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May 12, 2009 11:35 AM   Subscribe

The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? In the view of paleontologist Peter Ward life on Earth is intrinsically poisonous.

His Medea hypothesis (TED lecture video) argues, "the natural world is a doomsday device careening from one cataclysm to another. Long before humans came onto the scene, primitive life forms were busily trashing the planet, and on multiple occasions, Ward argues, they came close to rendering it lifeless. Around 3.7 billion years ago, they created a planet-girdling methane smog that threatened to extinguish every living thing; a little over a billion years later they pumped the atmosphere full of poison gas. (That gas, ironically, was oxygen, which later life forms adapted to use as fuel.)" (From Peak Energy) and as such is the anti-Gaia hypothesis. via
posted by thatwhichfalls (50 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Isn't it kind of silly to say that life is self-destructive when it keeps adapting to the new atmospheres it creates? That would kind of imply the opposite.
posted by Ndwright at 11:41 AM on May 12, 2009 [5 favorites]


it's been Gaia, Gaia, nothing but Gaia.

Did that remind anyone else of this?
posted by Joe Beese at 11:41 AM on May 12, 2009


Life is inherently poisonous? To what? Life?
posted by penduluum at 11:46 AM on May 12, 2009


Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?

No, just humans.
posted by Grangousier at 11:48 AM on May 12, 2009


It's not really anti-Gaia as much as Gaia + Pessimism.

That said, I don't think anyone's arguing that life isn't fragile and ephemeral.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:48 AM on May 12, 2009


This hypothesis assumes that life is somehow seperate from the other natural processes on Earth. Is biology really any different than a series of chemical reactions? How is life magically different than astrophysics or geology or chemistry?
posted by Pollomacho at 11:48 AM on May 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


If life on earth IS inherently self-destructive, I think we all know the only solutions:

Mars, Bitches!
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:50 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


This seems overly sensationalistic to me. I'm with Ndwright, Darwinian selection by limited or changing resources isn't so sexy a headline though.
posted by oshburghor at 11:51 AM on May 12, 2009


Second Law of Thermodynamics.
posted by DU at 11:52 AM on May 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


*begins stomping about to a martial beat, then chants with a guttural accent*

When we all alter the environ
We all excrete the best
Every epoch in every eon
We out-reproduce the rest

And we all inherit the environment
We all have survived as fittest
When every species enters the fossil record
Then everyone will finally get:

Life!      dun-dun DAH dah dunnnn
Life! Kills! Life!      dun-dun DAH dah dunnnn

Life!      dun-dun DAH dah dunnnn
Life! Kills! Life!      dun-dun DAH dah dunnnn
posted by adipocere at 11:59 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


When an organism exhausts a resource it needs to live, it dies off. If the resource is non-renewable, and is depleted, the organism goes extinct. If the resource is renewable, the organism and the resource achieve a kind of equilibrium. It doesn't have anything to do with Gaia, or any other mysterious control mechanism. It gets more complicated than that, but that's the very basic explanation. One of the ways it gets more complicated is that organisms can be resources for yet other organisms. Humans eat cows, cows eat grass, etc but it also goes the other way with viruses needing living hosts.
Imagine a tiny virus mutating along, and it happens to mutate in a way that it becomes very happy when it finds an accommodating human passing by. If there are very few humans, the chance of that mutation being beneficial is small. If there are lots of humans the mutation becomes very beneficial and allows the virus to rapidly multiply. So the over abundance of the humans becomes an opportunity, not because they're humans, or they've chewed up a lot of resources, but just because they're abundant.

On preview, what oshburghor and DU said.
posted by forforf at 12:02 PM on May 12, 2009


Whatever gets me published makes me stronger.
posted by plexi at 12:04 PM on May 12, 2009 [12 favorites]


It doesn't seem like life is inherently destructive so much as it is inherently adaptive.
posted by vibrotronica at 12:06 PM on May 12, 2009


Gotta go with Doug Adams: "imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."

I don't think nature, y'know, cares. Life huh? Swell. Here's a gigantic nickle-iron meteor obeying the laws of gravity BOOOM. "We're still here!" Yeah, whatever.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:11 PM on May 12, 2009 [15 favorites]


The argument is basically a variation upon Malthus was said to be wrong because food (the focus of his argument) was readily made more plentiful through technology. However, overpopulation drains the world of resources that cannot be renewed; it increases greatly the pollution sent into the air and our waters; it drains water underground and trees and forests (rain forests) etc . Some wag or wise man (you decide) said the earth could easily repair itself if but 80% of the population died off instantly. Clearly this sort of arguement differs from the one above, which believes more is better. When I am on our local highways I am not convinced that more is helpful.
posted by Postroad at 12:14 PM on May 12, 2009


Whatever gets me published makes me stronger.

At least until the breathable oxygen grant money runs out.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:15 PM on May 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yeah, complex life has apparently been self-destructing for the last half billion years.

Should be any day now.

*taps thumb on table*

Any day now.
posted by chimaera at 12:26 PM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I refuse to credit any hypothesis that implies teleology to natural processes.
posted by klangklangston at 12:32 PM on May 12, 2009 [11 favorites]


The fruit can't always just be ripe on the vine. Cycles.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:34 PM on May 12, 2009


In a new book titled "The Vanishing Face of Gaia," British biologist James Lovelock says humanity is "Earth's infection."

Join the queue, Lovelock. You're behind a lot of folks, including Doctor Death (Professor Eric R. Pianka), Prince Philip, Sir Julian Huxley (first Director General of UNESCO), a bunch of scientists, and of course, Agent Smith.

But his Humans are a Virus is countered by Humans are the Saviors of the World. The way Ward sees it, we're the solution, not the problem. "In the short term, we are responsible for 'Medean' effects, but it's going to be our long-term stewardship and engineering that makes things work," he said. "I view humans as the only Gaians on the planet. Everything else is Medean." Human pollution? Just keeping things in check. Over-fishing? Doing our best to keep those uppity aquatic critters in check. But I jest, this isn't about killing things off to make a better world, it's about balancing things that are going awry in nature.

"The only 'out' is intelligence," Ward said. "Our intelligence is the only way that we can extend the longevity of the biosphere." There's nothing wrong with Mother Earth that a bout of fever and/or chills won't solve.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:35 PM on May 12, 2009


Life is inherently self-destructive because everything is inherently self-destructive. It's called entropy.

Life is just a momentary reversal in the natural flow of increasing chaos, and as is the way of reversals of flow, it results in a backup.
posted by darksasami at 12:54 PM on May 12, 2009


I refuse to credit any hypothesis that implies teleology to natural processes.

Not to nitpick, but I think what you mean here is cosmic teleology. Ernst Mayr, the great evolutionary biologist, distinguishes between teleonomic, teleometric, and what I would call the teleocosmic: the former two are short-term adaptive end-states or fitness equilibriums such as homeostasis. In that sense, organic natural processes are indeed teleonomic or teleometric. Indeed, it is incoherent to conceive of evolution without short-term teleonomic and teleometric considerations.
posted by ornate insect at 1:02 PM on May 12, 2009


Given how much carbon that was once in the biosphere is now geologically sequestered, it seems sensible on the surface that eventually life will start running out of carbon.
posted by selenized at 1:02 PM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Life is fire, it flattens energy gradients. We humans are an inferno, burning off great stockpiles of hydrocarbons from a bygone epoch. When the fuel is gone, the inferno will inevitably die down. Try not to beat yourself up about it.
posted by mullingitover at 1:03 PM on May 12, 2009


I've seen a couple of those Madea movies, and he might have a point.
posted by box at 1:22 PM on May 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


This hypothesis assumes that life is somehow seperate from the other natural processes on Earth. ...

I agree with you. However, I can't think of any unnatural processes.
posted by asusu at 1:29 PM on May 12, 2009


...the conventional wisdom that a huge asteroid touched off the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction that killed off the dinosaurs, but says continent-spanning forest fires most likely sparked a global winter that finished the job. Thus, he writes, "it could be argued that the effects of life magnified the extent of the extinction."

The effects of life magnified the extent of the extinction?

Ok . . . isn't that like saying the presence of all those floor beams, plaster, down mattresses and orphans magnified the effects of the orphanage fire?

So . . . nothing, maybe?
posted by General Tonic at 2:03 PM on May 12, 2009


asusu: However, I can't think of any unnatural processes.

Come over here and I'll show you one.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:30 PM on May 12, 2009


New Species Thrives In Extremely High Temperature And Pressure
posted by homunculus at 3:49 PM on May 12, 2009


Newly Discovered Species Thrives In Extremely High Temperature And Pressure

FTFT. Also, learn to use proper capitalization, Science Daily.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:34 PM on May 12, 2009


Ward's "rotten-eggstinction" scenario

Ok come on. Stop pelting me with your bad puns
posted by nola at 4:45 PM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think what he's saying isn't that life is necessarily self-destructive but that living systems don't necessarily tend toward equilibrium in the long term.

In other words, there's no particular reason to assume that in a system where one biological process consumes oxygen and excretes carbon dioxide, and another consumes carbon dioxide and excretes oxygen that it should necessarily remain in balance, even without human intervention.

Living systems evolve, and living creatures evolve within them. Only humans have the intelligence to recognize it happening and perhaps the ability to either intentionally modify themselves or their environment to ensure their continued survival.
posted by empath at 4:51 PM on May 12, 2009


> "The only 'out' is intelligence," Ward said. "Our intelligence is the only way that we can extend the longevity of the biosphere."

Our "intelligence" got us into this mess. Whether or not it gets us out of it remains to be seen.
posted by you just lost the game at 9:15 PM on May 12, 2009


I think what he's saying isn't that life is necessarily self-destructive but that living systems don't necessarily tend toward equilibrium in the long term.

Yes. Even if the atmosphere turns to methane, something will find a way to live, and in time the descendants of that something will find ways to fill all sorts of interesting ecological niches. Sucks to be a mammal if that happens. On the bright side, any surviving humans will have learned to live under pressure domes, which will be great practice for space exploration...
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:45 PM on May 12, 2009


Welcome to the Pressuredome!
posted by box at 8:20 AM on May 13, 2009


Ward got tenure for this? I... see.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:49 AM on May 13, 2009


I think what he's saying isn't that life is necessarily self-destructive but that living systems don't necessarily tend toward equilibrium in the long term.

Now why go spoiling everybody's fun by actually reading what the guy wrote?
posted by yoink at 9:13 AM on May 13, 2009


Our "intelligence" got us into this mess. Whether or not it gets us out of it remains to be seen.

Well, stupidity certainly isn't going to get us out of it.
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:39 PM on May 13, 2009


40 comments and nobody has made a Tyler Perry joke? I'm proud, and ashamed at the same time.
posted by Megafly at 5:47 PM on May 13, 2009


I refuse to credit any hypothesis that implies teleology to natural processes.

I refuse to credit any comment that misuses the word implies.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:00 PM on May 13, 2009


Impute, you impudent imp.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:05 PM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


"I refuse to credit any comment that misuses the word implies."

Good thing that hasn't happened, then.
posted by klangklangston at 6:34 PM on May 13, 2009


asusu: However, I can't think of any unnatural processes.

Jimmy Fallon getting his own talk show?
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:48 PM on May 15, 2009


Good thing that hasn't happened, then.

I do not think "implies" means what you think it means.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:21 AM on May 20, 2009


Just what are you implying?
posted by Burhanistan at 8:48 AM on May 20, 2009


"I do not think "implies" means what you think it means."

Then you'd be both coy and wrong.
posted by klangklangston at 9:30 AM on May 20, 2009


No, sorry, "impute" or "ascribe" was the intended word, not "imply."
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:08 PM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wrong. The author implies teleology by framing diseases as serving a purpose. Both "ascribe" and "impute" would also be correct words to use, but they both carry the implication of explicit reasoning from causes. Imply carries the implication of both indirect attribution and logical necessity.

So, no, I meant "imply," and while you may have already laminated your junior pedant badge, you're as wrong as someone claiming that it's wrong to end a sentence in a preposition.
posted by klangklangston at 12:56 PM on May 23, 2009


Wrong. The author implies teleology by framing diseases as serving a purpose.

You're missing the point at issue. You wrote "implies teleology to natural processes." The grammatical problem is that you can't "imply X to Y" you can, however, impute or ascribe X to Y. Had you written "implies that natural processes are teleological" that would have been fine as well.
posted by yoink at 1:18 PM on May 25, 2009


I laminated my junior pedant badge with poo when I ated it.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:27 PM on May 25, 2009


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