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The Conjecture About Gaia And

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The Conjecture about Gaia and

Lynn Margulis

The Gaia hypothesis, first advanced by James Lovelock in the 1970's, is a controversial vision of the way the Earth and the life on it act upon each other. Lovelock, who has defended his idea for decades now and has continually adapted and refined it in the face of criticism by the overwhelming majority of the scientific community (those who bother to take him seriously at all) paired up with fellow scientist Lynn Margulis in 1972 to promote the theory. "In the three decades since 'Gaia' was first posited," Marcia Bjornerud of the geology Dept of Lawrence University explains, "the idea has evoked polarized reactions from mainstream scientists. Attacked with polemical opposition by the majority, it is acclaimed as a new geological paradigm by a growing minority" (89).

Originally spoken of in a poetic and transcendental language, Gaia was from the beginning classified as rubbish--pseudoscience at best. Taken broadly, very few scientists have a problem with the concept. The Earth and the ecosphere have an obvious relation. But it is the extent of the claim that draws their fire. "The Gaia hypothesis, Lovelock replied, holds 'that the nonliving and living represent a self-regulating system that keeps itself in a constant state,' or at least within a limited range of conditions" (Kerr 393). Those limits are the sticking point.

The hypothesis is controversial for several specific reasons. The first is a descriptional one. The term that was coined to name it seems to create problems. One critic, speaking about the hypothesis and its ramifications, said: "Such notions depend on a slew of ambiguous words that, however carefully defined, either ready readers for an earth hug or raise their hackles" (Huggett 429). The term raises ideas in an observer's mind that are unscientific, at the very least: it is the name of the Greek goddess of the earth, with all of the connotations of religion, belief, myth, and superstition that might go along with it. One commentator points out that a common complaint is that "(the term) Gaia is teleological. It implies that the biosphere was designed with a purpose and is administered by some sort of omniscient entity. It is incompatible with natural selection" (Bjornerud 92). Hearkening to the argument of Creationists, it makes many scientists uncomfortable--they find it distasteful and misleading. Lovelock himself has since regretted the term, using "geo-physiology" on many more recent occasions (Bjornerud 96).

Other objections are of a more strictly scientific nature. A convenient list is supplied by Bjornerud, a proponent of Gaia: 1) "Gaia is an ill-defined hypothesis." 2) "Gaia is unparsimonious." 3) "Gaia is not a scientific hypothesis because it can't be falsified" (94). Proponents claim that these objections are, for the most part, leveled at the early, uncomplicated form of the theory. The hypothesis is a working one, they respond to the first objection, and has gone through a slow metamorphosis. Opponents assert that these various stages of 'metamorphosis,' like 'weak' and 'strong' Gaia, are a good indication of the shaky nature of the hypothesis in general.

The second objection is similar to the first: that Gaia must be too complex to work, and that is inconsistent with the general rules of scientific theory. Gaia enthusiasts disagree, because they see it as a broad over-arching umbrella--rather like the theory of evolution--which can be accepted even without proving all of the vehicles in its operation. Both sides use basically the same reasoning, except mainstream scientists demand minute empirical proof where Lovelock and his followers take a wider, more philosophical approach.

The claim that Gaia can't be falsified, the third objection, has been addressed by Gaia proponents, though not to the full satisfaction of most scientists. Lovelock addresses the problem with several examples, like the prediction of life on Mars and a complicated process involving dimethylsulfide and the regulation of sea temperatures (Bjornerud 93). Similarly, other problems of this nature are addressed tangentially by adherents. The Earth's inability to reproduce itself, for instance, is challenged as a categorical component of life: "The capacity to reproduce seems a fundamental characteristic of all living things--except this would exclude sterile but indisputably living creatures like mules or worker bees" (Bjornerud 96). She also addresses an objection that Lynn Margulis herself does not have an answer for, the fact that no organism has the ability to convert its own waste. Bjornerud's response, taking a page from the Gaia objectors' playbook, is a descriptional one: "If no living creature can cycle its own waste... this assumption ignores a priori the possibility that the global system could have emergent properties not present in its constituent parts" (Bjornerud 96).

These responses, while clever and hard to dismiss, do not address the principle objection that scientists have: where is the proof? As one correspondent points out, "A vocal contingent of mainstream researchers...denied that there is any evidence of or even need for such a homeostatic Gaia; simple, mindless chemistry and physics can suffice" (Kerr 394). He goes on to say that "By this thinking, life has done so well

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