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Gaia as cyborg

Autopoiesis in Donna Haraway's "Cyborgs and Symbionts"
Gaia as cyborg

by Bruce Clarke

—adapted from Gaian Systems: Lynn Margulis, Neocybernetics, and the End of the Anthropocene, from the University of Minnesota Press (2020)

In light of James Lovelock's suggestion in his latest book Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence (MIT Press, 2019) of a "cyborg" solution to the climate crisis—by which autonomous and superintelligent AIs will recognize and act effectively on their own need, at least at first, for Gaia's air conditioning—it is an interesting moment to recall a previous treatment of Gaia as cyborg, in Donna Haraway's foreword to The Cyborg Handbook, "Cyborgs and Symbionts."

Gaia—the blue- and green-hued, whole, living, self-sustaining, adaptive, auto-poietic earth—and the Terminators—the jelled-metal, shape-shifting, cyber-enhanced warriors fighting in the stripped terrain landscapes and extraterrestrial vacuums of a terrible future—seem at first glance to belong in incompatible universes. . . .[1]

First, a quick synopsis of the course of Gaia discourse. The Gaia hypothesis advanced to Gaia theory in the 1990s. Lovelock’s Daisy World computer models went into circulation to give Gaia some computational cred just as the non-linear recursions of chaos theory were going mainstream alongside the explosion of personal computing, email systems, and the World Wide Web. Lovelock’s second book, The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth, came out in 1988 and consolidated Gaia’s scientific discussion. Major scientific meetings had convened by then to take up Gaia’s challenge to previous verities in the life and Earth sciences. In the mid-1990s, feminist theorist and historian of science Donna J. Haraway was well positioned to step back from the consolidation of Gaia theory and the popular conceits of Gaia notions to construct her own sense of the Gaia phenomenon. She saw it critically at that moment as a tendentious and overdetermined material-semiotic entity that crossed technoscience with cultural desires.

Haraway was particularly attentive to Gaia’s cybernetic origins. Her foreword to The Cyborg Handbook noted that “Gaia is the name that James Lovelock gave in 1969 to his hypothesis that the third planet from the sun, our home, is a ‘complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.’”[2] Regarding Lovelock’s first book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Haraway notes another one of the conceptual tensions or definitive equivocations that upset the placing of the hypothesis into traditional ontological categories: is Gaia’s purported homeostasis a material-mechanical or a biological phenomenon? Haraway records how Lovelock’s Gaia discourse renders indistinct the difference between living and non-living entities: “the whole earth was a dynamic, self-regulating, homeostatic system; the earth, with all its interwoven layers and articulated parts, from the planet’s pulsating skin through its fulminating gaseous envelopes, was itself alive” (xiii). But if Gaia is conceived as a cyborg, then what’s the difference? “Lovelock’s earth—itself a cyborg, a complex auto-poietic system that terminally blurred the boundaries among the geological, the organic, and the technological—was the natural habitat, and the launching pad, of other cyborgs” (xiii).

Haraway’s seminal round-up of cyborg formations in the later twentieth century found much to play upon in Lovelock’s text. First, she noted some refraction in his lines of vision. The first line was systems-theoretical—the view informed by his professional and disciplinary location within technoscience: “Lovelock’s perception was that of a systems engineer gestated in the space program and the multinational energy industry and fed on the heady brew of cybernetics in the 1950s and 1960s” (xiii). And it was certainly odd that the evocation of a planetary hypothesis called Gaia—“named after the Greek goddess who gave birth (incestuously) to the Titans” (xii)—was the brainchild of an atmospheric chemist-cum-cyberneticist and freelance NASA and Royal Dutch Shell contractor, and “not, say, the intuition of a vegetarian feminist mystic suspicious of the cold war’s military-industrial complex and its patriarchal technology” (xiii). Lovelock’s second line of vision was astrobiological—the view informed by NASA’s pinnacle attainment of a god’s eye view of Earth: “in Lovelock’s prescient perspective . . . [t]he whole earth, a cybernetic organism, a cyborg, was not some freakish contraption of welded flesh and metal, worthy of a bad television program with a short run. As Lovelock realized, the cybernetic Gaia is, rather, what the earth looks like from the only vantage point from whichshe could be seen—from the outside, from above” (xiv).

In fact, recent realignments of Gaian vision counter the prior hegemony of the view from space. The orbital view of Earth is not the only vantage from which to observe Gaia. Bruno Latour has underlined this observational shift in commenting on Lovelock that “It was by taking ‘the point of view of nowhere’ that he showed that there is no ‘point of view of nowhere’!”[3] However, at the moment of Gaia’s inception at the end of the 1960s and for several decades thereafter, NASA-generated whole Earth imagery was completely in the ascendant with regard to Gaia’s planetary imaginary. And as Haraway developed its implications, the classic view of Gaia “from the outside, from above” went well beyond Lovelock’s own modest preparations for technoscientific leaps to planetary vistas. Rather, it turned Gaia into the latest episode in the epic of the human species itself arriving at the cosmic threshold heralded by the annunciation of the cyborg.

Haraway’s cyborg Gaia expands well beyond a recent theory of planetary function. Gaia’s scientific figure covers over its subtext as an ideological project bearing the stigmata of its cybernetic pedigree:

Gaia is not a figure of the whole earth’s self-knowledge, but of her discovery, indeed, her literal constitution, in a great travel epic. . . . The people who built the semiotic and physical technology to see Gaia became the global species, in which they recognized themselves, through the concrete practices by which they built their knowledge. This species depends on an evolutionary narrative technology that builds dramatically from the first embryonic tool-weapon wielded by the primal hunter to the transformation of himself into the potent tool-weapon that seeds other worlds. To see Gaia, Man learns to position himself physically as an extraterrestrial observer looking back at his earthly womb and matrix. (xiv)

Cyborg Gaia is a potent allegorical operator, a station on the way to a distinctly virile form of the astronautical sublime rising above the womb of the world. Gaia as a cyborg would be a macrocosmic instance of the human microcosm envisioned by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, who coined the term “cyborg” in 1960 “to refer to the enhanced man who could survive in extra-terrestrial environments. They imagined the cyborgian man-machine hybrid would be needed in the next great technohumanist challenge—space flight. . . . Enraptured with cybernetics, they thought of cyborgs as self-regulating man-machine systems. . . . Space-bound cyborgs were like miniaturized, self-contained Gaias” (xv).[4] Moreover, Kline himself was engaged in psycho-pharmacological investigations “with Cold War agendas, including CIA-sponsored research on behavior control. The liberal philanthropic foundations, especially the Macy Foundation, which was so important to the configuration of cybernetics as an interdisciplinary field in the late 1940s and early 1950s, were liberally involved” (xvi). Indeed, Gaia was a sort of inspired cyborg hallucination induced by the addiction that had “technical and popular culture . . . shooting up with all things cybernetic in the 1950s and 60s in the U.S.” (xvi).

Haraway’s discourse is astute in its cultural references and salutary in its demolition of the popular caricature of Gaia as, in the satirical formulation given by Lynn Margulis around the same time, “an Earth goddess for a cuddly, furry human environment.”[5] In particular, Haraway reads Gaia as an ideological figuration of systems theory. Her text provides historical instances and contexts for the thing called cybernetics, but no gloss on the term itself. Apparently one should already know all one needs to know about the topic. Moreover, direct references to cybernetics tend to generate flippant metaphors suggesting that cybernetics is a mental agent that will addle your brains. It is a “heady brew”; its enthusiasts are “enraptured,” and presumably, not in a good way; it would seem that Cold War technoscience was positively infested with cybernetics addicts “shooting up” the stuff to stave off the fever and shakes of too precipitous withdrawal from their systems-theory habits.

However, there is another, more recondite systems-theoretical term at large in this text, which Haraway does not give a hard time. Marginally glossed but largely unexplicated, it is autopoiesis. Three of the four appearances of autopoiesis in “Cyborgs and Symbionts” brandish a non-standard medial hyphen: “auto-poietic.” We have already seen two of them:

Gaia—the blue- and green-hued, whole, living, self-sustaining, adaptive, auto-poietic earth . . . . Lovelock’s earth—itself a cyborg, a complex auto-poietic system that terminally blurred the boundaries among the geological, the organic, and the technological. (xi, xiii)

Only once that I know of did Lovelock mention the idea of autopoiesis in his discussions of Gaia, but in no instance does it appear in the Lovelock texts cited in the references of “Cyborgs and Symbionts.” Rather, the qualifier Lovelock consistently uses for Gaia’s cybernetics is homeostatic. Regarding the text at hand, then, especially at the time of its publication in 1995, one could have wondered about the source of the term “auto-poietic” as applied to Gaia. And while Haraway does not directly state its proximate source, clearly she has extracted it from the texts of Lynn Margulis. “Cyborgs and Symbionts” introduces Margulis as “one of the formulators of the Gaia hypothesis” (xvii), but concentrates on Margulis’s writings on symbiogenesis focused on the symbiotic regimes of the eukaryotic microbe Mixotricha paradoxa. An endnote thanks Margulis for having sent over the book manuscript of her then-forthcoming volume What is Life?, described in Haraway’s text as “a rich exposition of the travails of the auto-poietic earth” (xvii).

“Cyborgs and Symbionts” left the meaning of autopoiesis unarticulated until the provision of a minimal bracketed gloss in the midst of a passage quoted from an earlier, published Margulis and Sagan text, Origins of Sex:

From an evolutionary point of view, the first eukaryotes were loose confederacies of bacteria that, with continuing integration, became recognizable as protists, unicellular eukaryotic cells. . . . The earliest protists were likely to have been most like bacterial communities. . . . At first each autopoietic [self-maintaining] community member replicated its DNA, divided, and remained in contact with other members in a fairly informal manner.[6]

This passage from Origins of Sex coordinates the concepts of autopoiesis and symbiosis within Margulis’s signature theory of symbiogenesis, or the multiple endosymbiotic events in the evolutionary formation of the eukaryotic cell out of prokaryotic, or bacterial, components. What one doesn’t learn in “Cyborgs and Symbionts” is that Margulis drew her presentation of autopoiesis out of crucial developments in biological systems theory that arrived in the mid-1970s. Maturana and Varela originally presented that concept as a criterion for distinguishing living systems—minimally, prokaryotic cells—as autopoietic, or self-producing, as opposed to mechanical, technological or designed systems as allopoietic, or “other-producing,” that is, as having their maintenance-in-being outsourced to some external agency. In other words, the concept of autopoiesis deconstructed the original cybernetic splice between animals and machines, between living and non-living systems. Its virtual effect is to turn the trope of the cyborg inside out, cutting apart its two halves once more through a distinction of operation. Moreover, throughout Margulis and Sagan’s What is Life?, the concept of autopoiesis is coordinated not just with the form of life of organisms but also with the particular form of the geobiological operations of the system called Gaia. And it was the Gaian application of the term autopoiesis that appears to have caught Haraway’s eye in Margulis’s text, which she then retailed without further comment. Autopoiesis seems to hide in plain sight in “Cyborgs and Symbionts,” covering over a blind spot in its observation of systems.

As Haraway’s later writings from When Species Meet to Staying with the Trouble will attest, she has continued to wrestle with the demon of autopoiesis, trying at times to get her readers to kick this pernicious cybernetic habit.[7] Regarding her own dependency, however, her recent work has struck a sort of compromise formation under the symptomatic name of sympoiesis. "Cyborgs and Symbionts" provides a wonderful testimony to the power as well as the problematics of the idea of autopoiesis. Additionally, Haraway’s travails with the neocybernetics of autopoiesis bring out the precise conceptual twist that accounts for why this notion looks askance at some of her paradigms. Let us revisit her crucial statement in this regard: “Lovelock’s earth [was] itself a cyborg, a complex auto-poietic system that terminally blurred the boundaries among the geological, the organic, and the technological” (xiii).

Such “terminal blurring” has always been the battle cry of cyborg discourse. “Boundary breakdowns” and “leaky distinctions” are the very stuff of the postmodern, provocative, and critically productive “Cyborg Manifesto.”[8] However, along with the intellectual liberations induced by the breakdown of “boundaries” around the human, the animal, and the machine, around the material and the semiotic, the actual and the virtual, the physical and the informatic, in the subsequent critical literature such terminal blurrings have also led to significant instances of terminological haziness. The problem that autopoiesis brings into a cyborg world is precisely that it is a theory that posits boundary production for those systems that exhibit the autopoietic form of organization and operation. Thus, to call “Lovelock’s earth,” that is, Gaia, “a complex auto-poietic system that terminally blurred the boundaries among the geological, the organic, and the technological” is to let the technical sense of autopoiesis go by as well as to leave hanging what Lynn Margulis may have intended to convey by insisting on the characterization of Gaia as an autopoietic system. Without question, under other names of her own construction, Donna Haraway has been a profound thinker of Gaia and an early explorer of Margulis’s autopoietic Gaia conception.[9] Nonetheless, the cyborg description of Gaia blurs its boundaries as a matter of course. The autopoietic description of Gaia has the opposite aim. This mode of description insists on observing material and operational distinctions among “the geological, the organic, and the technological,” in order to bring out a finer order of attention in the construction of their systemic couplings and compositions.


[1] Donna J. Haraway, “Cyborgs and Symbionts: Living Together in the New World Order,” in Chris Hables Gray with Steven Mentor and Heidi J. Figueroa-Sarriera, eds., The Cyborg Handbook (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp.xi-xx.

[2] Haraway, “Cyborgs,” xii, quoting James E. Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p.11.

[3] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, trans. Catherine Porter (Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2017), p.78. See also Alexandra Arènes, Bruno Latour, and Jérôme Gaillardet, “Giving Depth to the Surface: An Exercise in the Gaia-graphy of Critical Zones,” The Anthropocene Review (2018): 1-16.

[4] Haraway cites Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline, “Cyborgs and Space,” in Astronautics (September 1960): 26-27, 74-76.

[5] Lynn Margulis, “Gaia is a Tough Bitch,” in John Brockman, ed., The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p.140.

[6] Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Origins of Sex: Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), p.72, quoted in Haraway, “Cyborgs,” xviii; bracketed term in Haraway’s text.

[7] See Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), pp.30-33; and Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene(Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), pp.43-44.

[8] Donna J. Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp.149-81.

[9] In a recent interview, discussing her alternative formation of the Anthropocene as the Chthulucene, a post-geological time of multiply-sourced Earth systemic processes, Haraway invokes Margulis’s idea of symbiogenesis in eliciting a Gaian view that complements her attention to the sympoiesis that links up its living and nonliving holoents: “The chthonic processes and entities that are the earth are not persons, but finite complex material systems, which can break down.” Donna Haraway with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, ‘Speaking Resurgence to Despair / I’d Rather Stay With the Trouble,” The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Art, Politics, and Culture, https://brooklynrail.org/2017/12/art/DONNA-HARAWAY-with-Thyrza-Nichols-Goodeve, accessed December 23, 2017.