The Gaia hypothesis suggests that the earth is a single complex organisms composed of both living and nonliving parts. This hypothesis was named after the Greek goddess of the earth. It postulates that every living creature on earth has an effect that can promote life over all.
The independent research scientist Dr. James Lovelock first formulated the Gaia hypothesis in the 1960s. Initially he sought to explain why certain chemicals, like oxygen and methane, persist in the atmosphere in stable concentrations. Likewise, creatures of the sea produce sulfur and iodine – and produce it in quantities needed by land creatures. This equilibrium led him to see the Earth as a self-regulating system.
Supporters believe that the entire biomass regulates conditions on the earth so that the physical environment can support various species which make up its “life”. Scientists have observed similar behavior. For example, when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rise, plants grow to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It is unknown how this system developed. The extent to which these systems work to control the climate is unknown.
The Gaia hypothesis has been strongly ridiculed by a number of scientists, who see it as a new age approach to science. Perhaps the strongest reputation comes from those who deny that organisms could act together without the ability to foresee events and plan for the future.
Perhaps the strongest argument against the idea of birth as a “living” organism is the fact that the planet has not reproduced. The empirical definition of life includes the ability to reproduce and pass traits onto successive generations. Clearly, the Earth is incapable of this. However, Lovelock defines life as a member of feedback loops. After all, life refers not only to a human being, but to each cell and organ in that person. In bee society, only the Queen reproduces, yet clearly the other bees are alive. Over the past two decades, scientists have worked hard to try and resolve some of these paradoxes.
As humans destroy the rain forest and reduce biodiversity, we are testing Mother Earth’s ability to eliminate greenhouse gases. More plants are needed, yet we continue to cut them down. The warming of the planet and the oceans are affecting other species in ways that we can only now beginning to understand. According to Lovelock, this will lead to the earth becoming uninhabitable for all life forms, including humans, by the middle of the next century. Tropical deserts will expand, and civilization will be heavily affected.
Today, Dr. James Lovelock continues to press for change. Still, he views renewable energy and sustainable development as advances that appeared “200 years too late”. His only hope now is that most humans will survive, “culled and, I hope, refined.”