A Way of Life for Agnostics? – Gaia theory
T.H. Huxley’s intention to have science replace religion as the authoritative source of information about life and the cosmos has succeeded beyond his expectations. Unfortunately more has been discredited than he may have intended. To help fill the resulting ethical vacuum, the author proposes a worldview for agnostics based on science and with Earth as an object for reverence.
The naming of things is important. Our deepest thoughts are unconscious, and we need metaphors and similes to translate them into something that we, as well as the rest of humankind, can understand. This is especially true of the broad subject, Gaia theory, which is the pseudonym for Earth System Science. Many scientists seem to dislike Gaia as a name; prominent among them is the eminent evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith. He made clear when he said of Gaia, “What an awful name to call a theory,” that it was the name, the metaphor, more than the science that caused his disapproval. He was, like most scientists, well aware of the power of metaphor. William Hamilton’s metaphors of selfish and spiteful genes have served wonderfully, in Richard Dawkins’s hands, to make evolutionary science comprehensible, but let us never forget that the powerful metaphor of Gaia was the gift of a great novelist. I would remind those who criticize the name Gaia that they are doing battle with William Golding, who first coi ned it. We should not lightly turn aside from the name Gaia because of pedantic objection. Biologists now accept Gaia as a theory that they can try to falsify so why do they continue to object to the name itself? Surely, it cannot be metaphor envy. I think that it is something deeper, a rejection by reductionist scientists of anything that smells of holism, anything that implies that the whole may be more than the sum of its parts. I see the battle between Gaia and the selfish gene as part of an outdated and pointless war between holists and reductionists. In a sensible world, we need them both.
The philosopher Mary Midgley reminded us that Gaia has influence well beyond science. She said, “The reason why the notion of this enclosing whole concerns us is that it corrects a large and disastrous blind spot in our contemporary world view. It reminds us that we are not separate, independent autonomous entities. Since the Enlightenment, the deepest moral efforts of our culture have gone to establishing our freedom as individuals. The campaign has produced great results but like all moral campaigns it is one sided and has serious costs when the wider context is forgotten.”
One of these costs is our alienation from the physical world. She went on to say, “We have carefully excluded everything non-human from our value system and reduced that system to terms of individual self interest. We are mystified–as surely no other set of people would be–about how to recognize the claims of the larger whole that surrounds us–the material world of which we are a part. Our moral a nd physical vocabulary, carefully tailored to the social contract, leaves no language in which to recognize the environmental crisis.
Strangely, a statesman led me to think similar thoughts. That noble and brave man, Vaclav Havel, stirred me to see that science could evolve from its self-imposed reductionist imprisonment. His courage against adversity gave his words authority. When Havel was awarded the Freedom Medal of the United Stares he took as the title of his acceptance speech, “We are not here for ourselves alone.” He reminded us that science had replaced religion as the source of knowledge but that modern science offers no moral guidance. He went on to say that recent holistic science did offer something to fill this moral void. He cited the anthropic principle as explaining why we are here, and Gaia as something to which we could be accountable. If we could revere our planet with the same respect and love that we gave in the past to God, it would benefit us as well as Earth. Perhaps those who have faith might see this is God’s will also.
I do not think that President Havel was proposing an alternative Earth-based religion. I take his suggestion as offering something quite different. I think he offered a way of life for agnostics. Gaia is a theory of science and is therefore always provisional and evolving, it is never dogmatic or certain and could even be wrong. Provisional it may be but being of the palpable Earth, it is something tangible to love and fear and think we understand. We can put our trust–even faith–in Gaia but this is different from the cold certainty of purposeless atheism or an unwavering belief in God’s purpose.
Science is not excluded from Mary Midgley’s vision of our alienation from the material world. We now know enough about living organisms and the Earth System to see that we cannot explain them by reductionist science alone. The deepest error of modern biology is the entrenched belief that organisms interact only with other organisms and merely adapt to their material environment. This is as wrong as believing that the people of a village interact with their neighbors but merely adapt to the material conditions of their cottages. In real life, both organisms and people change their environment as well as adapting to it. What matters are the consequences: if the change is for the better then those who made it will prosper; if it is for the worse then the changers risk extinction. Reductionist science grew from the clockwork logic of Descartes. It can only partially explain anything alive. Living things also use the circular logic of systems, now more fashionably known as complexity theory, where cause and effec t are indistinguishable and where there is the miracle of emergence.
President Havel’s thoughts led me to think about the ethic that comes from Gaia theory; it would be one with two strong rules. The first rule states that stability and resilience in ecosystems and on Earth requires the presence of firm bounds or constraints. The second rule states that those who live well with their environment favor the selection of their progeny. Imagine sermons based on these rules. Consider first the guiding hand of constraint. I can see the nods of approval. People’s own experience of the need for a firm hand in the evolution of their families and in society concurs with the evolutionary experience of Earth itself.
The second rule, the need to take care of the environment, brings to mind a sermon on the abominable transgression of rerraforming-rhe technological conversion of another planet into a habitat for humans. What is so bad about terraforming is its objective to make a second home for us while we are destroying our own planet by the greedy misapplication of science and technology. It is madness to think of converting with bulldozers and agribusiness the desert planet Mars into some pale semblance of Earth when we should be improving our way of living with Earth.
The second rule also warns of the consequences of unbridled humanism. Early in the history of civilization, we realized that overreaching self-worship turns self-esteem into narcissism. It has taken almost until now to recognize that the exclusive love for our tribe or nation turns patriotism into xenophobic nationalism. We are just glimpsing the possibility that the worship of humankind can also become a bleak philosophy, which excludes all other living things, our partners in life upon Earth.
We have inherited a planet of exquisite beauty It is the gift of four billion years of evolution. We need to regain our ancient feeling for Earth as an organism and revere it again. Gala has been the guardian of life for all of its existence; we reject her care at our peril. We can use technology to buy us time while we reform but we remain accountable for the damage we do. The longer we take the larger the bill. If you put trust in Gaia, it can be a commitment as strong and as joyful as that of a good marriage–one where the partners put their trust in one another. The fact that they are mortal makes that trust even more precious.
Let us as scientists look more closely at the ethical and philosophical aspects of Gaia. I have put before you the proposition that, in addition to being a theory in science, Gaia offers a worldview for agnostics. This would require an interactive trust, not blind faith, and a trust that accepts that, like us, Gaia has a finite life span and is provisional.
James Lovelock is an independent scientist and inventor and is perhaps best known as the progenitor of the Gaia Theory. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and an honorary Fellow of Green College, Oxford. His most recent book is Homage to Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist, to be published in September by Oxford University Press. Address: Coombe Mill St. Giles on the Heath, Launceston, Cornwall PL15 9RY, UK E-mail: Jesjl@cs.com.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group