Evolution is a tightly coupled dance, with life and the material environment as partners. From the dance emerges the entity Gaia.
- James Lovelock
The more objectively you look at life on planet Earth, the easier it is to allow what you see and understand to persuade you that we’ve lost our way. This becomes particularly apparent when you look at the many ways in which recent human activity has impacted plants and animals. The general acceptance that managing human health using chemistries that have never existed at any point during human evolution is a similar case in point.
It was an extreme form of objectivity view that allowed the British scientist and subsequent environmentalist, James Lovelock, to develop the Gaia theory, a notion that has, in many circles, become synonymous with his name. After developing an international reputation for developing highly sensitive, compact devices for measuring atmospheric gases in the 1950s, Lovelock’s expertise was exported to the US in the late to help in the space race against the Soviets. While in the employ of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA, helping to develop instrumentation that would assist the American quest to detect life on Mars, Lovelock became convinced that the equilibrium state of gases in Mars’ atmosphere meant there was no likelihood of life being present. He was of course later proven right.
Dr James Lovelock, architect of the Gaia Hypothesis
It is the way in which living organisms appear to manipulate their environment for the benefit of life on Earth, so creating stable conditions favourable to life, that really caught Lovelock’s attention. His ideas were so revolutionary because ecologists, based on theories of giants in the field of evolutionary biology like John Maynard Smith, widely viewed life as evolving to adapt to a changing environment. Lovelock coupled two processes, suggesting that life regulates the environment and evolves in the process — as part of the same system. Initial focus was particularly on the regulation of the environment for life, specifically things like global temperatures, atmospheric gas concentrations, and ocean salinity and pH. Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis.
He proposed that it was the regulation of the environment by life on Earth, living things acting in a connected way, yet seemingly unconsciously, through a cybernetic feedback system. When Lovelock first proposed the Gaia hypothesis, named after the ancient Greek goddess and personification of Earth, he was ridiculed, but as various elements of the hypothesis were put to scientific tests, the hypothesis grew in stature. Today, it is widely considered the Gaia theory or principle, having lost the tag of hypothesis.
In fact, if one is prepared to lose the Gaia tag, and use the less controversial Earth System tag, one can quite easily consider the Gaia theory to have traversed from the theoretical domain to the generally accepted, proven science domain. How do we jump to this conclusion? The scientific communities of four international global change research programmes, in the form of the Amsterdam Declaration on Global Change, accept the basic premise of Gaia. The declaration tells us this much in its first bullet point:
The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components.
It has been Lovelock’s unashamed objectivity, even today in his 93rd year of life, that has also meant that some of his other ideas have been challenged by the very people that were among the first to accept the significance of the Gaia theory. His despise of wind power and his support for nuclear fission, are among his views that are born out of objectivity. But like with so many areas of science, Lovelock’s views are only as good as the data to which he has available to him. From his non-anthropocentric viewpoint, wouldn’t Lovelock’s view about nuclear fission, for example, change rapidly if another, very much safer form of nuclear energy became available, such as muon-catalysed fusion was on the energy-generating options list? I sense, Lovelock would be among the first to support such technologies once validated and demonstrated to be commercially viable.
Lovelock remains passionate about the way in which human activity is damaging the planet. He regards human–induced climate change as one of the single greatest challenges for life on Earth, especially humanity. Gaia, the super-organism, will respond, or is responding, claims Lovelock, but not necessarily in the time frame we might like or expect, and certainly not by putting human interest at the top of its priority list. Looking at the issue objectively, why would Gaia work preferentially to preserve one species out of many million, when this one species is causing so much damage to her face?
Bateson, another multi-disciplinary whole-system thinker
It would be remiss to suggest Lovelock is one of the only scientists to have applied a strongly objective, multi-disciplinary view on the interconnectedness of life and its mutualistic function. In a very different vein, Gregory Bateson, the British-born, naturalised American 20th century anthropologist, was another important whole-system thinker. He saw life on Earth as being divided into three interconnected systems containing individuals, societies and ecosystems. Like Lovelock, Bateson posed the central importance of homeostasis to the survival and evolution of the whole system, also suggesting that living things worked together to regulate their environment for their own benefit. A much-lauded documentary on Bateson, An Ecology of Mind, seen from the perspective of his daughter, has recently been released and is a must-see for Batesonistas.
The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.
- Gregory Bateson
Applying the Gaia principle to the human healthcare crisis
Now, let’s cut to the chase. I hope I’ve given enough background in the preceding section for those of you who are less familiar with Lovelock’s Gaia theory, and for those already familiar, this is where you need to stop speed reading.
I can see three distinct scenarios that could be posed if the Gaia principle is applied to humans and human health. Speaking personally as a representative of the human species, I should add that the first two don’t make me feel particularly comfortable. However, I’ll happily play and continue to play a part in one of the myriad of cybernetic feedback loops within Scenario 3.
Scenario 1: Damage limitation/species elimination strategy. Gaia, the super-organism, has been looking after itself rather well for over 4 billion years. It has previously handled catastrophic events, such as asteroid strikes and massive volcanic activity. Life has persisted since it evolved on, or was introduced to, the Earth’s crust around 3 billion years ago [http://www.livescience.com/13363-7-theories-origin-life.html]. Now it must deal with change brought upon it by a single species. It has become abundantly clear that that one species, Homo sapiens sapiens, has the capacity to alter the environment in many ways that are to the detriment of the millions of other species, and it is not inconceivable that the best option for mitigating the problem is eliminating the species that is the principle cause of these imbalances.
This scenario presents many of us with an interesting predicament. Could it be that Gaia is working in cahoots with Big Pharma, pharmaceutical-dependent medicine, Big Food, Big Biotech and other technological spin-offs that currently present the greatest single risk to human health? Put simply: Is a genocide agenda, a Gaian agenda?
Scenario 2: Resource limitation/reproductive strategy. Some of the biggest opponents of Lovelock’s theory have been linear, reductionist scientists in the ilk of Richard Dawkins, a long-time opponent of ‘alternative’ medicine. One of Dawkins’ key points of rejection of Lovelock’s theory rests with the fact that the biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) components on the Earth’s crust cannot act as a super-organism, because the Earth lacks the capability to reproduce. Lovelock has rebutted this view by saying that the Earth hasn’t demonstrated an inability to reproduce, rather it has had no reason to reproduce thus far. Lovelock has also argued that human interest in colonisation of other planets, along with the theoretical capacity for humans to act as the primer for such reproduction, means Gaian reproduction can’t be ruled out. With the rapid destruction of resources on the planet, the signal for such reproduction and dispersal increases much in the way that a grazing animal moves on to new pastures when the original pasture is laid bare. From this standpoint, is the current human population crisis and ecological damage on Earth a precursor, actually mediated by Gaia, in preparation for its own reproduction?
Scenario 3: Steady state strategy. Let’s now look at a scenario that is just as true to Gaian principles as the previous two. In this scenario, we have a species that re-asserts itself as a part of an interconnected community that works in the interest of other life forms, and assists in the regulation of a favourable environment for life. Where there are destructive elements at work within particular human communities, other humans become part of the cybernetic feedback system to help bring these damaging activities into balance. The environmental and natural health movements can perhaps be seen in this light. It is only with this scenario, that viable and effective methods of human healthcare are relevant, because in the other scenarios, especially the first, damage to human health is a driving force in the evolutionary process.
It goes without saying, in this third scenario, that low-energy, low-input, natural, ecologically-based approaches to healthcare will be preferred as they allow the body to function harmoniously both in tandem with and as a component of the super-organism. In such systems, the kind of risk/benefits that are widely accepted in orthodox medicine, such as cancer chemotherapy, would simply not be tolerated. It is interesting then, that many people already have a natural revulsion towards such treatments, this perhaps being a reflection of a Gaian influence.
It’s our choice
I will leave it to the reader to decide which of these scenarios appeals most. I personally feel that we have a choice, and Gaia probably doesn’t care too much which road we choose. But I do feel, should we choose Scenario 3, the Greek Goddess might give us a little wink of the eye, acknowledging that our actions have bought us a little more time to enjoy the fruits of life available to us on this fantastic planet we call Earth.