Gaia Theory – in a Nutshell

Gaia from Greek mythology is the primordial earth goddess. In some, interpretations she is the earth itself or a spiritual representation of it. She gave rise to all life on earth.

What is Gaia Theory

According to Gaia theory, the earth is a place where life can flourish not just because it happened to be in the right place (from the sun) and the right time (4 billion years ago). Rather life itself has shaped the planet to be more sustainable. Much like a living organism the earth maintains a degree of equilibrium over time and when this is disturbed it has buffer systems that can bring it back. This whole process is achieved through the interaction between the earth’s natural cycles and living organisms all of which are working symbiotically.

Science and criticisms of Gaia Theory

Gaia theory was developed by Dr. James Lovelock in 1965 whilst he was working for NASA researching methods to detect life on other planets, specifically on Mars. It has been received skeptically by mainstream science to this day and is only considered a hypothesis by most. Yet others claim it to be totally unscientific.

According to Dr. Lovelock, Gaia has been a successful theory and has made no less than 10 predictions which have been observed to be true. A few of the processes which it claims to have a say in explaining are (i) how ocean salinity is kept at low levels for life, (ii) Regulation of global temperatures, (iii) Regulation of oxygen in the atmosphere and the processing of CO2 etc.

One could see how Gaia theory can give us a sense of comfort and even have a spiritual dimension. Mother earth takes care of life and is able to protect and heal itself. We are a natural part of this larger organism and through us, the earth has been able to look at the universe in which it was born. (As an example, global warming due to human misadventures could also be taken care of by Gaia. Increased cloud formation, which would reflect more of the sun’s energy, controlling the global warming.)

It is precisely this sense of comfort and also as Dr. Lovelock claims the name of the Theory ‘Gaia’ (representing something supernatural) which might have caused it to garner so much criticism. A lot of criticism comes from scientists who feel the theory is ‘teleological‘ (having a sense of purpose) and against the concepts of evolution by natural selection. Dr. Richard Dawkins states “for organisms to act in concert would require foresight and planning, which is contrary to the current scientific understanding of evolution”.

Other’s like Dr. Peter Ward see it as a dangerous misconception. He feels it appeals to New Age nonsense, as he ridicules “only if we could return to nature the world would heal itself”. Claiming this would mean abandoning civilized and scientific progress. He gives examples of how then there would be a return of high infant mortality, disease, and suffering etc. This view mostly appears to be a misguided understanding of Gaia theory as no such claims appear to have been made.

The theory did find a staunch supporter in Dr. Lynn Margulis. She has argued against Dawkin’s claims and states Darwinian evolution is incomplete in that it has considered the environment a static arena, whereas the evidence suggests it is not. That the organisms shape the environment as the environment shapes the organisms.

Dr. Lovelock argues that actually Gaia theory is now widely accepted science, although with a different name of ‘Earth System Sciences‘.

What seems obvious is that the sense of purpose and comfort one could potentially drive from a theory like Gaia is exactly what is most abhorrent about it. The science and observations in support or against it seem less of an issue. One also wonders that there is this fear that we may lull ourselves into a false sense of security (as with global warming) if we were to cling to this. It seems we feel the need to remind ourselves that we have to take matters into our own hands. We alone have agency and there is nothing grander at work. Everything else is happenstance.

That being said the theory itself does not claim to propose any sense of purpose. It does not view humans as special either, rather the earth’s natural cycles and spheres, one of them being the biosphere, as being in symbiosis. In a sense, the homeostatic mechanisms of earth could rather well be working against humans much like the body tries to work against cancer.

Yet this disgust and fear of Gaia are certainly interesting.


  1. I don’t know about disgust, but personally, I’m suspicious when people use new agey language that implies that something supernatural is going on, but when challenged fall back to the position that the language is metaphorical or poetic license for natural systems. I think it’s far more honest to just talk explicitly in terms of biospheres and earth sciences and avoid language that implies the earth is consciously looking out for us.

    I suspect many scientists react strongly to this because they’re afraid it will taint the crucial idea of an integrated biosphere with ideas that make it easy for people to dismiss the whole thing as fringe nonsense.

    1. I think it is this suspicion of what these other scientists are implying that is interesting.
      They are also scientists working within the field why do we have to be suspcious of them in particular?
      They do give a good account of what they are implying but this doesn’t appear to match up with what the others fear they might be implying.

      I think it is this sense of fear which get the best of us. Why are we afraid?

      Take Dr Margulis, she has objected to the new agey personification of Gaia. She stressed that Gaia is “not an organism”, but “an emergent property of interaction among organisms” it is “the series of interacting ecosystems that compose a single huge ecosystem at the Earth’s surface. Period”.

      I see two aspects here. One is the new agey/spiritual paradigm which has misinterpreted this concept and added more meaning. The other is the scientcism paradigm which has also misinterpreted the concept and removed all meaning as well as tried to malign character.

      We should be mindful of both so that we don’t fall into either. I feel the later paradigm can hinder scientific progress as it discourages open investigations.

      The above two paradigm seem to hold onto a world view/ belief system and that is why they are afraid and suspicious of each other.

      1. Scientism is usually accused when someone is attempting to apply science to an area where it’s application is inappropriate. I think there’s something to this when people try to talk about a science of morality, or aesthetics, or other value driven domains. And we can debate whether science is applicable to history (I think it is) or things like literature (less likely, unless perhaps we’re studying people’s psychological reaction to it) or other humanistic endeavors.

        But here’s the thing. Once we use the scientism accusation, once we say someone is wrongfully applying science to a proposition, it doesn’t seem consistent to then turn around and call that proposition science. If scientists are being scientistic toward Gaia, then can Gaia coherently be a scientific proposition? And if it is a scientific proposition, can scientism coherently be charged to someone holding it to the standards of science?

        1. In my view scientism is when someone holds science as a belief system. Or fears (consciously or unconsciously) there to be a prevailing narrative of science which needs to be defended inspite of evidence or discourage any attempt to find such evidence in the first place.

          once we say someone is wrongfully applying science to a proposition…

          Yes I agree but are they applying science is the question? Or are they acting out of fear, disgust or suspicion?

          For example in this case Dr Ward’s fear of it being dangerous and the ridicule of “only if we could return to nature the world would heal itself”. Is that an application of science to the proposition?

          Similarly Dr Dawkin’s statements, are they really applying any science? In his case he is again accusing the theory of claiming something (i.e. foresight and planning by organisms) which it does not propose.

          To hold it to the standards of science you first accept it as a valid hypothesis and then see what the evidence shows. For example does the evidence show that organisms on earth have shaped the environment to be more favourable for life to exist? Or does the earth behave homeostatically over long periods of time?
          If someone wants to explore that as a scientific endeavour then thats perfectly fine, it could be true or untrue.
          But to malign and misrepresent it out of your fear of what it may imply is scientism in my view.

          1. I wanted to add that maybe I don’t know the right term to use here (if one does exists). And as a result I may have been wrongfully using the word scientism to represent it.

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