The Gaia Hypothesis
The scientist James Lovelock first formulated the Gaia hypothesis at NASA in the 1960s after studying the atmosphere of Mars for signs of life. Lovelock's idea was that the biosphere and its physical components are closely integrated to form a complex system that homeostatically maintains conditions on Earth in a way that makes life sustainable. In this way, life and its planetary environment are essentially indivisible and work together holistically.
Lovelock came up with the idea of Earth as a single complex feedback system after observing the way that combinations of essential elements for life are maintained in the atmosphere in stable concentrations. From a purely chemical point of view, Earth's atmosphere should be unstable. Traces of methane should not exist, as they are combustible in an oxygen atmosphere. In Lovelock's opinion, the balance of living organisms maintains the creation and removal of methane, allowing the two to coexist.
Lovelock originally called his idea the Earth feedback hypothesis. A neighbor, the novelist William Golding, suggested the name Gaia, after the Greek goddess of the earth. Lovelock has subsequently complained that because of this association, his theory has been treated as a quasi New Age pagan religion, rather than as genuine science.
Other observations further support this view, notably the fact that the surface temperature of Earth has remained remarkably constant since the beginning of life, while at the same time the energy reaching our planet from the sun has increased by at least a quarter. The salinity of the oceans is also another long-term constant that defies scientific prediction or explanation. Incoming salts from freshwater sources should have made the oceans much saltier than they are. Lovelock suggests that the processes of life themselves keep these systems in balance. The Gaia hypothesis should now really be called the Gaia theory, as a number of scientific experiments have been carried out that confirm the predictions of the hypothesis.
Criticisms of the Gaia Theory
Most scientific criticism of the Gaia theory has centered on the fact that Lovelock seems to be suggesting there is an intelligent design that is directing these homeostatic processes. This has been called teleological thinking by some scientists, a belief, usually religious, that the process of life is heading toward some end goal. Lovelock has since refined his concept of Gaia to clarify this. In 1990 he said, “Nowhere in our writings do we express the idea that planetary self-regulation is purposeful, or involves foresight or planning by the biota.”
A stronger version of the Gaia theory would be that our planet is both sentient and alive. This has become a popular and widespread interpretation of the original idea. Lovelock does not share this view. He prefers the scientifically more credible version that life and our planet form one single self-regulating mechanism. The Gaia hypothesis is possibly the largest-scale holistic theory ever proposed, and it is one of the fundamental building blocks of Laszlo's emerging Holos culture.