Thoughts on the supraorganism

December 17, 2018

Gaia theory sees the Earth as a responsive supra-organism that will at first tend to resist adverse environmental change and maintain homeostasis. But if stressed beyond the limits of whatever happens to be the current regulatory apparatus, it will jump to a new stable environment where many of the current range of species will be eliminated.”

—James Lovelock (1996), from "What is Gaia?" in Gaia in Action: The Science of the Living Earth, ed. Paul Bunyard

"To me, because no organism chemically cycles all the major elements by itself [which Gaia does do] Gaia is not an organism. Rather Gaia as a worldwide ecosystem (a “superecosystem” not a “superorganism”) is utterly dependent on bacterial transformations and interactions for its persistence."

—Letter from Lynn Margulis to James Lovelock (August 29, 1993)

Ecosystems are, to be sure, a supraorganismic level of organization, but are not superorganisms since each level in a hierarchy has both unique properties found only at that level, and parallel properties with other levels. Accordingly, ecosystems are not organisms, but there are analogous properties that may or may not function in the same manner at the two levels

—D. J. Rapport, H. A. Regier, and T. C. Hutchinson (1985) in Ecosystem Behavior Under Stress

“My argument is that Earth should not be confused with organisms. Earth is not a super-organism. Earth is supra-organic.

—Stan Rowe (2001) in What on Earth is Life? An Ecological View

“But just as the living parts of an organism depend on the vitality of the whole, so living organisms depend on the energetics of planet Earth from which they evolved and by which they are maintained. From an ecological viewpoint, planet Earth, the inclusive supra-organic ecosphere, is a logical metaphor for Life.”  

—Stan Rowe (2001) in What on Earth is Life? An Ecological View

“We have to think beyond the ecosystem to the ecosphere itself. So, when this book has been read, closed, and reflected upon, I hope the reader will have concluded that the idea that humans live within a ‘life support system’ is not the best way to think about our relationship, that a more correct idea is that all organisms, including us, are embedded within a living ecosphere, a supraorganism, not superorganism. Moreover—and I hope the reader is ready for this—it is the only truly creative force at work in the world. The scientist at the bench or the artist at the easel is only creative in the context of a civilization, whose scaffolding is constantly in need of repair and replacement from the capital stock of the ecosphere, which has been drawn down and the sinks increasingly filled (like the atmosphere) since the early days of agriculture. Stated otherwise, civilization’s demands on the ecosphere’s resources to repair the scaffolding are greater than the renewal rate the ecosphere provides, and as the sinks (oceans, atmosphere, and more) reveal their limits for supporting the current biota, source-sink becomes one subject.”

—Wes Jackson (2011) in Consulting the Genius of the  Place: An ecological approach to a new agriculture

Our earth, our ecosphere, our supraorganism, has created a mosaic of ecosystems worldwide. Each one represents “the genius of the place.”

—Wes Jackson (2011) in Consulting the Genius of the Place: An ecological approach to a new agriculture

Nor is autopoietic Gaia alive per se; it is neither a superorganism nor a metaphysical spirit of the living Earth. It is rather a self-referential system of planetary cognition operating to produce globally regulative processes binding together geological and biological evolution into a whole system.

—Bruce Clarke (2014) in The AI Constellation in a Gaian Cosmos: Cybernetics, Science Fiction, and Planetary Cognition

Many scientists are still hostile to Gaia, both the word and the idea, perhaps because it is so resonant with anti-science and anti-intellectual folks. In popular culture, insofar as the term is at all familiar, it refers to the notion of Mother Earth as a single organism. Gaia, a living goddess beyond human knowledge, will supposedly punish or reward us for our environmental insults or blessings to her body. I regret this personification.

As detailed in Jim's theory about the planetary system, Gaia is not an organism. Any organism must either eat or, by photosynthesis or chemosynthesis, produce its own food. All organisms produce waste. The second law of thermodynamics speaks clearly on this score: to maintain a body's organization energy must be lost, dissipated as heat.

No organism feeds on its own waste. Gaia, the living Earth, far transcends any single organism or even any population. One organism's waste is another's food. Failing to distinguish anyone's food from someone else's waste, the Gaian system recycles matter on the global level. Gaia, the system, emerges from ten million or more connected living species that form its incessantly active body. Far from being fragile or consciously petulant, planetary life is highly resilient. As they unwittingly obey the second law of thermodynamics, all beings seek energy and food sources. All produce useless heat and chemical waste. This is their biological imperative. Each grows and, as it does, it pressures many others around it. The sum of planetary life, Gaia, displays a physiology that we recognize as environmental regulation. Gaia itself is not an organism directly selected among many. It is an emergent property of interaction among organisms, the spherical planet on which they reside, and an energy source, the sun. Furthermore Gaia is an ancient phenomenon. Trillions of jostling, feeding, mating, exuding beings compose her planetary system. Gaia, a tough bitch, is not at all threatened by humans. Planetary life survived at least three billion years before humanity was even the dream of a lively ape with a yearning for a relatively hairless mate.

—Lynn Margulis (2008) in The Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution

The biosphere is a dynamic system, stabilized via feedback coupling mechanisms so that our entire planet is considered to be one single living being, a supra-organism.

—Rainer Matyssek & Ulrich Lüttge (2013) in Gaia: The Planet Holobiont

David McConville

David McConville is co-founder of Spherical.

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