Gaia theory as systems theory

September 24, 2015

by Bruce Clarke

Systems theory often seems counterintuitive.

The problem is not with the behavior of systems but with the conceptually antiquated nature of our
intuitions. For instance, typically “negative” stands to “positive” as deleterious stands to desirable. In the operation of systems, however, negative functions can be desirable and positive ones deleterious. Take feedback: negative feedback generally produces beneficial self-regulation, positive feedback destructive runaway amplifi cation. Closely related to circular functions such as feedback is a distinction between “openness” and “closure.” Most of us are politically programmed to laud all things "open” and shun that which is “closed.” But when it comes to the self-regulation of systems through negative feedback, only a “closed loop” will do. Again, “top-down” typically connotes a dictatorial, hierarchical, or undemocratic power structure, whereas “bottom-up” connotes participatory and egalitarian arrangements. However, in a wider analysis of systems, “top-down” names a holistic perspective attuned to emergent behaviors and protective of the integrity of what is being observed, whereas “bottom-up” names a reductionist perspective that takes things to pieces and considers them to be nothing more than the sum of their
parts.

Gaia as System

As a systems theorist of global proportions, James Lovelock is still misperceived, taken as erroneous because counterintuitive. “At last, but maybe too late,” Lovelock (2006: 8) writes in The Revenge of Gaia, “we begin to see that the top-down holistic view, which views a thing from outside and asks it questions while it works, is just as important." Gaia theory has gathered biology, geology, geochemistry, geophysics, and meteorology into a mature systems science that contains, while surpassing, the reductivist scientifi c programs dominant since the seventeenth century. It is not that Lovelock is responsible for the rise of the systems paradigm, which has its roots in multiple developments that coalesced in the emergence of cybernetics at mid-twentieth century. But Gaia theory draws systems theory to a millennial head with global environmental consequences.

Bruce Clarke

Bruce Clarke is the 2018-19 Library of Congress Chair of Astrobiology and the Paul Whitfield Horn Professor of Literature and Science in the Department of English at Texas Tech University.

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