An Examination of the Gaia Hypothesis from Peripheral Visions

This excerpt from Mary Catherine Bateson's book makes me want to meet her:

I found the following passage in Mary Catherine Bateson's recent book "Peripheral Visions" that addresses the cultural implications of the Gaia concept in very lucid and thoughtful terms. M.C. Bateson is, of course, the daughter of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead--talk about a high-octane gene pool! In any event, she is very much following in her visionary father's footsteps, as this quoted passage should make clear:

The Gaia hypothesis is not a simple assertion that could easily be proved or disproved. Instead it is a complex statement with multiple levels of meaning, like a work of art. At the simplest level, it asserts that this planet is characterized by the capacity for self-correction that characterizes living organisms, the maintenance of continuity by corrective variation. The composition of the atmosphere and the temperatures of the planet over time, for instances, are not accounted for by the laws of chemistry and physics alone, but apparently by processes of self-regulation within those laws. The Gaia hypothesis deepens the sense of the planet as developing, as having a history.....

There are several quite different responses to the idea of the earth as a living organism. Some people feel increased solicitude for a planet newly recognized as vulnerable, intricately beautiful. Others respond with nonchalance, saying Gaia can do her own housekeeping, leaving us freee to continue as we are. Still others notice that the planet's capacity for self-correction might well involve the end of the creatures that are making the trouble.

When a metaphor is proposed it generates questions. You notice the puppy's ears, and you wonder if the elephant has ears. You didn't notice so much hair on the elephant--something else to wonder about. A metaphor goes on generating ideas and questions, so that a metaphorical approach to the world is endlessly fertile and involves constant learning. A good metaphor continues to instruct.

When we assert that the planet is living, one of the things that springs to mind is that living things can die. They have needs that must be met. Their health is subject to thresholds of various sorts. We may extend the analogy and move quickly to wondering what part we represent in this organism. Are we, perhaps, the brain? That feels good. Are we the vectors of its reproduction, colonizing outer space? Or perhaps its immune system? Perhaps we are a virus running wild within it or the multiplying cells of a malignant tumor. As with any pathogen, the question arises whether this one will kill the organism it invades, or be eliminated or neutralized, or whether some balance will be achieved. Microbes ride the human body and depend on its health as we ride the earth. All these speculations and others come up in playing with the metaphor of earth as a living organism. A metaphor can propose testable questions and serve as a framework for synthesizing information. This is no small gain, for the challenge to meteorologists and chemists, physicists and geologists of synthesizing their knowledge far outdoes the problem of the blind men in the old story [of the Elephant].

There is another step implied in the Gaia hypothesis, the hint that the behavior and characteristics of this planet are best grasped by an analogy with the living organism we know best, a human being...The Greeks believed that every tree was inhabited by a dryad, a female spirit, who would die if the tree were cut down. Most of us know intellectually that trees are alive--they grow, they age, they breathe, they respond to the environment they're in, they draw in nutrients, they have a metabolism, all those things--but it's hard not to slip into seeing a tree as an inanimate object that is simply a given in a particular environment. Trees live at a different tempo from human beings--I didn't slow down enough to notice the growth of trees until I was over forty--so it is hard to remember that a tree can suffer and become ill, though we are more aware than we used to be. Arguably, a belief in dryads may complement what is learned in botany classes, making our knowledge of trees more complete and more accurate. In the same way, the belief that patients are whole persons is not easily acquired in medical classes that emphasize the mechanical characteristics of bodies, so physicians must find other ways to maintain it. Although the belief in an immortal soul brings a lot of baggage that may be troublesome, it probably helps some physicians to remember. The anthropomorphic dimension of the Gaia hypothesis proposes empathy as a way of knowing--and caring....

To me, the most important thing that the Gaia hypothesis proposes that was absent from earlier metaphors like spaceship earth is that we are immersed in, brought into being by, a living reality, not a mechanical one. We are completely dependent, as we would be in a spaceship, but we do not have full blueprints and we cannot expect to be in complete control. The atmosphere, that mixture of gases we study in high school chemistry, could occur only as the product of a living system, for the free oxygen that makes animal life possible would not continue except for the steady activity of green plants. The soil and most of the rocks we think of as lifeless are the products of life processes over vast stretches of geological time. Because the earth is different from us and mysterious, changing constantly, every encounter with the environment is an opportunity for learning. Our planet is not an inert piece of real estate subject to rezoning, for its surface has been shaped by life processes, with their own lawfulness. We cannot treat the earth as inert, just as we cannot treat a tree as an iron pylon or a meadow as a piece of wall-to-wall carpeting.

Environmentalism began with piecemeal concerns about parts of the natural world: saving this forest or that bay, the whales or a particular lake that had become polluted. The issue becomes very different when we realize, as the Gaia hypothesis demands, that we are totally contained in and sustained by a single living system, in which all the parts are interconnected and everything we do resonates with the whole. Nothing is fully localized. The destruction of an ecosystem or a species is an amputation, and, like the amputation of a limb, can trigger fatal shock or, at the least, require learning new ways to function. One extraneous item introduced in the wrong place in a living body can trigger pathology. The Gaia hypothesis becomes, at every level of its metaphorical evocation, a reminder that the world we live in is a biological, or if you like a biologized world, a sacred process in which we share, a community to participate in, not an object to be used.

We don't see it. Our habits of attention work against seeing, and the connections in the system are invisible. Most of the time, we are like the blind man with the elephant. Focusing on the pursuit of particular, narrow goals, we pay attention to a fraction of the whole, block out peripheral vision, and act without looking at the larger picture. Cutting down forests for timber, it is easy to ignore their role in the regulation of climate. Poisoning insects to increase crop yields, it is easy to ignore the concomitant deaths of natural predators, which lead to an increase in pests the following year. All of this could be spelled out in environmental impact statements with elegant diagrams showing the interconnection of the different factors, but the Gaia hypothesis may help to make these interconnections seem intuitively obvious....

The Gaia hypothesis pulls the data together, but it goes further by offering a metaphor for organizing awareness of the interconnections. Beyond that, it proposes empathy as a way of knowing and imagining connections about which we cannot yet be explicit....

...What would it be like to walk through the woods or the city in the presence of--aware of--Gaia? Part of that awareness can be built up by letting children look through microscopes, germinate seeds, learn about soil chemistry, but part of it comes into being through the experiences of loving and being loved, resolving quarrels, learning new ways of family life, attending patiently to things we do not understand.

Created: Sunday, June 09, 1996, 12:26:21 PM Last Updated: Sunday, June 09, 1996, 12:26:21 PM