Christian based service movement warning about threats to rights and freedoms irrespective of the label.
The Local World - Part III by Geoffrey Dobbs
GAIA: Goddess, Organism or Association ?
I am devoting most of this chapter to James Lovelock and his GAIA Hypothesis, which is already exerting a major influence on what is called the Green Movement. He is a remarkable man, an independent scientist who does not depend upon a salaried post and a career in any university research laboratory or commercial corporation, but supports himself and his family by the income from his own inventions, the best-known of which is the electron-capture detector. This, a development from gas chromatography has enabled people to detect extremely minute traces of substances, such as pesticides, in the atmosphere and elsewhere, and has been a major factor in the discovery, from Rachel Carson onwards, of the widespread pollution of the environment.
Such financial independence, when combined with a scientific reputation of sufficient magnitude to secure election as a Fellow of the Royal Society, and some participation in the American Space Programme, confers the freedom of mind which enabled him to launch an hypothesis so far-fetched and imaginative that it was bound to be rejected at the outset by the Scientific Establishment and by the major journals.
Not that the idea of the Earth as a living entity was anything new. It was not unknown in space fiction, and Lovelock himself pays tribute to some of his scientific predecessors, e g. the Scottish scientist James Hutton in 1785, and the Ukrainians Korolenko and Vernadskv. But when Lovelock took it up he transformed it into a serious scientific hypothesis for which he adduced much evidence, though by its nature absolute proof must be impossible.
The concept as applied to the Earth appears to have originated with his involvement in designing instruments for the detection of life on Mars. It seemed to him that the direct attempt to find organisms or their products similar to those on Earth was the wrong approach. If Mars has a biosphere it must affect its atmosphere and therefore the sensitive analysis of the planet's air would provide the best evidence. Failing such evidence the search for living organisms in a few samples of its surface must be useless.
The concept of the biosphere - the surface zone of the Earth inhabited by living organisms - had to precede that of Gaia, the whole living planet including its rocks, its air and its oceans as a self- regulating organism, maintained by the active feedback processes of its biota, the total collection of life-forms in the biosphere. While this might seem an obvious extension of thought to the ecologist (but not till after it had been made!) it was in fact a great leap of the imagination, challenging the established view of the Earth as a mass of inorganic material which happened to have provided a home for living organisms.
It is its unique, shining atmosphere with its high oxygen content which gives away the secret of life on the third planet from the Sun. But is it just on it; or is life an essential property of the whole planet, transforming and distinguishing it from all the others ?
The Earth's Control System
The presence of oxygen has commonly been accounted for by the loss of hydrogen to space from water in the outer atmosphere under the influence of solar radiation, leaving the heavier oxygen behind; but this, perhaps once a major factor, is considered to be so no longer.
How then does the Earth's atmospheric content of oxygen remain so constantly at 21 % - about the maximum which will allow vegetation to grow without being eliminated by fires ? What is the control system ? The answer suggested is that it is the production of methane in the anaerobic muds of marshes, lake and river sides, coastal sea-beds, estuaries, etc. This gas would take up oxygen by being oxidised to CO2 and water, while some of the carbon which does not form methane is buried in these anaerobic layers, thus leaving more oxygen free. This could provide a method of cybernetic control over the amount of oxygen in the air.
In his first hook (GAIA, 1979, and 1982, 1987 as Oxford Paperback) Lovelock gives a diagram illustrating this oxygen and carbon cycle. He also suggests a somewhat similar control mechanism which maintains the salt concentration in the sea at a level compatible with life. With the run-off from the land pouring into the sea continually, its salt content should have risen far above present levels were it not for the deposit of salt by evaporation in land-locked bays and lagoons.
These are but two examples of the many control systems at work in the planet. It is one of the virtues of the GAIA hypothesis that it constantly suggests these questions concerning homeostatic systems which we expect to find in living organisms, often with most revealing results.
In his second book : The Ages of Gaia (Oxford 1988) Lovelock gives us a speculative history of the Earth that starts off according to current theory. This requires a supernova explosion to provide the heavier elements found in the planets for which the Sun's hydrogen fusion process is inadequate. The early years of planetary existence are very largely unknown, but an atmosphere rich in CO2 with methane and with some hydrogen present, is now thought probable. (It used to be mostly ammonia). The oceans would have been laden with iron and other elements and compounds which could exist only in the absence of oxygen. In this anoxic environment the raw materials of life, compounds such as amino acids, nucleosides and sugars, described as 'organic' because they were formerly imagined to be exclusively the products of life, are thought to have accumulated, until one day a living, reproducing organism appeared.
The Current Genesis Story
This primaeval molecular soup which arose under the action of solar radiation and perhaps also Earth's own heat and residual radioactivity, is now an established part of the current Genesis myth of science. The next great leap to the living cell is taken for granted, and once this has occurred natural selection can be held responsible for its survival and rapid spread. Only when the new form of microbial life had spread all over the planet's surface could Gaia be said to have been born.
Lovelock passes rather easily over these early stages, while admitting that they are all speculative. Being himself primarily a physical scientist rather than a biologist he relies largely upon the writings of others, especially on Professor Lynn Margulis's picture of early life on the planet. Plausible explanations as to how the molecular 'protolife' might have arisen are not lacking, and after that it is considered 'reasonable' that "life started from the molecular chemical equivalent of eddies and whirlpools."
At first these living cells must have fed upon 'the abundant organic chemicals lying around," but at some early time some organisms must have "discovered how to tap the abundant and inexhaustible energy of sunlight" by the process of photosynthesis. This liberates oxygen, which at first would have been instantly absorbed by the anoxic environment, but at some time must have begun to accumulate in the air until it reached its present proportion of 21% of the atmosphere, at which level it is maintained by the homeostatic processes of the biosphere.
We are invited to visualise the Archaean as an age of anaerobic bacterial domination of the biosphere, ending with an Ice Age which may have marked the appearance of free oxygen in the atmosphere, attributed to the growing activities of photosynthesisers. It is suggested that the remnants of this Archaean biosphere survive to-day in the muds, swamps, oozes and sediments, wherever oxygen is excluded, and even in our own guts, playing an important part in the feedback processes which maintain the Earth in viable equilibrium.
The invention and use of the electron microscope revealed a new world of fine structure which also revolutionised our classification of living organisms. It confirmed that the bacteria (now classed as prokaryotes) have a simpler cell structure than the other organisms (eukaryotes). In prokaryotes the genetic material, now known as the DNA, is diffused in the cell, not contained in a nucleus or other organelle bounded by a membrane as in eukaryotes.
But it also was found that the blue-green algae (Cyanophyceae) differed from all the other algae in being prokaryotes like the bacteria, as well as containing chlorophyll and thus being able to photosynthesise as do all the other, enkaryotic algae. In fact, Lovelock refers to them as Cyanobacteria. He asserts that they must have been the first photosynthesisers to arise on Earth and to have been responsible for the first stage in oxygenating the atmosphere.
This next step, from the less-organised cell of the prokaryote to the more complex and organised cell of the eukaryote, opened the way for the development of all the organisms known to us, large and small, above the bacterial level : though it is still true that the bacteria play a much greater part in the ecology of the planet than is realised by those who think of them mainly as pathogens. The question as to how this great advance, from pro- to eu-karyote, can have taken place is an intriguing one, to which J. E. Lovelock's associate, Professor Lynn Margulis has suggested a most imaginative and stimulating answer in the form of the endo-symbiosis hypothesis.
Muck, Magic, Mutualism and Money
Symbiosis is a word which means simply 'living together,' but in practice and long usage it has come to refer to the intimate association of dissimilar organisms to their mutual advantage and interdependence : and thereby has arisen much argument. For a long time the biological Establishment considered the idea of mutual benefit between organisms as in some way 'soft,' sentimental and 'unscientific,' and, indeed, to be ranked with the same sort of 'crankiness' as composting and organic farming - generally derided (especially at Rothamsted, the pioneers in chemical-industry farming) as 'muck and magic.' One might retaliate by saying that the Establishment was non compost mentis before the present artificial vogue for every sort of 'green' thinking turned the tables on it (or them) !
Ironically, it is the same Big-Money Business which was responsible for the dominance of chemical farming which is now finding that it pays to back 'environmentalism' (including muck, magic and oriental mysticism), having discovered that 'muck,' in the form of battery or factory farm slurry, can be made as damaging as, and even more offensive than inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, if produced centrally on a big enough scale !
Here again, it has been money and careers which have distorted the general attitude, more particularly to the vast and vital role which micro-organisms, especially the fungi and bacteria, play in the life of the planet. There were always jobs and careers to be had in pathology - in human and animal pathology mainly for bacteriologists, in plant pathology mainly for mycologists - which is why pathology, parasitism, predation, were thought of as the major phenomena, and it was fashionable to refer to symbiosis as 'controlled parasitism.'
Even now, 'microbes' and 'germs' are still thought of mainly as disease organisms, and fungi as nasty poisonous things or plant pests. As a result our whole culture is disease-orientated. Hence also the distortion of popular Darwinism as expressed in the quotation : "Nature red in tooth and claw" and the current emphasis on everything perverse, lethal, fearful, criminal, violent or catastrophic.
Comparatively few people yet realise the true situation : namely that symbiosis and innumerable less intimate forms of intricate mutualism and association, including commensalism (feeding together) and successionalism (one form following another) constitute the main basis of the biosphere, while parasitism and predation, are marginal and secondary phenomena, though important as limiting and eliminating factors. You cannot have a parasite without a host, but you can have a 'host' without a parasite, and a 'disease' has no existence except as an abnormal condition of an organism.
Endo-symbiosis for all ?
But to return to Professor Lynn Margulis and her endosymbiosis theory of how the more complex eukaryotes could have arisen from the simpler prokaryotes. Every cell of a eukaryote contains a number of distinct small bodies known as 'organelIes,' some of them not unlike bacteria, with their own definite walls and DNA resembling in some cases that in bacteria. Examples are the 'mitochondria,' energy-giving bodies found in all eukaryote cells including our own, and the chloroplasts which contain the chlorophyll which enables green plants to photosynthesise and obtain energy from sunlight and restore oxygen to the atmosphere - both now quite vital to life on this planet.
The suggestion is that these organelles originated as bacteria which had been taken into the larger cells some time during the period of prokaryote dominance of the biosphere, and instead of being swallowed, or parasitising their hosts, they had become symbionts (inside or endo-symbionts) so intimate that they had become essential components of the cell. This theory, like the Gaia hypothesis itself, was once regarded as far-fetched, but is now treated with respect as the widespread nature of symbiosis is increasingly realised, though still subject to criticism.
For a long time the heavy use of fertilizers in nurseries and many experimental plots suppressed and obscured the almost universal presence of mycorrhizas (fungus-roots) on the roots of most green plants growing in natural soils, to the mutual advantage (as many studies have now shown) of both plant and fungus. The example of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the roots of leguminous plants is well known; but the supreme example of a symbiotic association so intimate and permanent that the product behaves like an autonomous organism has long been known as a lichen.
Indeed, throughout human history up to the late nineteenth century lichens have been known and studied simply as a sort of plants, and the discovery of their dual nature : a fungus thallus incorporating cells of green (or blue-green) algae, usually in a distinct layer, was at first rejected with withering scorn. There are innumerable cases also of symbiosis involving bacteria (for instance those in the rumen of cattle which enable them to digest cellulose), but how widespread bacterial symbiosis with larger organisms, may be is so far little known or studied. Similarly with the small, unicellular green algae, such as for instance, those which inhabit the bodies of some small animals, e.g. the common polyp Hydra viridis, thus giving them the benefits of photo-synthesis while sharing in their other food intake.
Hypothesis into Religion
No doubt these discoveries had to await the development of the light microscope to a point where the green cells, formerly known in lichens as 'gonidia,' could be recognised as algae. In the same way, Margulis's hypothesis had to await the development of the electron microscope to the point where the fine structure of bacteria and of organelles could be studied in the light of our knowledge of the structure of DNA. But if we accept the current evolutionary genesis story of the creation of life on this planet, including its early prokaryotic Age, it is hard to see how otherwise the eukaryotic cell with its vital organelles, which is now the basis of all larger life-forms, including ourselves, could have arisen. And in that event every living thing above the bacterial level is not a simple organism but a co-operative far more ancient and intimate than the lichens.
As with the Gaia hypothesis itself, we are here still dealing with a hypothesis, not with something which can be proven, now or perhaps ever. But it fits in well with most of the known facts, is mentally stimulating and suggestive of further lines of enquiry, and has all the signs of a constructive and valuable advance in thinking. Moreover, no equally convincing alternative has so far been suggested.
What James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis together seem to have achieved is to round off and pull together the recent trend towards ecological understanding in a way which is bound to influence the direction of biological thought for generations, probably as much as have evolutionary theory and molecular biology. What is to be hoped is that, unlike these, the Gaia concept will not be erected into a religion.
A belief in creation and a Creator has been the normal and almost universal basis of human reason and understanding of the Universe for as long as we have any record. Though it came to a realistic and practical point with the Christian faith in the Incarnation from which arose the inspiration of modern science, in all the major religions including those which worshipped many gods or innumerable local spirits, there was nearly always, behind and beyond them all, the great and ultimate Creator; and it was not until the Greek philosophers had cast aside the gods of Olympus for the one God who created and maintains the Universe that they could begin to make sense of it.
But in the mid-nineteenth century an extraordinary aberration occurred. As some men, under the influence of Darwinism, began to get a glimpse of some of the simpler modes of operation of the Creator, under the name of evolution by natural selection, they became so fascinated by their discovery that they substituted the word 'evolution' for the word 'creation,' and with it substituted a belief in an automatic and impersonal process for the Act of Creation, with its enormous implications for human living, thinking and behaviour.
In doing so they changed the very nature of human reason, as well as undermining the basis of society, and, incidentally, distorting the religion of some Christians who, in rejecting the evolutionary religion found it necessary also to reject the evolutionary hypothesis.
Even so, despite the adaptation of 'reason' to accept the automatic, witless, purposeless construction of complex beings by a tautological process of happening because they happened, and non-survival owing to their inability to survive, it is to be noted that the believers in physical automatism as the creator of the Universe seldom use an impersonal and mechanistic description of their religion but are always using the language of purpose and design.
The Adaptation of Reason
'Natural selection' itself implies personal choice, and 'Nature' is simply substituted for 'God.' Otherwise why not just call it 'differential survival'? Indeed, many of them go much further than Christian theologians nowadays dare in respect of God, in attributing active intervention with purpose, design, intelligence, ingenuity, even femininity, to 'Nature.'
Instance Dr. Francis Crick of DNA fame in his book Of Molecules and Men, mentioned in the last Chapter. He frequently personified Nature : "She knows the rules more precisely than we do -" "Nature has been at the job so long." "The trick used by nature is to store the instructions" etc. The copying process is "exceptionally well designed," the control has "an ingenious feature" and so on. He makes it quite clear that he wants to propagate, not so much science, but the scientistic religion of faith in physical automatism which he equates with science - more particularly in the place of Christianity.
Men who are outstandingly clever in one specialised direction are often quite obtuse in others, and it is apparent that Dr. Crick and many of his co-religionists are unaware that they are driven to thinking, writing and talking in personal terms which contradict their belief in impersonal automatism because the language they use was developed under the influence of Christianity; of which faith, indeed, it was, and still is largely, a tool of expression. This is why, when it is used for purposes alien or hostile to that religion, the result is confusion.
On the other hand, the true language of physical science, namely mathematics, though capable of indefinite expansion on the one plane of number and quantity, is totally incapable of dealing with the personal, with will, purpose, mind, love, or God.
My father (a Cambridge wrangler) used, in his humble way, to describe mathematics as "the handmaid of the sciences," with the implication that even the best servant becomes a tyrant 'when he (or she) ruleth.' But that is just what happened. When the mathematical aspect directs the research and is applied to matters other than those naturally quantitative, it becomes a religion which inevitably eliminates belief in all things personal.
Even so, the most rabid mathematical automatist cannot live by maths alone. Being human he is bound to use a verbal language which can no more avoid the personal than mathematics can handle it, and this is bound to have its effect. Indeed, life is impossible without some sort of belief in personal qualities. In the end many of them find it necessary to seek refuge in a sort of pantheism in which Nature has indeed become their God (or their Goddess).
Viewing the Planet as a whole
This brings us back to James Lovelock and his Gaia - a concept based largely upon physical and chemical studies of the atmosphere and the oceans, the most fluid and continuous parts of the Earth's surface. It gives us a more comprehensive view than before of the planet and its biosphere which if rightly interpreted can be of immense value, and if wrongly, can be disastrous.
It has been said that the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth, and 'viewing the planet as a whole' can well increase the already excessive tendency to evade tackling every awkward problem by enlarging it to global size, and then looking for global action by a global power to 'solve' it - ignoring the fact that it is mainly centrally imposed activities on a global scale which are the chief threat to human life on the planet.
Lovelock's description of the Earth as 'living' is quite consistent with his belief that it is maintained in a state suitable for life by the homeostatic processes of the living organisms of the biosphere. But his description of it as an 'organism' is carrying an analogy too far.
An ecological association is not an organism, though it shares some of the properties of life with the organisms of which it consists. But these are not analogous with the cells of an organism, which possesses a unity derived from the identity of the DNA in every cell brought about by sexual fusion followed by cell division, as well as the contact of every cell membrane with its neighbours, through which a controlled exchange occurs throughout the body. In contrast, the constituents of an association are all different, by no means always in continuous contact, but are moulded together into a living entity by mutuality, the whole being defined by the eliminating factors of the environment, and of competition, death and disease.
A Mutuality, not an Organism or a God
Gaia if we must call it that, is an incredibly complex association of associations of living beings. It survives by its immense variety, its homeostatic properties, its mutuality, and complementarity. Any attempt at central control by one kind of its constituent organisms is contrary to its nature, and is simply asking for the offender to be eliminated. But how many of the people who now call themselves 'ecologists' and talk about 'saving the planet' understand this ?
Identifying the living planet with the ancient Earth-Goddess first of all suggests it is a single organism, secondly invites the conversion of a scientific theory into a primitive pagan cult - an aspect indeed, of the nature cult, and thirdly endows the Earth with feminine gender.
The name Gaia, Lovelock tells us, was not of his invention but was suggested for his thesis by William Golding the novelist noted for his writings about man's proclivities for evil. As a name for our beautiful Earth it will appeal to many of us as a mildly poetic touch, like referring to a ship as 'she,' but it is evident from his chapter on God and Gaia (The Ages of Gaia, 1988) that it has a somewhat deeper significance.
He in no way sees Gaia as "a sentient being, a surrogate God," in fact, according to Stephen R. L. Clark (Times Lit. Sup. Oct. 20-26, 1989) he has since wished he had not used the capital G. Nevertheless he finds the Gaia concept, both as loving Mother and terrifying destroyer (like the Hindu Goddess Kali) more 'manageable' than God (as indeed it is) even though Gaia is the name of a biological cybernetic system. Yet he can still ask : "What if Mary is another name for Gaia ?" and "How can we use the concept of Gaia as a way to understanding God ?"
But he does not ask : What is Mary, and what is Gaia, without that Incarnation on this Earth which makes them a part of reality, and not human fancies like characters in a book. This has been the core of that religion which brought reality into science and created our culture and that lovely mutualism with nature which may be seen in what remains of the English countryside before it was invaded by the money-culture.
Everything is now being done to destroy that Christian culture, and to alienate the young from it by confusing it with the products of the monopolistic World Debt-culture, from which, without identifying it, they seek escape into almost any form of nature-cult provided it is not Christian and trinitarian.
Among these is the assault on the feminine under the ironic name of femin which in its current form seeks to drive women out of the decentralised home, where their work is essentially life-promoting and benign, into the 'labour market,' i.e. the power-hierarchy remotely controlled by centralised power, whether financial, political, or both.
However unintendedly, the name of the Earth-Goddess transforms a scientific hypothesis into a source of direct power over people, and must inevitably encourage the illusion that those qualities in which the female can excel, of love, gentleness, non -aggression and mutuality, will escape being reduced and corrupted by centralised power over others, with its positive feed-back to more such power. This is an effective way of reducing those qualities which are most needed.
Love - and the Chisel of God
It is the popular myths which are forged out of major scientific hypotheses which matter even more than the hypotheses themselves. The myth of " Nature red in tooth and claw" which was derived from the idea of natural selection had much to do with shifting the prevailing emphasis away from life on to death and disease, predation and parasitism, and thence onto crime, violence and corruption in human society. In fact Tennyson's original use of the phrase was to contrast it with "love Creation's final law" (In Memoriam xv). Even so, though love, expressed as mutualism, is the law of Creation, this does not deny that death and disease may function as the chisel of the Creator in defining the living, which has nothing in common with the image of mankind as battling with Nature for control of the world.
Even some of the 'green' propaganda is concerned with trying to re-mould nature (and especially human nature) by arousing fear and suppressing life; but in this the author of the Gaia hypothesis is unlikely to help them.
While very much 'on their side' he is highly critical of some of their scare-mongering and the exaggeration of some aspects of pollution which, as he points out, is a necessary accompaniment of life. Also he has a wide knowledge of natural effects which can occur without human intervention. For instance, sulphur emissions from marine algae may be a major contributor to acid rain over Scandinavia, and he can be very caustic about the Greens' obsession about nuclear radiation, which may be trivial compared with that emitted by some rocks. (But if there is already so much surely that makes a good case for not having more !)
On the other hand, he takes seriously the greenhouse effect, the destruction of tropical rainforests, and the growth of human population, but is well aware of our lack of sufficient knowledge to place these into the time-scale of the Earth's natural, astronomical and atmospheric changes. Nevertheless, Lovelock has some of the limitations of his mathematical-physical-chemical view of life. One of his somewhat maverick suggestions (New Scientist 23-9-89) is that : "We should get industry to synthesise foodstuffs so that we can give back the land, keeping ourselves in cities."
This seems quite inconsistent both with his life-style and with his main thesis in the Gaia books, namely that we ourselves are a part of the living Earth, not an alien life upon it, and having our vital part to play as members of the biosphere, we cannot cut ourselves off from it. But if that inconsistency strikes me as a distinctly naughty hobgoblin, at least it is not the hobgoblin of a little mind !
Further reading: Books by Dr. Geoffrey Dobbs
"The Just Tax "
"Responsible Government in a Free Society"
The Church and the Trinity in "The Australian Heritage Series".
Please login first in order for you to submit comments