Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Gaia Hypothesis, Lead: Gita George, Shayle Reed, Dan Vorosmarty


Summary by Mike Battles:


Gaia Hypothesis: Systems Approach, Religious Connection, New Age

The structure of the class appropriately reflected the topic, in that the class was split up into three groups with each presenter rotating between the groups. After each group had seen each presenter and had time to discuss each topic, the class reassembled into the usual discussion circle.

The first of the three presenters for my group was Gita with Gaia Hypothesis. The discussion started off with an explanation of the theory, which is as follows. In its most basic form, Gaia hypothesis says that the Earth as a whole should be considered a living organism. All forms of life together form a complex interlocked ecosystem that works to maintain a dynamic equilibrium that will maintain the conditions necessary for life. Citing James Lovelock’s work in this field, she gave some evidence supporting the theory, namely that the surface temperature of the planet has stayed constant since the beginnings of life despite the fact that heat from the sun has increased roughly 25%. Without living homeostatic feedback loops, the climate and atmosphere could not stay so constant. Life is an open system able to maintain internal entropy by taking in material and energy and expelling material and energy. Forces of change on the biosphere would drift to higher entropy states without life’s homeostatic properties. Professor Mobius asked the question, “is the theory redundant?” You cannot prove a theory in and of itself, but you can test it; yet the Gaia hypothesis seems to provide no model that could be used to predict and test anything. This line of discussion led to Occam’s razor and whether or not Gaia theory is even necessary, or more pointedly, what can be gained from this understanding?

The second of the presenters for my group was Shayle. Her presentation concentrated on the religious basis for the Gaia hypothesis and somewhat also for system theory. The “three fold hypothesis” posits that things in systems repeat in threes. In most major religions, the number three holds special significance. In the Wiccan religion, the idea of child, mother, and crone is based in an idea of trinity, representing the three phases in the life of a woman. Other examples of this are the Holy Trinity in Catholicism, and the winter, spring, harvest theme present in many older religions. The Greek religion worshipped Gaia as the Earth Goddess and source of life. It was discussed whether or not Gaia could be considered the equivalent of a monotheistic intelligent creator.

The last of the presenters was Dan, with system theory. A basic definition for system theory is that it looks for principles of function common to parts of different systems, rather than details of the nature of those parts. The function of the parts and their role in the overall system is more important than the parts themselves. By concentrating on the function of the parts and how they interact with each other, similarities between systems of varying scale and composition can be discovered. In a sense, this is anti-reductionist. To connect system theory more closely with Gaia theory, Dan explained living system theory. This theory is about transcendence of scale through systems that are considered to be alive. In the “Global Brain” reading, there was a table showing 19 subsystems that are common to living systems from the cellular level all the way up to the international level. Fractal theory was also discussed, because geometric fractals exhibit the property of self-similarity. At different scale levels, a fractal such as the Mandelbrot set will exhibit the same basic shape. Upon closer inspection, this shape is found to have parts constituting it that are radically different than parts from other instances of the same shape. Because every point in a fractal is calculated using the same underlying equation, the fractal itself reflects this in its infinite self-similarity of the whole coupled with infinite dissimilarity of the parts. More specifically, a fractal is calculated by each output of the equation being plugged back into the equation as input. This suggests a feedback mechanism, much like the feedback mechanisms in Gaia theory. Through feedback, simple sets of instructions and simple initial conditions can exhibit great complexity and unpredictability. Some questions raised were: What can this understanding tell us about a given system? Is it possible to derive the underlying “equation” by looking at dynamic feedback or a complex system? Can a set of rules later create a new set of rules (do systems always feedback through the same “equation”)?

The class now reassembled as a whole for discussion. The question of the usefulness of the Gaia hypothesis was again addressed. It was suggested that one use might be as an ethical guide for human behavior towards nature. What are the implications for humans if the Earth is a living thing? Did Lovelock intend any ethical considerations to be derived from his theory? This dialogue centered on the role of viruses and how they could possibly be part of the feedback mechanisms that maintain homeostasis in Gaia. It was suggested that viruses could be a type of immune system to get rid of species that act in a cancerous or out of balance manner. Does this suggest that Gaia has awareness and is goal directed? With humanity’s current degree of technological advancement, the question of our role on Earth in relation to Gaia would suggest that either we are disrupting the homeostasis, or we are destined to control it ourselves.