As I write, two Viking spacecraft are circling our fellow planet Mars, awaiting landfall instructions from the Earth. Their mission is to search for life, or evidence of life, now or long ago. This book is also about a search for life…
His questions — how do you detect life? How do you know life on another planet when you see it?
In our efforts to explore space and its far planets we traveled far, but the real magic happened when we turned around. That moment we were able to view the earth from such a distance in all of its extraordinary beauty as a planet forever changed how we see it, how we try to understand it, the scale at which we are able to think (though then as now, people continue to work and think at narrowed, focused, reductionist scales).
So how do you know there is life under vastly different conditions? It might take completely different forms…
Lovelock’s tentative suggestion is that you can know it is there through the slowing down or reversing of entropy. When you look at the earth it is immensely improbable that we should have life here, that there should be an atmosphere, that the temperature should remain so constant despite changes in sun’s own heat. It should have, could have settled down in any number of states of equilibrium as entropy did its work and things fell apart and died away. But on earth it didn’t. In his metaphor that I rather liked, most planets are windswept beaches, while earth is the sandcastle.
He quotes his own thinking from 1967:
Disequilibria on this scale suggest that the atmosphere is not merely a biological product, but more probably a biological construction: not living, but like a cat’s fur, a bird’s feathers, or the paper of a wasp’s nests, an extension of a living system designed to maintain a chosen environment.
The climate and the chemical properties of the Earth now and throughout its history seem always to have been optimal for life. For this to have happened by chance is as unlikely as to survive unscathed a drive blindfolded through rush-hour traffic. (9-10)
I love this idea of earth as a wasp’s nest, as biological construction. It sparks all kinds of imaginings. He continues:
By now a planet-sized entity, albeit hypothetical, had been born, with properties which could not be predicted from the sum of its parts. It needed a name. Fortunately the author William Golding was a fellow villager. Without hesitation he recommended this creature be called Gaia… (10)
Blimey. William Golding as a neighbor.
I found the unfamiliar science in here a bit dense, apparently most scientists found this far too poetic. I suppose it does quote H.G. Wells, refers to Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke. I rather love this tie between his attempt to make a leap in science based on a vision of our planet from space, and imaginings emerging from SF.
Lovelock looks not to the source and the start of everything, but to the creation of a planetary system able to maintain life. Imagining an early world of anaerobic life and stromatalites. One of the earth’s first cataclysms was the eruption of oxygen into the atmosphere, killing it all dead, though it probably entered the atmosphere little by little, allowing time for adaptation. But if there were too much oxygen? Things would get explosive. Too little? Life as we know it would die. How then, do we have just the right amount?
Through constant corrections made in myriads of ways. I loved the comparison with cybernetics, how it works not like linear thinking and moving towards a goal through cause and effect a la Descartes, but rather through a constant circular feedback-driven cycle of correction to maintain the goal. No clear beginning, rather constant movement, oscillation. Thus a focus on cycles that fits also with earth and agricultural systems and the many ways of life and thought most dependent on them.
Lynn Margulis is someone else on my list of books to read. She and Lovelock were colleagues and he quotes her saying that in each creature optimising its chances for life, the sum total is Gaia. It is an expression of how everything is connected, and life itself works to maximise the conditions for life.
Originally published in 1979, these theories have, of course, been much further developed since then. They are no longer new, no longer ridiculed in the same way. It was good to read where it started. Interesting also to see how much Lovelock himself has moved, not from thinking of Gaia as a kind of world system maintaining life on the planet, but in understanding just how much human beings are having an impact on it. Though he described a doomsday scenario in the book arrived at through genetic engineering, it is clear he thought us creatures of earth ourselves and thus integral parts of this system, our technologies were above all beneficial and could not have too desperate an impact.
He doesn’t feel the same way now, the preface makes that clear.
I am glad of that, though I rather liked the attitude that earth and life is so vastly bigger than we are, it doesn’t much matter if we manage to destroy ourselves. That reminded me a bit of Roadside Picnic by the Strugatskys.
This place has an amazing library. I hardly know what to read next. Yay weekend.
[Lovelock, James (1995) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.]