James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis — the Heart of the Emerging New Paradigm
This is the latest in a series of articles following on from my conversation with Anders Bolling, fellow writer on Medium, for his Mind the Shift podcast recently, in which I’ve discussed some of the material we didn’t have time for. I did touch upon James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis towards the end of that conversation. Here I’ll go into more detail. The key players in my discussion and their relevant books are:
- James Lovelock himself and his books Gaia: a New Look at Life on Earth¹, The Ages of Gaia: a Biography of Our Living Earth², and The Revenge of Gaia³. (Unattributed Lovelock material and quotes come from a BBC4 television programme, ‘Mark Lawson Talks to James Lovelock’, May 22nd 2006.)
- Peter Russell, The Awakening Earth: Our Next Evolutionary Leap⁴
- George Trevelyan, A Vision of the Aquarian Age: The Emerging Spiritual Worldview⁵
- Rupert Sheldrake, The Rebirth of Nature: New Science and the Revival of Animism⁶, and Natural Grace⁷
- Kit Pedler: The Quest for Gaia⁸
The theory began as the idea that planet Earth is a “self-regulating organism”, thus appears to be alive. In its most developed form, it states unashamedly that planet Earth is indeed a living organism, although it is not clear to what extent it (she?) is conscious. (I believe that Lovelock himself subscribes to this most developed form. He has, however, made some contradictory statements down the years which suggest otherwise. This will be discussed in the second half of the article.)
At this point, I invite you to ask yourselves whether this is something that you believe, whether it is something that you know to be true, whether it is something that you intuitively feel might be true but have never seen any evidence to back up that intuition, or whether you think that it’s a completely crackpot idea. More importantly, have you ever had a subjective personal experience which proved to you that the Earth is a living organism?
I’ll go through my list of authors, to see where they stand on those questions, beginning with Lovelock himself. He says that the theory came to him in a Eureka moment, a flash of inspiration following a conversation with Carl Sagan and two others. They were discussing the atmospheres of Mars and Venus, which were almost nothing but carbon dioxide, thus very close to chemical equilibrium. The Earth was extraordinary by comparison, having a weird atmosphere. They wondered how it stays so constant, how it was regulated. Then everything tumbled into his head at that moment.
The idea that the Earth is a living being comes as no surprise to those who come directly from a spiritual perspective. Peter Russell has Lovelock’s ideas as his starting point. Influenced by figures like Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo, he then develops these into the suggestion that the Earth is a living organism in the process of becoming more conscious. He suggests that each individual human being might be the equivalent of one cell in the planetary brain.
Even more explicit is George Trevelyan, who states unequivocally “that the Universe is Mind not mechanism, that the Earth is a sentient creature and not just dead mineral”. He says that to know this is to recover “the Ageless Wisdom of the ancient Mysteries”; when speaking of Gaia, we are therefore contributing to the reunification of science and religion that many of us are seeking. Here he goes even further, although it’s not clear whether he believes the literal truth of what he is saying, or whether he is using metaphors: “We as human beings are intimately and inextricably part of the whole of nature. In this way, we proceed to discover that Planet Earth is truly alive, a sentient creature with her own breathing, bloodstream, glands and consciousness. We human beings are integrally part of this organism, like blood corpuscles in a body. We are, moreover, points of consciousness for the Earth Being” (p15).
Even someone from a scientific background can express such ideas, for example Kit Pedler, who identifies himself as being from a tradition which seeks to maintain the pre-Enlightenment stance of natural philosophy, in contrast to the modern Enlightenment development known as science. He writes: “I use the name Gaia… to encompass the idea that the entire living pelt of our planet, its thin green rind of life, is actually one single life-force with senses, intelligence and the power to act… I hold that there is but one single interwoven web of life and that our own kind was, until recently, an integral part of this single magnificent entity” (p11). “Gaia is non-human. She is the earth spirit, she is life, the ground, the air, the water and the interaction between all their inhabitants… There is an interwoven and intelligently driven web which searches for balance, continuance and stability” (p13).
Then we have the spiritual biologist Rupert Sheldrake, the subject of two earlier articles in this series: “The organismic or holistic philosophy of nature which has grown up over the last sixty years is a new form of animism. It implicitly or explicitly regards all nature as alive. The universe as a whole is a developing organism, and so are the galaxies, solar systems and biospheres within it, including the Earth”⁹.
Even ordinary people share this belief. Sheldrake says that “the acknowledgment that our planet is a living organism, Gaia, Mother Earth strikes a responsive chord in millions of people; it reconnects us both with our personal, intuitive experience of nature and with the traditional understanding of nature as alive”¹⁰. He also reports that “what modern science is rediscovering… is the concept of the Earth as a living organism. This is news to some people in the West; but it’s not news to most people throughout the world. I’ve tried talking to Indian villagers about this and they are profoundly unimpressed. When you tell them that modern science is now discovering that the Earth is a living organism called Mother Earth, you are telling them what they’ve known all along. In a sense all of us have known this all along, but there’s now a way in which this old idea can be formulated scientifically. The Gaia hypothesis is a major step towards a recovery of the sense of a living world”¹¹. I suspect that such a viewpoint is not restricted to Indian villagers, but can be found in many indigenous and tribal cultures worldwide. (See for example The Return of Collective Intelligence: Ancient Wisdom for a World out of Balance by Dery Dyer¹².)
I may be exaggerating, but it would seem from the above that the only people who don’t believe in the reality of Gaia are materialist, old paradigm Western scientists, trapped in the prison of their own minds, and those members of the public they have unfortunately managed to brainwash into accepting their way of thinking. Regrettably, this seems to be a large number. Ironically, the etymological origin of the word materialism, which is the dominant worldview of modern science, is mater (mother) because of the ancient belief in the association of nature, the material world, with a female goddess.
Pedler is especially critical of these scientists, saying that “we live in a society based upon science and technology and so it is here that we must look for the roots of error and of change” (p11), as he seeks to “reawaken an expanded sense of vision and consciousness which our ancestors once had as a natural birthright” (p7).
I’m now going to have a look at some people to whom this idea may never have occurred, but who are suddenly converted to it following what we might call an epiphany. This is a common experience among those who have journeyed into space. In his first chapter, Peter Russell refers to the experience of various astronauts who have travelled to the moon:
- they experienced exactly that: “the whole planet appeared to be alive, an organism in its own right”
- “The first astronauts… found themselves no longer identified with a particular country, class or race, but with what no human being had ever seen before; the great sphere that is Earth”
- “To Edgar Mitchell… that was a deeply moving experience, and he felt a strong mystical connection to the planet: ‘It was a beautiful, harmonious, peaceful-looking planet… one that gave you a deep sense of home, of being, of identity. It is what I prefer to call instant global consciousness’. Mitchell observed that everyone who has been to the moon has had similar experiences. ‘Each man comes back with a feeling that he is no longer an American citizen — he is a planetary citizen’ ”.
George Trevelyan also quotes Mitchell: “(All the technological preparation) was but a foreshadowing of my realization of the place man has in the scheme of the universe. We are part of a universe of consciousness. I sensed this out in space. I devote my life to the discovery of what this means for me and for all humankind”.
These are Mitchell’s words from his own book: “In the early 1970s I became aware of the new proposal by British biologist James Lovelock that Earth and its ecosystem should be considered as a single organism rather than as separate and independent systems. His proposal was called the Gaia hypothesis (his italics). The concept struck a chord in me, as it gave voice to a new metaphor that I could use. In space the universe itself seems more organismic than divided parts, more intelligent than inanimate. Extending Gaia to include the larger reality seemed a reasonable way to convey this idea, though the details of this were yet elusive”¹³. Mitchell continues this discussion by relating the Gaia idea to David Bohm’s concept of an Implicate Order, and Platonic Idealism. Interesting!
And it wasn’t just the American astronauts who had that revelation. The cosmonaut Aleksandr Aleksandrov said, after looking down on America and Russia: “It struck me that we are all children of our Earth. It does not matter what picture you look at. We are all Earth’s children, and we should treat her as our Mother”¹⁴.
Lovelock himself was also inspired by the first picture of Earth from space: “It reinforced all I felt about the earth as a quasi-living entity”. All this goes to show that the words of Sir Fred Hoyle in 1948 were extremely prophetic: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available… a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose”.
In the remainder of the article I’m going to trace some of the history of Lovelock’s thinking about his own theory. It is hard to pin down exactly what he thinks, since he seems to have something of a split personality on the issue. Does he really believe that the Earth is a living organism or not? My own feeling is that he has always believed it, but that sometimes he holds back when faced with the hostility and criticisms of other scientists. His theory can therefore be seen as one more manifestation of a new emerging scientific paradigm, battling against the old outdated worldview of the Enlightenment. What follows is a brief history of Lovelock’s struggle.
He published his first book in 1979. As mentioned above, he put forward the hypothesis that the whole planet is a “self-regulating organism”, thus appears to be alive. He was strongly criticised from various quarters. One accusation was that he was reviving the ‘mystical’ idea of an ancient Greek goddess. The perhaps more significant criticism came from neo-Darwinian biologists, who said that this could not have come about through a process of natural selection. It was therefore a challenge to everything they believed. As Lovelock put it: “What the biologists said was that this is just a lot of rubbish, it’s clairvoyance, it’s teleology, he’s saying that the earth has a goal, that it can self-regulate. This is nonsense, it could never happen by natural selection”. This led him to reflect whether he was right, or whether the theory needed some modification.
On one point he even conceded that he had got it wrong: “Looking back with hindsight it was a very understandable challenge. And up to a point they were right, because the Gaia hypothesis as first advanced was that life regulates the climate and the chemistry of the earth in its own interest. And they quite rightly said that there is just no way for organisms to regulate anything beyond their phenotype. It’s just not on, they couldn’t possibly be altruistic enough to regulate a whole planet. And that was a mistake I made, and I gladly acknowledge it, and welcomed their criticism, although it was painful at the time. And that led me to develop Gaia theory”.
Whether or not that was actually a mistake is a question I’ll address at the end of the article. Believing that he was mistaken, however, Lovelock retreated somewhat, saying that Gaia was just a metaphor, albeit a very powerful one. (It’s worth noting that, if Lovelock was being genuine in his retreat, he still referred to ‘Our Living Earth’ in the title of a book published in 1988, nine years after the first one.) When asked about this point in 2006, he was still saying, at least publicly, that it was indeed a metaphor: “But the metaphor’s a very powerful one, and a very useful one, and it shouldn’t be knocked. I think a lot of the criticism attacked the metaphor rather than the theory. And that was silly, because all scientists use metaphors”.
He did indeed agree that it was difficult to see how the Earth could act as a single organism as the end result of a process of natural selection. He reports, however, a meeting with two senior biologists, William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith: “Strangely both of them, right up until the mid 1990s had not read any of my books or papers, but were violently against the theory”. (This demonstrates the bigotry of conventional scientists, and how the meme of materialism can infect their minds, leading them to ignore the proper standards of scientific debate.) He therefore decided to go to see them: “They still said that they could not see how it could happen by natural selection, but they said, yeah, you’ve proven the point, the earth does self-regulate. They went that far”.
This is interesting. It’s agreed that the Earth as a self-regulating organism could not have come about through a process of natural selection. Two previously sceptical scientists are then persuaded by Lovelock that the Earth is indeed a self-regulating organism. So what does that say about the theory of natural selection?
Lovelock was then asked: “But you can see why Gaia worries scientists and rationalists. Although it’s scientific, there is something quasi-mystical about it, which touches over into religious ideas of some kind of all-controlling power”. He replied: “Indeed it does… For nearly two centuries now, up until towards the end of the last century, science has been exceedingly rational, exceedingly reductionist. That’s the way it evolved. One consequence of that is that it has tended to ignore as non-existent large top-down views of things like Gaia, and it’s beginning to get its come-uppance in phenomena like those of the quantum theory”. Lovelock sounds here as if he is criticising the limited thinking of his opponents. Are these some clues indicating his true position? It certainly means that he has some understanding of the relevance of quantum physics to the debate.
As recently as 2007, he stated in print that it has been useful for him to imagine the Earth as like an animal, but that this has never been more than a metaphor, equivalent to sailors calling a ship ‘she’. In the same book, however, he insists that “if we fail to take care of the Earth, it surely will take care of itself by making us no longer welcome”. This, by the way, is in a book called The Revenge of Gaia, a title which he presumably chose. And as early as 1988 he wrote, in similar vein: “Gaia is no doting mother, nor some delicate damsel. She is 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”. This doesn’t sound much like a metaphor to me. I would suggest that revenge implies consciousness and intention, but perhaps again this is only a metaphor in his eyes.
I wonder whether Lovelock privately believes that Gaia is actually much more than a metaphor, that the Earth is indeed a living organism. After all, he frequently seems to say so. Perhaps he holds back in the hope of becoming more acceptable to mainstream scientific belief. For, if he was being sincere when he originally retreated, and not merely bullied into submission by the neo-Darwinians, he certainly seemed to have forgotten this during a BBC interview, only two years after the publication of The Revenge of Gaia, when he said: “we’re just part of a great big assembly that is living”. The interviewer responded: “So it’s an organism, a superorganism?” Lovelock replied, “exactly”, so definitely not a metaphor, then went on to say: “We humans could become so closely integrated with the planet that we could make it in effect an intelligent planet”¹⁵. This would seem to be indistinguishable from the views of Peter Russell and Rupert Sheldrake. Did Lovelock undergo a dramatic conversion during those two years, or was he actually finally stating what he had always believed?
The purpose of science is to search for the truth about the nature of the universe. Sometimes, however, it seems that scientists refuse to search for the truth in order to maintain their worldview. I think that it’s reasonable to say that the primary reason why mainstream scientists cannot accept the Gaia hypothesis is that it seems impossible from their materialist perspective, which may be out of date. Materialist scientists, unwilling to contemplate anything ‘mystical’, ‘quasi-religious’, reject the Gaia hypothesis. Would anything I’ve written above persuade them to change their minds? Probably not. They reject, and often mock, such an idea. On Medium we have the highly qualified scientist and philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci, who argues strongly against it, since it doesn’t make any sense to him from the perspective of traditional evolutionary biology¹⁶.
In conclusion, let me return to something from above. Lovelock’s theory was criticised because it seemed ‘mystical’, suggested clairvoyance, teleology; the Earth could not regulate itself in the way that he suggested. This led him to backtrack and say that Gaia was just a metaphor. Was he right to do so? What I’m about to quote will not persuade any mainstream biologists, but Rupert Sheldrake has a suggestion which would counter all these objections: “If Gaia is in some sense animate, then she must have something like a soul, an organizing principle with its own ends or purposes”. Relating this idea to physics, he says that “the soul of the Earth may best be thought of in terms of the unified field of Gaia”¹⁷. It’s good to see at least one biologist thinking in terms of quantum physics. Perhaps we need a mystical, quasi-religious, quantum explanation in order to comprehend how Gaia achieves what she does.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. Oxford University Press, 1979, my copy revised edition, 1995
2. Oxford University Press, 1988, my copy paperback 1989
3. Penguin, 2007
4. Routledge& Kegan Paul, 1982
5. Coventure Ltd. 1977, my copy Gateway Books 1994
6. Century 1990, my copy Rider 1993
7. with Matthew Fox, Bloomsbury 1997
8. Souvenir Press, 1979
9. Rebirth of Nature, p125
10. ibid., p4
11. Natural Grace, p20
12. Bear & Company, 2020
13.The Way of the Explorer, New Page Books, 2008, p185
14. The Home Planet, K. W. Kelley (ed.), Addison-Wesley, 1988, p109
15. interview with Simon Mayo, BBC radio5live 24/2/09
17. Rebirth of Nature, p130, p131