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Gaia Beyond the Phoenix Complex

A fundamental premise of Gaia theory is that in any given era, Gaia operates as a systemic summation of the current biota. As the biota evolve, as some species lapse and others transform, so too, Gaia evolves.  
Gaia Beyond the Phoenix Complex

by Bruce Clarke

—This post is an excerpt from the lecture "Gaian Futurities: Beyond the Phoenix Complex to the Domains of the Infra-Human," for Cybernetics for the 21st Century, Part II: Cybernetics to Come. The full lecture is available here, and also on the YouTube archive for the entire series, here.

Whatever remediations we may bring to bear upon the current Anthropocene era, life will remain at the helm of the biosphere. The pressing question of the moment is whether its future destinations will indeed be broadly livable, not just for large mammals such as human beings or jaguars but also for large swaths of other-than-human, other-than-animal species. Almost certainly Gaia will persist in some form well into the future. Perhaps our unhappy premonitions regarding a drastically diminished and/or mutated form of the current biota can be forestalled. Nevertheless, let us contemplate the philosopher Michael Marder’s recently published study The Phoenix Complex, which summons a bracing rethinking of the stakes of positing Gaia’s ultimate persistence as some form of metaphysical consolation. According to Marder’s description of the dominant form of the phoenix complex,

“For millennia now, humanity has been interpreting the cyclical regeneration of nature as a sign of its infinite capacity for rebirth from the ashes of destruction.”

Marder’s sharp critique is aimed at our own relation to the current Earth, in that the

“tragic rift of our times is the persistence of the ideological and, for the most part, unconscious conception of nature as a phoenix, which [conception] has either become or is in the process of becoming practically inoperable, incompatible with today’s realities” (xx).

In Marder’s evocation of the phoenix complex I recognize some recurrent strains in Gaia discourse, especially in statements made over the decades by Lynn Margulis. For instance, in a documentary on Gaia from the mid-1980’s, Margulis asserted as successful “tests of Gaia” its seeming ability to rise again reborn multiple times from the ashes of major extinction events:

Lynn Margulis in Gaia: Goddess of the Earth

Gaia is run by the sum of the biota, and therefore you can lose enormous numbers and great diversity with mass extinctions, but you never come anywhere near losing everything, and you certainly don’t lose the major groups of bacteria, ever. They’ve been in continuous existence, and we think it’s the major groups of bacteria that actually are running the Gaian system. So in a sense . . . these great extinctions are tests of Gaia, and the system bounces back. —from Gaia: Goddess of the Earth (1986)

The system bounces back. This declaration would appear to be a fairly straightforward instance of the phoenix complex applied to deep time: geobiological or cosmic planetary insults wreak rounds of destruction upon major portions of the biota, but life itself is never lost, and so “the system”—that is, Gaia itself as a self-maintaining planetary phenomenon—“bounces back.” Over a decade later, on the concluding page of her 1998 memoir Symbiotic Planet, as a parting shot, Margulis waxed poetic in identification with our “nonhuman brethren” as they harmonized among themselves in anticipation of humanity’s departure from the Gaian scene:

“Most of them, the microbes, the whales, the insects, the seed plants, and the birds, are still singing. The tropical forest trees are humming to themselves, waiting for us to finish our arrogant logging so they can get back to their business of growth as usual. And they will continue their cacophonies and harmonies long after we are gone” (128).

Here the hopeful if misanthropic emphasis falls on the self-renewability of nonhuman nature once its exceptional human tormentors succeed in burning their own world down.

Granted, these two passages from Margulis are quick rhetorical riffs on deep themes, so they may be excused for being sketchy. As I see it, the primary over-simplifications that may be imputed to these flights of the Gaian phoenix are the plausible suggestions or reassurances of continuity—as if, when “the system bounces back,” it is the same system that suffered a given extinction event, or that, after the departure by ecological suicide of Anthropocene humanity, it will be natural “business as usual” for the same nonhuman biota. Indeed, this return-of-the-same is built into the ideological infrastructure of the phoenix complex: after each self-immolation and reconstitution, the phoenix remains the same mythically singular being. For Marder, this presumption of continuity-beyond-destruction is precisely what has become defunct under current conditions, to which our wishful thinking has yet to catch up:

Both singly and in groups, as consumers and corporations, states and energy companies, we continue to think and to act as if nature were safe and sound in the face of the irreparable devastation of biodiversity and the plan­et’s fragile ecosystems: as if it (and we, ourselves) were a miraculously resilient phoenix. No wonder that resilience is one of the ideological keywords of the day! Nevertheless, what is being and has been annihilated for some time now can no longer regerminate. It cannot be rejuvenated from the ashes, receiving a new lease on life from death. The ashes of our age are not fecund. (xx-xxi)

But let us recall Lovelock and Margulis’s commitment to Gaia’s cybernetic conceptuality, in order to tease out its own proper complications to superficial assumptions regarding systemic renewability. Marder affirms that as a concept implying continuous identity,

“renewability is a highly condensed form of the phoenix com­plex” (244).

And if we go a bit deeper into the body of Margulis’s Gaia discourse, we soon recover the profound evolutionary dynamics that have always entangled the life histories of the biota with cosmological contingencies and geobiological feedbacks. A fundamental premise of Gaia theory is that in any given era, Gaia operates as a systemic summation of the current biota. As the biota evolve, as some species lapse and others transform, so too, Gaia evolves. As in any circular or closed-loop cybernetic process, the Gaian system posits reciprocity all the way down. 

In the current instance, what this means for Gaia is that when “the system bounces back” after a destructive episode such as a mass extinction, when considered with regard to the materiality of its specific constituents, it is no longer the same system that it had been before. However, repeatedly over deep time, the falling away of prior elements such as species rendered extinct and the concomitant arrival and amassing of new material reservoirs have made room and provided ingredients for the emergence of entirely new vital formations. And even while, in the Gaian instance, the “major groups of bacteria” are never lost, irrespective of extinction events, due to their faculties for horizontal gene transfer, the denizens of the microcosm constantly reformulate themselves in response to environmental changes of any sort. We read in Margulis and Sagan’s Microcosmos, first published in 1986, that, by

“a sort of natural genetic engineering . . . [p]rokaryotes routinely and rapidly transfer different bits of genetic material . . . By trading genes, bacterial populations are kept primed for their role in their particular environment and individual bacteria pass on their genetic heritage” (16, 82).

So it would be somewhat more accurate to say that, after several severe planetary disruptions, despite irreparable losses and irreversible damages, the Gaian system has been able to bounce forward by reinventing the constituents of living operations and the viable and habitable lines of their ecological relations. So long as cosmological conditions allow, what stays the same is not the matter but the form of the Gaian process.

To this summary of the lineaments of Gaia’s persistence over three billion years of geobiological time we can add one more passage from Marder:

 Renewability bets on the reproducibility of life as the foundation for the replaceability of the liv­ing. Conversely, finitude implies, far from the secular ideology of the end of times and universal damnation, the possibility of life’s reinvention—rather than its reproduction—amid the planetary trauma of extinction. For, doesn’t evolutionary evidence suggest that in the aftermath of each mass extinction and catastrophic collapse of biodiversity there has been an equally spectac­ular resurgence of new life-forms? (245)

Remarkably, Marder’s evocation of vital reinvention reverts precisely to Margulis’s Gaian eons in underlining the evolutionary datum of the biota’s ongoing self-differentiation. In a finite regime, every passing moment of existence is irrecoverable, a vanishing point of no return. And indeed, because the Gaian system properly described is not itself a living organism, the matter of reproduction does not pertain it. That is, Gaia does not give birth; it does not have offspring. The Gaian system does not reproduce; rather, it persists and evolves. As the microcosm evolves, as species evolve, like Madonna, Gaia reinvents itself.

Thus, innovation, irreversible change, is a non-negotiable contingency of its persistence. This is basic NST, or neocybernetic systems theory: despite a common mischaracterization, autopoietic systems cannot remain in being simply by perpetually replicating their current material organization. The reason for this evolutionary restlessness is that these kinds of systems are foundationally embedded in the changes their own operations make to their adjacent environments, which external vicissitudes then recur upon the internal dynamics of the system—in the current instance, incrementally driving Gaia’s continuous reinvention.


Gaia: Goddess of the Earth. NOVA documentary aired Tuesday, January 28, 1986.

Marder, Michael. The Phoenix Complex: A Philosophy of Nature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2023.

Margulis, Lynn. Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. New York: Basic Books, 1998.

Margulis, Lynn, and Dorion Sagan. Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors. New York: Summit Books, 1986.