the search for the evidence of extra-terrestrial life, the closer - Earth's neighbouring planets - Venus and Mars were targetted by the NASA program. Of these, due to the unknown conditions of the planetary surface caused by the dense and aggitated Venusian atmosphere, the planet Mars was given priority. The first spacecraft to visit Mars was Mariner 4 in 1965, and several others followed including the two Viking landers in 1976.

Dr James Lovelock, a British Chemist specialising in the atmospheric sciences, was a recognised leader in his field. He was to invent an electron capture detector, capable of tracing extremely small amounts of tracer elements in gases, which was used by the ozone monitoring research concerning the effect of CFC's in the early 1970's. Almost a decade before this, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) requested the presence of Lovelock in their project teams relating to the scientific search for the evidence of life on Mars.

In collaboration with other project researchers, Lovelock predicted the absence of life on mars based on the consideration of the Martian atmosphere and its state of being in a chemically dead equilibrium. In contrast, the Terran atmosphere is in a chemical state described as being far from equilibrium. The unlikely balance of atmospheric gases which comprise the Earth's atmosphere is quite unique in our solar system. This fact would be clearly visible to any extra-terrestrial observer, by comparison of the images of the planets Venus, Earth and Mars.

And so it was to be in the history of mankind, in the last handful of decades of the second millennium, mankind journeyed into space and became - through image technology - an extra-terrestrial observer:

CO2 (95%)N (77%), O (21%)CO2 (95%)

The question which Dr James Lovelock obviously asked himself was ...
WHY was the Earth different?

Research concerning the chemical analysis of the composition of the Venusian atmosphere has yielded figures of 95-96% carbon dioxide, 3-4% nitrogen, with traces of oxygen, argon and methane. The same analysis for Mars returns 95.3% carbon dioxide, 2.7% nitrogen, 1.6% argon, only 0.15% oxygen and only 0.03% water. In comparison the Earth's atmosphere at present is 77% nitrogen, 21% oxygen with traces of carbon dioxide, methane and argon.

What was happening upon the Earth which enabled the maintenance of such an unlikely combination of chemical gases - specifically nitrogen and oxygen. What complex processes are at work within the terrestrial atmosphere - and have occurred for many billions of years - to explain this uniqueness? How have these processes arisen and what today maintains these processes at this equilibrium which is chemically far from equilibrium?

Why is it so?

In the late 1960's Lovelock took the first steps in answering these questions by considering the the beginnings of life upon the planet Earth. The earliest of life-forms existed in the ancient oceans and were the smallest and the simplest - less than single celled. Contemporary microbiological research points to the fact that almost 3 billion years ago, bacteria and photosynthetic algae began extracting the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen back into it. Gradually - over vast geological time spans - the atmospheric chemical content was altered away from the dominance of carbon dioxide, towards the dominance of a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen - towards an atmosphere which would favorably support organic life powered by aerobic combustion - such as animals and mankind.

How the Gaia Hypothesis was so named ...

So it was then that Dr James Lovelock, in looking for the evidence of extra-terrestrial life on Mars, observed the Earth as might an extra-terrestrial, and began to formulate a method of explanation as to why the Earth appeared therefore to be not so much a planet adorned with diverse life forms, but a planet which had been transfigured and transformed by a self-evolving and self-regulating living system. In view of the nature of this activity, Earth seemed to qualify as a living being its own right. And so the hypothesis took its initial form.

And as the story goes, while on a walk in the countryside about his home in Wilshire, England, Lovelock described his hypothesis to his neighbour William Golding (the novelist - eg: Lord of the Flies), and asked advise concerning a suitable name for it.The resultant term "Gaia" - after the Greek goddess who drew the living world forth from Chaos - was chosen.

Thus the Gaia Hypothesis was first postulated.

However, there was a big difference between postulating such a grand schemed hypothesis and having it accepted by the traditional scientific community, and there remained much research work to be done in order to be able to more clearly specify the entirety of the processes by which the modern planetary atmosphere had been evolved and was continuing to be evolved. And in this task, in the early years of his further research concerning the Gaia hypothesis, Lovelock was supported by the collaboration of Dr Lynn Margulis, a leading and forward thinking American microbiologist.

Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth - [1979]

By 1979 James Lovelock had published some of his ideas in a first book "Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth" in which the statement of the specification of the Gaia Hypothesis had become somewhat better defined. In this book we find him putting forward the postulate:

Elsewhere, in relation to the definition of Gaia we find the following:

And in another section we find speculative thoughts concerning Gaia, and one's which probably appealed to many of the readers who supported the various environmental groups, but at the same time provoked the hard-lined scientific critics of the Gaia Hypothesis:

The Gaia Hypothesis has often been described by commentators as one of the most provoking singular ideas to have been put forward in the second half of this century, and while it struggled to be formally accepted in the fields of the traditional sciences in the 1970's and early 1980's, it certainly managed to provoke its share of debate. During this period, Lovelock prepared for a second publication.

The Ages of Gaia:[1988]

A Biography of Our Living Earth

Almost a decade after having the first book prepared, and almost twenty years since initially considering the nature of the living systems which are clearly in evidence in operation within the terrestrial ecosystems, Lovelock had published a second book, entitled "The Ages of Gaia". In this we find - naturally enough - that the presentation of his ideas are more mature, researched and informed. Moreover, the interconnectedness of the all the natural terrestrial systems - not just the atmosphere - was beginning to emerge in his consideration of those original questions.

We see Lovelock evolving and refining the specification of the nature of Gaia:

Lovelock goes on to say ...

While the scientific communities continued to debate the level of acceptablity of the Gaia Hypothesis, the global and holistic perspective of the concept continued to capture the imagination of people from all walks of life. The indigenous cultures who saw the nature of earth as a sacred spirit, others who sought the "oneness" in nature, those concerned for the environment - the trees, the rivers and the oceans, and those seeking contentious and revolutionary ideas, and those seeking religious frameworks - to an increasing multicultural and multidisciplined audience the concept of the Gaia Hypothesis was nourished and supported as a New Age paradigm.

Multicellular Red Herrings flourished in the primordial seas of Gaian debate during the 1970's and 1980's [and of course still do to a large extent] and while the non-scientific applicability of the concept flourished far and wide, they tended to very much to reduce the concentration upon the primary scientific issues of the hypothesis, its analyses and the implications of these.

Largely however, these misundertandings were unavoidable in the initial statements of the specification of the hypothesis due to its intrinsic holistic nature and the scope of the global concept which it attempted to portray. Moreover, what was becoming clearer was that the concept had applicability to many disciplines and to many inter-disciplinary issues. The problem was in being specific.

Skeptics had argued (and still do) that this Gaia was teleological - that it supposed the evidence of some design or purpose in the nature of the biosphere - in particular the adminsitration thereof - and that this was contra to the accepted position of Darwinian evolutionary doctrine which supported natural selection. Dr Lynn Margulis had much to reply in this area regarding the systematics of Darwinian evolution in regard to the smallest and earliest of living things upon the earth. Yet in his research and in the above publication, Lovelock countered this argument with ecological considerations:

And then later, elsewhere in the Ages of Gaia ...

But perhaps the most popularly known counter-argument employed by Lovelock at this time (in fact in 1983) was the systematic behaviour of the theoretical planet of Daisyworld which, like the earth, maintained its global temperature reasonably constant in the face of time and the increasing energy output of its sun.


The following account of the Daisyworld is an extract from Guide to the Blue Planet by M. Bjornerud, J. Hughes and A. Baldwin, 1995. I would therefore like to expressly thank Marcia Bjornerud and the Department of Environmental Studies at Lawrence University for its original preparation:

Thus Lovelock attempted to answer the critics who perceived Gaia to be teleological. Daisyworld as depicted above is a model that shows the manner in which a homeostatic state can be maintained by individual organisms acting only in their own interests - affording the global system a reasonably constant temperature range in the face of growing solar strength.

The traditional physical earth sciences of geology, oceanography, meteorology and geography had beforehand never seriously considered or analysed the complex nature of the ecological systems abounding in their respective domains and cross-domain systems. However it is interesting to note that James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis acknowledge the geologist-physician James Hutton's concept of a living Earth as a forerunner to the Gaia hypothesis.

In fact, James Hutton (17271797), often considered to be the father of modern geoscience, authored the concept of the rock cycle, which depicts the interrelationships between igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks. The upper part of the earth (mantle, crust and surface) can be envisioned as a giant recycling machine; matter that makes up rocks is neither created nor destroyed, but is redistributed and transformed from one rock type to another. It was Hutton who suggested that the proper study of the Earth should be by "geophysiology".

Just as human physiology can be viewed as a system of interacting components (nervous, pulmonary, circulatory, endocrine systems, etc), so too can the Earth be understood as a system of four principal components (atmosphere, biosphere, geosphere, and hydrosphere). Thus we find this more holistic approach the Gaian specification being made by Lovelock's use of this term "geophysiology" for the investigations of Earth, life and ecological science. As with human physiology, it emphasizes its biological base, the perspective of the whole system, and an interest in systemic health.

In the same year (1988) that this second book was published, the debates concerning the Gaia Hypothesis within the scientific community were still in full swing, and it was therefore decided to hold a symposium in relation to this matter, at which various scientists had the opportunity of presenting papers. The collective information presented at this meeting was - three years later - to become the substance of the third book concerning the Gaia Hypothesis to which Dr James Lovelock had contributed.

Scientists on Gaia - The Symposium [1988]

And the publication Scientists on Gaia -
Edited by Stephen Schneider and Penelope Boston, MIT Press 1991.

Clearly, as was evidenced at this symposium and in the resultant publication, there existed a great range of scientific opinion on the Gaia Hypothesis - dependant upon which issue of the concept was being discussed. And this is not really surprising in consideration of the implications of the hypothesis.

Implication in short ... That the Earth could be considered a vast living system in its own right.

That such a meeting of eminent physical scientists would actually convene over the discussion of such a matter would have been inconceivable to the traditional physical scientist a mere quarter-century earlier. In fact, just over one century earlier (1882), James Clerk Maxwell, the founding father of the modern physical sciences - specifically Electromagnetic Theory - published a book entitled "Matter and Motion". Although it was written in non-technical terms for the aspiring nineteenth century "NewAge scientist", owing to its easy presentation, clarity and methodical exposition of the contemporary body of scientific knowledge, it was to become one of the standard texts for all future physical scientists - students and professors alike. The very first article of the introduction is as follows:

And yet here in 1988, a group of geophysical scientists convene a meeting over the Gaia Hypothesis - the hypothesis which implies that the Earth may be considered as a vast living system.

This would have been inconceivable - only prior to the time of space-flight. As a direct consequence of space flight - and through the technology of computerised image communications - for the first time in his generic history, man was able to physically perceive his native global terrestrial home from an extra-terrestrial vantage point.

And if it was not the early pictures of the earth which captured the attention of the planetary inhabitants, then it was the time in the year of 1969 when the Eagle landed on the moon.

As a result of this symposium of 1988, while it was still clear that the Gaia Hypothesis was not accepted by many of the contemporary peers of Lovelock, it was equally clear that there was growing support from the non-scientific members of the global community. While the scientific community's consideration of the Gaia Hypothesis was being readied for entry into its second decade of debate, the holistic ontology which it represented was eagerly applied to an extremely wide spectrum of ecological and environmental sciences, social sciences, intellectual and philosophical movements and other not-specifically-intellectual reforms which collectively grouped themselves - as a spectrum of humanity through the prism of Gaia - as "New Age".

Certain claims concerning the Gaia Hypothesis could not be refuted - in particlular the claim that the biota has a substantial influence over certain aspects of the abiotic world. We thus find Lovelock confident enough with the Gaia Hypothesis to the extent that he puts it forward - not as a hypothesis - but as the Gaia Theory:

Quite clearly, for many scientists - feet firmly planted upon Earth - who were immediately unprepared to relinquish the traditional scientific methodology, there were many flaws in Lovelock's arguments. However, it also became evident at this symposium (Scientists on Gaia) that the Gaia Hypothesis presented not just one but a range previously unrelated issues concerning the complex nature of the global ecology.

This important point was addressed by James Kirchner (UC Berkeley). His contructive criticism was that the Gaia Hypothesis may be better viewed as a collection of related hypotheses, which could be classified within a spectrum from weak Gaia (which related to the known evidence of biochemical cycles) to strong (as a form of global physiology). Hence the polarization of pro- vs. anti-Gaia scientists is unnecessary and unproductive. His preparation of this analysis was well received by other critics as a suitable working definition of terms, has been since commonly quoted in internet FAQ's relating to Gaia, and is set out below:

Kirchner's Spectrum of Gaian Hypotheses ... from Weak to Strong

Showing an approximate indication of the measure of support from the scientific community
The HypothesesThe specification of the hypothesesSTATUS
INFLUENTIALThe biota has a substantial influence
over certain aspects of the abiotic world.
CO-EVOLUTIONARYThe biota influences the abiotic environment,
and the latter influences the evolution of
the biota by Darwinian processes.
HOMEOSTATICThe interplay between biota and environment is
characterized by stabilizing negative feedback loops.
TELEOLOGICALThe atmosphere is kept in homeostasis
not just by the biosphere, but in
some sense _for_ the biosphere.
OPTIMIZINGThe biota manipulates its environment for the purpose
of creating biologically favorable conditions for itself.

James W. Kirchner went on to publish further critique in his article "The Gaia hypothesis: can it be tested?" in Reviews of Geophysics 27:2, 223-235, 1989. In fact there is much traditional resistance to Gaia simply because it is claimed that it is not a scientific hypothesis in the Popperian sense as it cannot be falsified. On the other hand there are those who would argue that the Popperian definition implies the methodology of reductionism, and that reductionism may not be able to fully define the quintessence of extremely complex and inter-connected systems.

In response to such criticism Lovelock writes:

In conclusion to this section relating to the debate and development of acceptance of issues relating to Gaia during this 1988 Symposium, presentation of papers and their later publication in a book entitled "Scientists on Gaia" by Stephen Schneider and Penelope Boston (MIT Press). The following extract provides a summarisation of the development of the Gaia Hypothesis as at the 1990's and attempts to delineate the relationship between it and the traditional doctrinal stream which has been named Earth System Science:

Clearly however, the new insights of global environmental and ecological modelling afforded by the Gaia Hypothesis, now Theory, by Lovelock and Margulis were beginning to open up an entirely new range of research projects, experimental programs and inter-disciplinary areas which beforehand were inconceivable to the structure of the traditional physical sciences.

In the closing years of the 1980's and through the 1990's many such new research areas were to be formally chartered, and it is not within the scope of this document to specify them all. However, it is perhaps interesting to see an example, and the following brief account, given by Richard H. Gammon at Harvard University, concerns the specification of "geophysiology":

Such it was then, that at the closing years of the 1980's, although the Gaia hypothesis was still being debated from various traditional scientific disciplinarian viewpoints, the concept itself had promulgated a renewed research into the global (extra-terrestrial) perspective of the living and the non-living terrestrial systems. The seed of ideas and research which in the past, prior to space flight and the Gaia Hypothesis, had fallen through the cracks of the floor of the tradional scientific structures, were now being caught in the newly spun networking of emergent inter-disciplinary scientific fields, and were flourishing.

James Lovelock - and the Gaia Theory - the 1990's

To conclude this section on the presentation of the Gaia Theory and its development, I would present two more recent quotations from the continuing work by Lovelock in the publication of his ideas. The first is to be found in a book by the author Christian de Duve, entitled "Vital Dust: A Cosmic Imperative" - Models assembled from spare parts in review of which Lovelock comments:

Further in this review, and concerning the microbiological research results which had been so supportive (in the work of Dr Lynn Margulis) of the Gaia Hypothesis and Theory, Lovelock acknowledges the ground breaking work of that field of science. Clearly, the advent of means whereby the behaviour of extremely complex systems may be analysed - via data processing machinery - has assisted scientific understanding in many fields, no less in the fields of the Life Sciences.

In 1989, James Lovelock prepared the Forward to a work by the writer Elisabet Sahtouris entitled Earthdance: Living Systems in Evolution. Recently, the entirety of the work has been made available on the web, with the author's invocation of To my planet and its people, and the following continuation of Lovelock's thoughts have been extracted and are presented:

Conclusion of Section 2: Dr James Lovelock:
Formulation of the Gaia Hypothesis

Section 3 ... Dr Lynn Margulis


The Gaia

proposed by

Dr. James Lovelock

in collaboration with

Dr. Lynn Margulis

"Giants of Gaia" - Diana Stanley

Section 2: Dr James Lovelock:
Formulation of the Gaia Hypothesis

Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia in the Southern Autumn of 1996