Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Gaia Hypothesis: systems approach, religious connection, new age
Breton Paolella & Mark Sanders


Summary by Alicia Ballok:


The presenters introduced the Gaia hypothesis by starting with its creator. “The earth is a group of interdependent organisms and environmental systems that function together as a single self-regulating organism”, was a theory proposed by James Lovelock in the mid 70’s. Lovelock was a trained scientist who worked for NASA on early life detection. This work focused on atmospheres and oceans as depositories for metabolic waste. He believed that life is not going to live in cracks or crevices unless it is at the beginning or the end. This theory was not favored by his colleagues.

They then moved on to show similarities between a cell and earth:

          • Outer membrane = Ozone because it is a selective barrier
          • Cytosol = Atmosphere because it is always at a state of equilibrium
          • Metabolism = Climate zones, H2O cycle and carbon cycle act as sources of energy
          • Cellular skeleton = Crust because it offers support

They restated the requirements of life given in Dr. Davis’s lecture; “Life needs order, sensitivity, growth, regulation and homeostasis”, and proposed that the moon forming from the earth could be a kind of growth.

Brent Paolella and Mark Sanders claimed that it is possible for earth to be a living system without its components being aware of it. They used a “Daisy World” example. This example was that if there were a planet just like earth with more land and the only life was daisies that ranged from black to white, the first daisies would be black and inhabit the equator. Over time, the black daisies would move toward the poles and the planet would heat up. As the radiation received by the planet increased, the color of the daisies selected for would gradually become lighter until they were all white. The color shift reaction of the daises, they claimed, would extend the amount of time the ambient temperature was constant and therefore extend the amount of time that the planet was habitable three fold. Mark, referring back to the Cell analogy, emphasized that the components of a cell are not aware they are maintaining the cell they are part of.

A question was posed; if we can’t live without the earth, can the earth live without us? And we were asked to think of “living” as continuing to live in a state of nonequilibrium with the outer environment. Mark and Brent went on to clarify that in order for earth to be alive that it does not have to stay the way it is now (current atmospheric conditions and so on) it just has to reach another form of homeostasis after a disturbance. For example, when a meteor hit the earth it killed much of the life on earth (dinosaurs) but this allowed small mammals to evolve and become dominant species. One of the students in the class wondered if cloud production in response to global warming was analogous to the immune system response of our body.

The discussion direction changed to incorporate human life into the equation.
Some very interesting and controversial questions were posed. The first question posed was, “Is life parasitic?” (harmful to earth). Dr. Whittier believes that the human race is unquestionably a cancer on this planet and all other viewpoints are “cockamamie”. Most people agreed that life in general is not parasitic to earth. The next question posed was, “What is the human race’s niche?” Dr. Whittier believes that the human race is unquestionably a cancer on this planet and all other viewpoints are “cockamamie”. It was also hypothesized that we may just be a “super competitor” and that our rise is natural. This led to a side discussion of what is “natural”. It was said that all living organisms have cycles of life. There is a sigmoidal structure to population sizes (they increase and decrease according to resource availability and predation)(fox and rabbit example). Currently, humans have not been on this planet long enough to know if our existence is just like all of the other organisms. Dr. Davis referenced a book by Arthur C. Clark where the humans transform into a species that can leave the planet and the earth just acted like a placenta for human development.

The question, “Would earth be a better place without the human race?”, was raised. It was agreed upon that people’s view of a better planet always involves the human race. Most of the class felt that because we have higher thinking and technology that humans are a class of their own. When did we surpass other creatures? Was it when we developed tools or became agrarian? We wondered if that meant that we were supposed to be protectors of the world as it is or if it does not matter. The Japanese are killing all of the whales, and there is the issue of global warming and humans are polluting the earth. We feel badly about this because we do feel a responsibility for the earth. We help the earth because it makes us feel better about ourselves.

Mark and Brent feel that if we define earth as a living organism, it will be easier for us to see our wrongdoing and harder to ignore the problem. We would try harder to preserve the planet. They feel that the change in viewpoint may change the response to ecological issues. Others tended to disagree. Those, such as Dr. Davis, felt that the treatment for an ecological problem would be the same. It is hard to believe that the extremely religious would ever buy into this viewpoint because they fell that god will give them salvation therefore they need not worry about earth’s state.

The focus turned back outward. One person was curious if the whole earth is an organism, is the entire galaxy an organism and so on. Mark seemed to believe that the answer was no “because there is not enough disequilibrium”(difference in conditions between object’s internal state and it’s surroundings). Brent felt that the answer was yes. Another question was: If the earth is alive then are the organisms in it still alive? This related back to the cell comparison and the answer was yes. Dr. Davis used cells in the bloodstream as an example of living things in a nonliving environment, inside a living organism. One person wondered if the other planets were alive. Mark believed that “once the planet creates a favorable environment for life against the normal state it is alive”. The earth will cease to be alive once the sun expands over the earth.

In the end it was clear that most people did not agree with the Gaia hypothesis but thought it would be a useful tool for environmentalists.