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Gaia Hypothesis

  As the name Gaia is understood today, it is the translation into modern ecological myth of the concept of the ancient goddess Mother Earth (known in Greek as Gaia or Ge as in ‘geology’). According to the Greek writer Hesiod (8th century  BCE), Gaia was the mother or grandmother of Zeus, and his rule depended on her consent. Modern anthropologists think that this idea may be a recollection of the mother goddess who lies in the prehistory of many ancient religions—and perhaps it is the subconscious recollection of this which gives the modern ‘theology’ of Gaia its appeal to ecologists, feminists, New Age mystics and others.

The Gaia hypothesis was proposed by James Lovelock in 1972. It suggests that the whole Earth functions as a living being and that the biota regulate the atmosphere, oceans and crust to sustain conditions ideal for life. Gaia is at least 3.6 billion years old, and living things and physical conditions have evolved together. Lovelock began to develop this idea when working for NASA as part of a team designing equipment to seek life on Mars. He realized that the composition of the atmosphere was the most obvious sign of life on Earth, and concluded that since the Martian atmosphere was close to chemical equilibrium, this proved that life was absent—a conclusion later confirmed by the two Viking spacecrafts.

The Gaia hypothesis makes an attractive contrast to a mechanistic view of the universe, in which human beings analyse a ‘dead’, objectified universe, compartmentalize it and superimpose their will on it. Refinements and criticisms of the concept have produced ideas of a thermodynamic pathway regulating all things. There are various theories as to what the regulatory mechanism is: is it perhaps just ‘life’ itself? Sometimes it sounds similar to ‘divine providence’, and indeed one is reminded of the ‘Paley\'s watch’ theory of the nature of the universe, governed by laws and free from divine interference.

The problem is that although a number of dedicated biologists have produced data to support the hypothesis, there is no way of testing it as one cannot test the planet from outside the system. Some biologists, while accepting that the biosphere does have feedback mechanisms which affect atmospheric composition and temperatures, criticize Lovelock for overemphasizing the role of living things, for theorizing too far ahead of the evidence, and for implying that Gaia is teleological. He responds by demonstrating simple mechanisms which could automatically counter fluctuations in solar radiation, and by insisting that the purpose of a hypothesis is to stimulate investigation rather than to follow it. For theologians, another difficulty is that the Gaia concept leaves no room for moral choice: Gaia is neutral, simply a living organism. If humankind persists in excessive disruption, Gaia will eliminate the source of the trouble; if humankind destroys itself (for example in a nuclear holocaust), Gaia will continue unconcerned. This is an assertion of exactly the same kind as the religious believer\'s assertion that God cares for creation; it is an example of our modern tendency to abandon faith in the supernatural as a source of myth, and replace it with an equally potent, and equally irrational, faith in the laws of science as we perceive them. RB EMJ PS

See also community; ecofeminism; god; goddess; greenhouse effect; homeostasis; pollution.Further reading James Lovelock, Gaia: a New Look at Life on Earth; The Ages of Gaia; , Anne Primavesi, From Apocalypse to Genesis.



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