Lovelock and Gaia – a love lost?
James Lovelock named his autobiography “Homage to Gaia” and so continued the process whereby the theory has been clouded in controversy, scorn and ridicule. The naming was not even his, but was chosen by his friend and neighbour the late William Golding, he of “Lord of the Flies” fame. That is to say he wrote the again rather notorious book where an unlikely plane crash left a pack of young teenaged boys to survive on a desert island with a range of unsavoury outcomes. “Kill the pig” and all that.
So, when asked by James what he thought of the “living Earth” hypothesis, well read William came up with the classical Greek reference for the mother of all the Gods, and so effectively all life, the most powerful, bountiful and, frankly, rather unrestrained goddess Gaia as a handle for it. Thus Lovelock then went on to publicise and enthuse about his theory having had it deified by William Golding. Oh dear, boys will be boys and don’t that bring about trouble!?
You see the theory is, of course, merely the vocalisation of a plainly obvious extension of the principle of “Dynamic Equilibrium” which governs all ecosystems. Every school biology course in its ecology section will look at relationships between species. A favourite is the closed area with grazing rabbits and predatory foxes. One year there’s a super effective hunt allowed into the area and all the foxes are killed. Brutal but the rabbits are pretty cool about it. They go on to do what rabbits do and rapidly reproduce and soon there’s a whole host of them, chewing every blade of grass right down to the ground. Yes, you can take the story on from here and so easily kill off all the bunnies, too!
Because what really happens is that as foxes decline, rabbits increase, yes, but the system is not usually closed. So new foxes colonise readily, there being so much food. Rabbits decline and so foxes roam away or simply die. Good summer, more grass, more rabbits, happy foxes. Ebb and flow.
I apologise for labouring that point but it is the essence of Gaism. There are extra dimensions to include, though, and one is the physical and chemical nature of the environment and how that changes to encourage the maintenance of life. The other is how a system like this came about – without the good hand of the Goddess up there on mount Olympus! We cannot seek to install a reason for it’s happening but we can endeavour to explain why it has occurred.
You see, Lovelock is a chemist by inclination and from the bulk of his life’s work. A profoundly inventive, practical mind, he always knew the benefits of clear measurement and finding new perspectives on matters. Although he worked in medical research – as a chemist – for many years one senses he was always straining at the leash and so much preferred to set his own agenda and approach a problem in his own, personal manner.
He became a contract chemical scientist and was taken on by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the United States, who were then looking to visit the Moon and Mars. This led to sundry discussion sessions about how they should look for life.
“Suddenly, as a revelation, I saw the Earth as a living planet. The quest to know and understand our planet as one that behaves like something alive, and has kept home for us, has been the Grail that has beckoned me ever since”.
And, further: “The intuition that the Earth controls its surface and atmosphere to keep the environment always benign for life…..”
are quotes from his chapter “The quest for Gaia” and show how the idea worked and still works for him.
He was clearly ripe, in his thinking, for Golding’s classical reference but methinks it took him too far and so spoils a useful presentation of a very valid perspective. Groups were established, generally not from the “scientific authodoxy” looking for evidence to support the hypothesis but, of course, supposed sightings of the goddess were looked for in media coverage, bedecked with voluptuous illustrations of the bountiful icon of adulation.
Lovelock of course wanted scientific measurements and so looked to chemistry to support his otherwise increasingly romanticised notion. Here, he felt on safe ground. He recounts several such systems but seems most satisfied with work which tied marine algae to modifications of atmospheric conditions which could allow or, indeed, disallow cloud formation. You see he was able to measure chemistry here – methyl sulphides produced by phytoplankton and other marine algae.
The data were worked up by a team into the “CLAW” hypothesis – using individuals’ initials for the name – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CLAW_hypothesis
and published in Nature – http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1987Natur.326..655C.
They thus composed schema for homeostatic feedback loops, much as for foxes and rabbits, only here based on interrelationships between biology, ocean and atmospheric chemistry, climate and overall insolation. And always, running through his description is an element of planning, even of design although as by some collaborative committee composed of, well, Gaia knows who!
Lovelock attempts to draw back from this. “If they reject the name Gaia then maybe it should be called Earth System Science” where “it” is “Earth’s capacity to regulate the planet”. That’s “adjust as required” and “control” by my dictionary. Why James, why? Because She wants to?
Personally I feel there is an innate logic but it is wholly counter to Lovelock’s earlier stipulations regarding detection of life systems. When discussing the detection of signs of life on distant planets – specifically Mars, in this instance, but later generalised – he came upon an application of thermodynamics. “We should search for increased order, reduced entropy. Because “entropy, like temperature, can be measured precisely, and it indicates the degree of disorganisation of a system.” Then he devised experiments to search for this increased order.
[In this book at this point he wrote the unforgiveable: “Plants breathe out oxygen, which, to them is a waste product”. Of course they don’t, as, just like us, their respiration consumes oxygen. It is the photosynthetic process, not “breathing out”, which generates oxygen as a by-product. Plants use oxygen 24/7 just like us and similarly produce carbon dioxide at the same time.]
But still the investigations were valid. Complex hydrocarbons, repeated, would indicate life and not random-chemistry-debris of, say, meteor strikes. Atmospheric composition could also have a fingerprint of non-random association which would indicate the distortions resultant from life’s existence on the planet. All quite logical ecology, really.
But there’s an imprint on him in this – life equals order – which is wholly wrong, as it does not. Life is just slow release chaos resulting, always, in increased entropy and further dissipation of energy. The story of life on Earth is one of constant dissipation of energy and not one of ever increasing order. We are maybe as a waterwheel placed in a flowing river – we draw off and apply differently a small fraction of the system’s energy flow. But it is still always all used up. And the entropy of the Universe expanded a wee, tiny bit.
So life follows the laws of thermodynamics and, having initially been injected activation energy, always releases whatever is first put in. Perhaps, also, life increases other flows and releases trapped, static, potential energies? So the redox cycles of nitrogen, carbon and sulphur, so the weathering of rocks but mostly we are describing the dispersion of solar radiation input to the planet. Far from coming from the Earth, Gaia is in essence heliocentred and the physical Earth at best a catalyst.
Yes, Earth is a “heavily subsidised” ecosystem, constantly bathed in countless megajoules of sunlight. Over four billion years this has been the backdrop to changes from the red hot molten mass (See “Fantasia!”) to the seeming intense cold periods, such as of “Snowball Earth” prior to the “Cambrian Explosion” era or recent relatively minor (!) ice ages. Life has proliferated, been practically annihilated and adapted to a wide range of circumstances. Probably no life today could survive in some of those earlier climes, yet all life’s diversity today results from progress through species which equally could not survive today – Stromatolites, in form anyway, being the exception to prove the rule!
Life has so far been able to follow all the fluctuations. We’ve had the time and the damage has never been too harsh. Once, it seems, the oceans’ pH/oxygen content altered almost decimating all marine life. At the end Cretaceous the opposite was true and the bias was towards the extinction of terrestrial – especially animal – especially dinosaur! – species. Was this Gaia’s caring influence which saved any terrestrial life or simply chance?
Point is that, just as the rabbits prosper after the hunt’s been through, so whatever’s left will go on to repair the system if they find themselves in duress. And this is as true for chemistry and physics as it is for biology. If life pulls a chemical system out of its abiotic balance and the life is removed then the abiotic balance will be restored.
And, frankly, if things had ever gone too far? Well, we wouldn’t know, would we? Show me your controls, Jamie, show me your controls!