When James Lovelock rolled out his Gaia hypothesis in the 1960s, it was met with skepticism by many of his scientific colleagues. His suggestion that the Earth was a self-regulating system akin to an organism was bold—and, like many bold new theories, it attracted scads of doubters and detractors. But five decades later, writes David E. Moody in Natural History, Gaia theory is no longer looked down upon by many scientists—in fact, it has slowly become downright respectable.
Prior to Gaia theory, biologists and geologists were both quite comfortable in their respective domains. Each was concerned with evidence and events that encompassed the entire globe, but their separate spheres of understanding had little need or opportunity to interact. Gaia theory changed all that. There now exists a new domain, Earth System Science, that seeks to understand and to correlate a whole range of interdisciplinary phenomena. Earth System Science is the alter ego of Gaia theory, dressed up in a suit and tie, conservative in its language and predictions, but wedded to the basic principles articulated by Lovelock.
British evolutionary biologist William D. Hamilton initially called the Gaia theory a “hopeless” notion, notes Moody, but by 1998 he had changed his tune, declaring it “ ‘Copernican’ in its implications, and added that it only awaits a Newton to describe more fully the laws by which Gaia could have evolved.”
Moody issues a note of caution, however:
Some commentators have misconstrued Gaia theory as suggesting that the Earth can be counted on to correct any environmental imbalances that humanity may introduce and restore the planet to a pristine state of beauty and order. There’s no reason to believe, to use the sarcastic words of the late Australian environmental philosopher Val Plumwood, that Gaia is a ‘super housekeeping goddess’ operating with ‘whiter than white homeostatic detergent.’
Source: Natural History (article not available online)
Image by Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center, licensed under Creative Commons.