11 Nov 2022 Review of James Lovelock, The ages of Gaia: A biography of our living earth
Lovelock’s second edition of The ages of Gaia is a response to the criticism of his Gaia theory, to the recognition of which he had to wait for 36 years. As a proud independent scientist, Lovelock followed his scientific instincts and intuition which proved him right, in the end. A remarkable story of an inventor turned into a scientist and a great read in an accessible format. James Lovelock died on 26th July 2022 – his 103rd birthday.
Lovelock claims that his Gaia theory, as a theory of the Earth, is neither holistic nor reductionist. He responded with this book to the two directions of Gaia’s theory criticism, or principal objection as he refers to them, the teleological and the partial biological regulation. To the former, Lovelock responded also by changing his language, and in responding to the latter line of objections, he wrote this book. The teleological explanation in academe is namely, so is Lovelocks’ typical realization, “a sin against the holy spirit of scientific rationality”. At the same time, Lovelock warns us that warns that anything as significant as life should not be “the sole property” neither of a single discipline and neither of science itself for that matter. In the book, Lovelock acknowledges three equally powerful approaches to the quest to understand life, molecular biology, physiology, and of thermodynamics.
Lovelock stated with his Gaia hypothesis that the temperature, oxidation state, acidity, and certain aspects of the rocks and waters are at any time kept constant and that this homeostasis is maintained by the organisms at the Earth’s surface. He soon recognized that his hypothesis so stated is wrong. As the biologists, Ford Doolittle and Richard Dawkins reminded him, organisms cannot regulate anything beyond their phenotypes. Through Gaia theory, Lovelock now sees the system of the material Earth and the living organisms on it, evolving so that self-regulation is an emergent property.
The second edition of this book, with a new preface, has eleven chapters, including an Epilog. In the first two chapters, Lovelock introduces us to the Gaia theory. Then in the third chapter, stimulated by the criticism, Lovelock introduces the Daisyworld model. It’s a model with three species of daisies. Although it’s a simple model, it is not constrained by the narrow limits of a single scientific discipline. Namely, Lovelock realized that theoretical ecologists have modeled the evolution of ecosystems while ignoring the physical environment, and biogeochemists have modeled the cycles of the elements without including the organism. In the next three chapters, Lovelocks makes a historical review of his theory in the periods of the Archean, and the Middle Ages, and its position in Modern Times.
In one separate chapter Lovelock explains what is the connection of his theory with the planet Mars. He worked for Nasa in the 1960s and in the 1970s. With analysis made through the telescope observation, he was able to conclude that the atmosphere on Mars is dominated by carbon dioxide and not far from the state of chemical equilibrium and therefore that Mars is lifeless. Lovelock was confident of his conclusion also because the Earth’s atmosphere is on the other hand in a persistent state of disequilibrium. Lovelock and the philosopher Dian Hitchcock’s conclusion was not popular with their Nasa sponsors as they were planning, and later realized, the mission to Mars. All this has helped Lovelock to develop an intuition that life could not exist sparsely on a planet. As Gaia theory developed, Lovelock began to view it as a fact. In this separate chapter on Mars, The Second Home, Lovelock reveals another story of how he wrote, with the coauthor and his friend Michael Allaby, a fictional book, the Greening of Mars.
Lovelock has devoted a special chapter to the relationship between God and Gaia. Although he rejected that Gaia’s theory is teleological, he proudly and with satisfaction states that Gaia itself can be both spiritual and scientific. He doesn’t see Gaia as some “doting mother tolerant of misdemeanors,” nor as some fragile and delicate girl that is in danger from brutal mankind. Rather, Lovelock sees Gaia as “stern and tough, always keeping the world warm and comfortable for those who obey the rules, but ruthless in her destruction of those who transgress.” If that sounds like some rather scary vision, well, it is.
In the last two chapters, Gaia since 1988 and the Epilog, Lovelock summarizes new development directions since the Gaia theory developed in the 1980s. Here, some of his best writings came out. He states what we should all realize, that organisms, and I would add that artifacts too, always do change their environment, as well as adapt to it. He stated that chemical evidence showed that Earth’s atmosphere far departed from the equilibrium of a lifeless planet. In the following statements, he uses the plural in stating that they, and not him alone, knew that “this disequilibrium comes from the presence of life. We also knew that living organisms affect all of the gases of the air, other than the inert noble gases. Some, like oxygen, are direct biological products, and organisms modify the abundance of others, like carbon dioxide.” Lovelock further in plural explains why the first Gaia hypothesis was wrongly worded and how it should be worded. He explains further that it took ten years and a mathematical model, “Daisyworld,” to define Gaia, the superorganism, as he calls it.
In this concluding part of the book, Lovelock once again states that nature “is nonlinear and unpredictable and never more so than in a period of change.” He also rejects the popular metaphor of Earth as a spaceship and humans as its stewards. Although it sounds rather patronizing, I couldn’t agree more with Lovelock’s statement that in practice few of us can take care of our own bodies. And then he literally exaggerates even further by saying that he “would sooner expect a goat to succeed as a gardener than expect humans to become stewards of Earth.”
Nevertheless, Lovelocks concluding chapter is a bit more optimistic but stays on his insights. He is convinced, though, that if we don’t stop the ecocide soon, Rachel Carson’s “gloomy prediction of a silent spring will come true but not because we have poisoned the birds with pesticides, but because we have destroyed their habitats and they have no longer anywhere to live.” The direction to be taken comes at the end of this important book, where Lovelock again states that we are part of a superorganism, I would add, following Latour, that we are all human and non-human parts of the superorganism, but that we are not the owner, nor the tenant, and not even the passenger in and of the superorganism. With this acknowledgment we could have a long time ahead of us and “our species might survive for its “allotted span.”.
To me, it was really important that the book was written in an understandable and easy-to-read manner. I could use more description and explanation of how did he develop the Daisyworld model. Although Lovelock describes and defines himself as a proud independent scientist and researcher, he is an innovator by heart, in my opinion. That is why in the book he sometimes wanders quite away from the main topic of the book. Which gives us readers additional reading pleasure. Only one such example is when Lovelock explains that he often has a nightmare vision of a nuclear power source. It is worth citing it as a whole:
“It would be a small box, about the size of a telephone directory, with four ordinary electricity outlets embedded in its surface. The box would breathe in air and extract, from its content of moisture, hydrogen that would fuel a miniature nuclear fusion power source rated to supply a maximum of 100 kilowatts. it would be cheap, reliable, manufactured in Japan, and available everywhere. It would be the perfect, clean, safe power source; no nuclear waste no radiation would escape from it, and it could never fail dangerously.”
Isn’t that a great idea still?
The only thing I was missing in this book is an abstract of book chapters or a summary of the whole book on a few pages. Although Lovelock doesn’t make any recipes on how to get out of the mess that we are in, this book should be taken seriously not only by scientists and policymakers but by all of us if we wish to lead prosperous lives both today and in the future.