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  • Why Gaia?
  • Massimo Pigliucci (bio)
The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet, Michael Ruse, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 272 pages.

The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet tells a story that comes out of the 1960s, a story that reflects all of the beliefs and enthusiasms and tensions of that decade.” So begins Michael Ruse’s fascinating, if at times puzzling, exploration of James Lovelock’s famous idea that our planet is, in a serious scientific sense, a living organism with a tendency of taking care of (her)self. But why tell this particular story, especially considering that Gaia hardly makes an appearance in today’s scientific or philosophical publications, and doesn’t even seem quite that popular with the lay public as it used to be? Because, as Ruse tells us near the end of the book, at the onset of chapter seven: “the paradox that set us on our path [is] why the scientific community reacted so negatively to the Gaia hypothesis, whereas the public reaction was so positive.”

As it turns out, there is a good answer to that conundrum, one that Ruse himself lays out clearly in the last chapter of the book, and which makes the reader wonder why this should count a paradox at all. But we will get there in due time. First, the basics: the so-called Gaia hypothesis is the brainchild of iconoclastic inventor-turned-independent-scientist James Lovelock, who later got significant help in elaborating (and promoting) his ideas from another iconoclast, biologist Lynn Margulis. By the time you get to the end of Ruse’s engaging book, however, you won’t have gained a particularly good understanding of what the hypothesis actually consists. But that’s not Ruse’s fault, it is Lovelock’s (and Margulis’). At times it sounds like the entirely uncontroversial claim that the Earth’s [End Page 117] biosphere is a somewhat homeostatic system—i.e., a biophysical system that is resistant to major changes, at the least within a certain range (the planet’s atmosphere, after all, did change dramatically early on, increasing its oxygen content as a result of the evolution of photosynthetic organisms—the anaerobic life forms that had up to that point been dominant did not appreciate the novelty). At other times the claim is downright preposterous: the Earth literally is a living organism (according to Lovelock) (Chapter 7),1 a finding that allegedly puts in question the whole Darwinian view of biological evolution (according to Margulis) (Chapter 7), a position that can only be characterized as nonsense on stilts. At yet other moments, Gaia is presented as just a metaphor to help us wrap our minds around the complexities (and homeostatic properties) of the world’s ecosystems (Chapter 8). It is this never-ending oscillation between the trivial and the bizarre that has led the majority of scientists to write off Gaia, to the chagrin of Lovelock, Margulis, and a large number of New Age tree huggers from the 1960s.

Indeed, the scientific reaction to Gaia was swift and ranging from the condescending to the unforgiving. Evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith—never one to mince words—called it “an evil religion” (Chapter 2). Another evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould (whose own disagreements with Maynard Smith became legendary) said that “Gaia strikes me as a metaphor, not a mechanism” (Chapter 2). Ecologist Robert May, who eventually became president of the Royal Society, called Lovelock “a holy fool” (Chapter 2). The highly respected theoretical biologist W.D. Hamilton said that in order for the hypothesis to work, it would require “treaties between Neptune and Zeus, a Gaian Interpol, conventions about bills of lading for chemical transport by air and water, and so on” (Chapter 7). Finally, Richard Dawkins accused Lovelock of committing the fallacy of “the BBC theorem,” assuming (or wishfully thinking) that the world is a harmonious place, just like in naive BBC nature documentaries (Chapter 2).

You get the gist: pretty much from the beginning, and with very few exceptions, the scientific establishment rejected Gaia on the grounds that it is not a scientific hypothesis at all, and that its main tenets actually go against pretty...


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pp. 117-124
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