A Gaia Definition, and Genetic Hacking

What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having been wasted away, and only the bare framework of the land being left.
--Plato, quoted by Marston Bates

I first became interested in Gaia by reading Daisy World: A Cybernetic Proof of the Gaia Hypothesis published in Coevolution Quarterly 38:66 (1983) [now Whole Earth Review], in which James Lovelock showed that active planetary regulation of temperature and atmospheric content required neither foresight nor planning by life.

This article, and Carrying Capacity and the Greek Dark Ages by Marshall Massey (CQ 40:29 1983) suddenly made me aware that the deserts I had seen in Syria, vast expanses of small stones, in a latitude close to that of my native United States, had been man-made through generations of exposing soil to sun by tillage and domesticated herbivores.

Later on, I became aware of the Atmospheric Water Battery, in which trees, by transpiring large amounts of water into the air during the morning, cause rain to fall in the afternoon and evening, and store fresh water in an ecos, preventing it from running off into the sea. I came to realize trees cause rain more so than the reverse.

Natively, the extent to which Gaia can maximize biomass and diversity is dependent on latitude and altitude. Artificially, it is limited by our exploitation.

These are my fundamental ideas about Gaia:

Gaia reduces to three operant principles, which are the Maximization of Biomass, the Maximization of Biodiversity, and the Celebration of Self. All proper biologic activity derives from these principles, and that the ultimate purpose of biologic activity is to promote them.

A hierarchy of empowerment of beings exists in Gaia. Lower beings in this hierarchy can know only a subset of the knowledge achieved by higher ones. The extent of the heirarchy is for our purposes infinite, and beings continually evolve up the hierarchy. Weblike, the hierarchy may never be fully known.

A hierarchy of worth of beings exists in Gaia. Any species may occupy different loci on the hierarchies of empowerment and worth, but harmony furthers that the two loci be close to each other.

Gaia is symmetric in that the furthering any of the three principles benefits the other two.

Gaia is scalable. All living beings promote the three founding principles in accord with their own ability and the viability of any specie depends on the extent to which it upholds these principles, whether consciously or not.

Gaia is reciprocal. Gaia creates an environment beneficial for the component beings which is independent of individual needs or even species needs. This environment in return strengthens Gaia's position. This creative power includes regulation of aspects of the inanimate environment as well as the ability to extinguish a part of itself if this part threatens the whole. The concept of hierarchy of empowerment tells us that part of how it does this will always be hidden from us. Scalability and reciprocity suggest that when Gaia is threatened, it strikes back from multiple manifestations. Component beings become softer, more colorful and diverse as Gaia becomes empowered, and become tougher, with scales, thorns and stingers as it wanes. Worse, they start expressing nasty portions of the genome that have been dormant for eons.

And Gaia is powerful. While I agree that we can damage it severely, in the end, Gaia will prevail. The damage we wreak on the ecosystem will be a step back, but, after shrugging us off, Gaia will set about designing the next set of lifeforms, being careful to avoid the same mistakes. Why do we relate so intimately to dinosaurs? It is because we are in their niche. They trampled the bios with their bodies, we with tractors. Some have proposed an asteroidal theory of dinosaur extinction as a way of sidestepping our responsibilities in Gaia. But how do they explain the selectivity of the dinosaur extinction, or the extinction of the giant mammals, later? The commonality is the ecological niche both shared: they tore up the flora and trampled it into dust. Note that after this last extinction Gaia coded for smaller and smarter climax vertibrates.

Bacteria communicate. Not in words, but in genome. It's like hackers sharing software. "Need a copy of that page layout program with the copy protection broken? Here you go." The germs say, "You need a genetic splice that turns penecillin into a munchie? Here it is. And by the way, it includes a subroutine that causes humans to bleed internally. Very handy." Will our end come from microbes? I think it is possible that they have mechanisms that sense environmental degradation, and cause the expression of virulent forms. We should look for these mechanisms and understand them. We should also realize we cannot short-circuit them, but instead devote our energies to restoring the bios.

The Christian doctrine that we have committed the Original Sin in eating from the Tree of Knowledge between good and evil may be a preversion of the innate awareness in many of us that we have overstepped our ecological niche and put ourselves in judgement over other life forms and have used weapons of mass destruction and genocide against them. Inter-human taboos against weapons of mass destruction, contract murder and torture must be extended to all life, as indivisibly sacred. We have the responsibility to use our intellect to know when to kill only when it is to the larger benefit of Gaia.

We are as gods and might as well get used to it. --Stewart Brand
I would amend this to say that we are empowered as gods, but we had better well learn how to behave as servants.

Whew. This got too long. Praise JHWH for bandwidth! ;-)

by Alex Funk

Created: Tuesday, February 13, 1996, 9:32:53 AM Last Updated: Tuesday, February 13, 1996, 9:32:53 AM