August 15, 2002
7:10 AM   Subscribe

From theories of dissipative structures and autopoesis, Dr. James Lovelock and Dr. Lynn Margulis have concluded that the Earth is alive (sort of). They call this Gaia Theory. (another summary w/lots of good links)
posted by Fabulon7 (21 comments total)

 
I read What is Life? by Dr. Margulis and her son earlier this year. A fascinating, fact-and-theory filled book, inspired by a book of the same title written by Erwin Schrodinger, the 1933 Noble laureate in physics. Yes, the same one that developed the Schrodinger wave equation.
posted by Red58 at 7:56 AM on August 15, 2002


Didn't Dr. Sid warn Aki about blabbing about this stuff? Remember how Galileo was treated.
posted by uftheory at 7:59 AM on August 15, 2002


earth v. solaris showdown :) global brains!
posted by kliuless at 8:53 AM on August 15, 2002


David Brin, one of my favourite SF writers, has written a couple of books that explore the implications of the Gaia hypothesis. The best is Earth.
posted by emyd at 9:12 AM on August 15, 2002


The Gaia hypothesis gets more attention than it should. Richard Dawkins deals with it in The Extended Phenotype, as part of his general exploration of what level natural selection acts at. His main problem is that since planets don't reproduce, planets cannot evolve, i.e. cannot gradually develop self-sustaining pseudo-metabolic machinery. Lovelock is an outcast at best in the bio community.
posted by gsteff at 10:03 AM on August 15, 2002


Been one of my favorite subjects since I got the chance to write a paper about it waaaaaay back in my high school that was enlightened enough to have an Earth Systems Science class. The story of the construction of Gaia Theory makes for an excellent narrative of interdisciplinary science at work. It's a great way to get kids interested in science as they can glom on to any number of facets: biology, chemistry, physics, engineering... Daisy World also makes for a nice exercise in computer science and computational physics.
posted by badstone at 10:05 AM on August 15, 2002


Gaia hypothesis gets more attention than it should

Well, part of the problem is the unfortunately suggestive name. However, the whole point of the hypothesis is that planets (at least Earth) do generate the pseudo-metabolic machinery. Also, bear in mind that the Gaia Hypothesis refers to the Earth system not the planet that the system is composed of. That system is reproducible, and it may reproduce if/when humans (or some other species down the line) go off and carry information about how to construct the Earth system to another planet, a la DNA.

Living things are not carbon and water (or whatever else), they are complex dynamic systems of carbon and water generated due to the presence of an energy flux.
posted by badstone at 10:16 AM on August 15, 2002


I like Gaia, Dawkins be damned.

In one sense, the Gaia hypothesis is common sense. For Life on Earth to have survived this long it would have had to find a mechanism to ensure that any process does not become a runaway process and destroy the entire system.

In a non-living planet, this happens all the time. Venus and its runaway Greenhouse for example. Even life on Earth got its start with the runaway process of oxygen production. As life diversified and obscure ecological niches became exploited, Life reached the stage where excess production of any biological material could be offset by the consumption of that material by some other organism. In this way the system naturally reaches a state of balance.
posted by vacapinta at 10:22 AM on August 15, 2002


You are right--it does have a very unfortunate name. Coined, I believe, by Mr. William "Lord Of The Flies" Gibson. That dude is a serious cheese-monkey. It's a wonder that they accepted that name, given that they are always complaining about how people criticize them for being teleological.
posted by Fabulon7 at 10:22 AM on August 15, 2002


Mr. William "Lord Of The Flies" Gibson.

Buh? William Gibson = cyberpunk, e.g. Neuromancer.

Lord of the Flies was William Golding. Sucks to your ass-mar!
posted by Skot at 10:26 AM on August 15, 2002


Oops! I hate William Gibson! It was William Golding--I just had a brain fart while typing. Sorry.
posted by Fabulon7 at 10:28 AM on August 15, 2002


But they are both cheese-monkeys.
posted by Fabulon7 at 10:31 AM on August 15, 2002


In one sense, the Gaia hypothesis is common sense.

Yeah. Earth's net ecology is stable (we're at an ESS, or at least we were until the industrial revolution). But then again, the only planets on which there will be MeFites around to discuss this stuff are the ones on which the biosphere didn't crash and burn. But I agree that there is a vast interaction of systems that reaches stability, and when something, like an asteroid, comes around and mucks it up, it approaches and reaches stability again.

That doesn't at all mean that the Earth is alive though.
posted by gsteff at 10:41 AM on August 15, 2002


The heck you say -- they're both great. But what in the world is a "cheese-monkey"?
posted by alumshubby at 10:44 AM on August 15, 2002


Q: But what in the world is a "cheese-monkey"?
A: An apish purveyor of corn.
And gsteff, I think part of the Gaia theory involves redefining what "alive" means, and this is one of the things that has been very misunderstood about it. I'm not sure I buy into it myself, but if you accept that they redefine the criteria of 'living', the rest of it is remarkably convincing, at times.
posted by Fabulon7 at 10:54 AM on August 15, 2002


like "a self-reproducing system able to perform at least one thermodynamic work cycle." :)
posted by kliuless at 10:58 AM on August 15, 2002


I've read a number of Lynn Margulis' books (usually co-written with her son, Dorion Sagan) and I just finished her most recent one, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species.
What's most radical and interesting about her work is her theorization of symbiosis as a motor of evolutionary change. Margulis originated the theory (now generally accepted) that mitochondria, chloroplasts, and other organelles of nucleated plant and animal cells were originally separate organisms that at some point were captured by other organisms--multicellular life only became possible as a result of symbiotic merger. Her new work pushes this much further, and claims that organisms acquiring the genomes of other organisms is a much bigger part of the story of life than has been heretofore realized.
posted by Rebis at 11:09 AM on August 15, 2002


The writer of Lord of the Flies, Pincher Martin and Rites of Passage is a "cheese monkey"? No, no he isn't.
posted by Summer at 12:07 PM on August 15, 2002


Hey, if you like Lord of the Flies, you should watch a movie called Battle Royale. Really. It's pretty crazy.
posted by Fabulon7 at 12:21 PM on August 15, 2002


Part of Dawkins' objection to the Gaia hypothesis is based on his contention that the unit of selection in evolutionary processes is the individual, not a higher level group such as a population, species or ecosystem. To a certain extent this makes sense, since only in an individual do all the associated genes suceed or fail together in passing copies of themselves on to the next generation.

However, I've been very intrigued by this model showing that a cooperative society/ecosystem can evolve without the requirement of shared genetic code or memory of past behavior. For those who don't want to bother downloading and running the code, here's the gist. The model presumes a form of the prisoner's dilemma, whereby mutual cooperation results in moderate benefits for both parties, mutual betrayal leads to no benefits, but one party cooperating while the other betrays leads to a large benefit for the betrayer and large penalty for the betrayed party. The simulation takes place on a grid partially populated by agents who may be genetically inclined to either cooperate with or betray neighboring agents. These actions lead to a gain or loss of energy points. These energy points are needed to survive and reproduce and expand into neighboring cells on the grid. When an agent reproduces, it tends to pass on its genetic tendency for cooperation or betrayal. The results vary according to the various parameters that you start the program with, but it comes down to one of two results. If there are too many betrayers, they wipe out the cooperators, then starve out themselves because they can't make an energy profit. If there are sufficient cooperators, they form successful ecosystem groups, which then expand to fill the grid after the betrayer dominated groups die out. Obviously, this model is vastly simpler than any real life ecosystem, but it does demonstrate that, in principle, ecosystems can compete and evolve in a way that Dawkins would say they, in principle, can't.

BTW - Margulis has been laughed at and dismissed before (for the theories that Rebis refers to). She turned out to be right. She might be wrong this time, but I would be very cautious about dismissing her too lightly. She's definitely a heavyweight in evolutionary biology.
posted by tdismukes at 12:35 PM on August 15, 2002


Interestingly, there are arguments that the Earth's crust is full of living organisms. Some argue and research is seemingly confirming, that life in the crust and deep caves dwarfs all the biomass of surface life. Potentially, this has stunning implications.
posted by rudyfink at 5:07 PM on August 15, 2002


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