In 1965 the British-born inventor James Lovelock, then working for NASA, had an epiphany.
Thinking about the question of life on Mars, he realized that a major difference between that planet and ours is that the Martian atmosphere is sterile and in a state of unmovable equilibrium, while down here the atmosphere is dynamic, highly atypical, and kept in being by the life it supports. This could be only because planet Earth is in some very real sense a living organism, something that shortly (on the advice of his neighbor the novelist and future Nobel laureate William Golding) he was to call “Gaia.”
Although Lovelock soon gained the support of the biologist Lynn Margulis, she who would win fame as the person who saw clearly that complex cells are symbioses of simpler cells, generally the professional scientific community was contemptuous. The general public, however, embraced the Gaia hypothesis with enthusiasm, a warmth that (judging from the Internet) has only increased and intensified over the years.
Lovelock is a first-class scientist—a Fellow of the Royal Society—and he did not take the scorn of his fellows lightly. Over the years, he has labored to make his hypothesis more acceptable, primarily by devising models to show how our planet can remain in balance, or homeostasis, as well as by showing that his thinking does not violate norms of good science and is, in fact, in tune with the latest thinking in both evolution and ecology. So successful has he been that the late William Hamilton, generally acknowledged as the leading evolutionist of his generation, toyed favorably with Gaia hypotheses.
Nevertheless, perhaps because his major audience continues to be the general public, Lovelock has always and continues to be in tune with what one might call popular prejudices and movements. Notable in the past few years has been the increasingly frenzied debate over global warming. Let it be understood that no one who takes science seriously denies that global warming is occurring and is a grave threat to our planet and to the human species. However, calm and reason are not always evident on either side of the debate. While the deniers often make explicit reference to their religious underpinnings—God will never abandon us or our globe—the affirmers can be shrill and religious-like in their arguments.
Too often one thinks of the penitents in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, who whip themselves bloody so that God will take pity on them and save them from the plague. Today’s equivalent of chastisement offers the burden of a one-way trip to North Dakota (safe from rising seas), a lifetime of living in yurts, and a steady diet of raw organic vegetables, else all is lost in the heat-driven Armageddon that approaches.
Jim Lovelock has not been immune to this kind of hysteria, and his writings in the past decade have reflected as much. Planet Earth may have had a long and healthy life, but now the end is nigh. Indeed, he has gone so far as to suggest that perhaps our only hope against the doom that awaits us is that it might have extreme selective consequences, with survivors having talents and abilities not possessed by humans today. That is social Darwinism of a kind that would have horrified the mild English scientist whose Origin of Species started this kind of thinking.
And yet, perhaps for the wrong reasons, Lovelock is back on track. Through thick and thin he has clung to his vision of Gaia, of a living planet, for all that the scientific community generally (notwithstanding Hamilton’s engagement) seems even further from acceptance. Now well into his 90s, he realizes that his brainchild is going to vanish if the apocalyptic forecasts of end times are realized and accepted. He is now pulling back and taking a more measured and reasonable view of global warming and its effects.
Departing from happy anticipation of mass destruction in the cause of eugenic fitness, Lovelock now agrees with moderate voices that the solution still is in our hands. Things are undoubtedly getting worse. The solution,, however, is not self-flagellation or mordant, inactive satisfaction that the worst will undoubtedly happen, but putting ourselves to work and using our science and our reason to try to ameliorate the situation and pull back from the brink. He says:
It just so happens that the green religion is now taking over from the Christian religion. … I don’t think people have noticed that, but it’s got all the sort of terms that religions use. … The greens use guilt. That just shows how religious greens are. You can’t win people round by saying they are guilty for putting (carbon dioxide) in the air.
Probably—although who can tell?—Lovelock will not be around to see how this all plays out. For myself, I applaud Lovelock’s continued ability to think about important issues and, ever the maverick, be prepared to boldly go (God, I hate split infinitives) where few dare follow. He may be wrong about Gaia. He may be wrong about global warming. Or he may be right. But he continues to be one of the most stimulating and interesting thinkers of our time.
Michael Ruse directs the program in the history and philosophy of science at Florida State University.