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The Living Earth: Hypothesis or World View?

Notes on a metaphysical research program
The Living Earth: Hypothesis or World View?

by Dorion Sagan

A strong case can be made for the claim that physics has advanced into territory so boggling and shaky that the rest of science, and even physicists themselves, in their private world views, are afraid to follow. For relativity theory and, hard on its heels, quantum mechanics announce nothing less than the decline of the mechanistic world view. This world view is so deeply planted in the minds of Westerners, including scientists, that it is virtually impossible to uproot it without the soil of sanity coming loose, too. The decline of the mechanistic world view does not imply, however, that we should leap in with an organic world view to replace it, although this might seem an attractive option. In fact, taking a cue from physics itself, we might well wonder if such things can even be decided in principle. Dichotomies such as mechanism vs. organism, though interesting, may lure us into believing that reality is either one or the other, when, in fact, the universe may be neither — or both.

The properties of a global being emerge from cells rampantly growing in their environment and evolving along with that environment. Cells themselves emerge from the physical properties of molecules and atoms. The entities of particle physics are really no less, and perhaps much more, surprising than the idea of a biosphere that is "pregnant," on the verge of reproduction. In physics, the position and momentum of an electron can never, as a matter of principle and a conspiracy of nature, be simultaneously observed. This is Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which became part of Niels Bohr's more general statement of "complementarity." We cannot say whether light is "really" a particle or a wave. Experiments help create the observations they observe; there is no "outside" the universe, and thus true objectivity remains an illusion. Such a Zen universe is not lovingly embraced by a scientific community hooked on positivism, empiricism, and the hope that reality can somehow ultimately be reduced to the knowable and thus mastered. Nature may not tolerate final principles. No one can blame scientists for not wanting to speculate or interpret the meaning of nature's irresoluteness. The scientist majority has yet to come to grips with the implications of quantum physics — the magical behavior of the very small — or with the implications of modem biology — the living behavior of the Earth as a being.

What does it mean not only to say but to take seriously the statement "the Earth is alive"? If the air above our heads is produced and maintained by life, if a single handful of the soil on which we stand contains countless millions of gas-exchanging bacteria, fungi, and tiny animals, we are never alone. The implications of a Gaian view of the Earth extend beyond the circumscribed realm of objective science. The atmosphere breathes messages that we may or may not intercept. Sophisticated but unconscious, like the beating of our heart, the biospheric environment is autonomic — performing highly complex cycling and interspecies physiological functions without our paying the least attention to such processes. It is only — as when one drinks too much coffee and feels the heart beats fast, or has an accident and feels pain — when the system is disturbed that we notice it. Within the development of the biosphere it may be the disturbance generated by humanity on a global scale that brings us to the realization that the biosphere is reactive and participatory — though so effortless in its operations that usually it can be taken for granted and ignored.

All the Planet's a Stage

As mentioned, Lovelock calls his hypothesis of global biotic control "Gaia." A rare scientist who works in the main outside academia, Lovelock invented the electron capture device, still the most sensitive means of detecting tiny amounts of fluorocarbons and other gases in the atmosphere.

Much of his work has been done at his laboratory, attached to a cottage home replete with pet peacocks in the English countryside. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Lovelock's neighbor in Wiltshire was novelist William Golding. Golding was sympathetic to Lovelock's perceptions of a globally controlling life system, or cybernetic organism, that transcended plants and animals. As a name he suggested Gaia, after the Greek goddess of the Earth. A powerful theory needs a powerful name. Gaia, in its most provocative formulation, says that the Earth is an organism. Does such a perspective lend itself to verification? Is the view that the Earth is alive even testable at all?

Probably not. In March l 988, a conference was convened by the American Geophysical Union in San Diego, California. The avowed purpose of the meeting was to test Gaia 's legitimacy as a scientific hypothesis. The philosophers stole the show when, in a session on epistemology, they highlighted the radical nature of this hypothesis in the modem world. For James W. Kirchner, at the University of California, Berkeley, the weak version of the hypothesis, that life alters its environment dramatically, is true enough but nothing new, while the idea that the Earth is an organism, the strong version, is not a testable hypothesis at all. The Gaia hypothesis is, Kirchner said, like saying "All the world's a stage." How can you test Shakespeare 's metaphor? You can't any more than you can test Lovelock's. Kirchner said that if Shakespeare had written something like "There are footlights at the edge of the world," his statement could be tested. He could walk out and see if there were footlights. It would not be a metaphor but a research hypothesis, which is to say a hypothesis that could be shown to be false.

What is philosophically in question here is whether there exists a rigid separation between metaphor and hypothesis. On the one hand, "positivists" hold that there is an absolute, rigid distinction between hypotheses (possibilities that may or may not be "really" true) and metaphors (mere figures of speech, which, while poetic, can never be proven true because they remain analogies). On the other hand, "perspectivists" hold that with sufficient will you can create your own reality; for them, no such rigid distinction applies. We can amass evidence, but can enough ever be amassed to finally verify a theory? And does not the hypothesis itself indicate what sorts of evidence we will accept in support of it?

In reality, a rigid separation of hypothesis and metaphor is not possible. On the one hand, Gaia thinking is far more sophisticated than macrobiotics, crystal healing, and other therapeutic "new-age" fads that do not, even in principle, allow aspects of themselves to be tested and proven wrong. On the other hand, the Gaia hypothesis is not testable in any absolutely rigorous or final way. But, then, neither are the conclusions of modem physics and astronomy: the history of science has clearly shown, again and again, that today's final truths are discarded to make room for tomorrow's reality. Gaia, like quantum mechanics or molecular biology, should not only be based on propositional truth and falsity but also be always mediated by language.

It therefore matters little whether someone publishes a statement saying Gaia has been proven true or, conversely, untrue. As Oscar Wilde said, "Even things that are true can be proved." Someday Gaia theory, or some differently named version of the doctrine of "geophysiology," may be so widespread that proving or disproving it will not even enter scientists' minds as it will be ingrained in a language whose wondering will have long since turned to other things. Historian Thomas Kuhn and his less well-known predecessor Ludwik Fleck have convincingly demonstrated that analogies and metaphors are the stock and trade of science, though it takes an extremely powerful "paradigm" to replace the prevailing metaphors or metaphorical systems.[i] Nonetheless, powerful new analogies from time to time arrive that are capable of supplanting an entire old system. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who long dreamed of a poetic science, compared scientific theories to buildings that eventually collapse and must be abandoned. In The Possible and the Actual, which Michel Foucault has called "the most remarkable history of biology that has ever been written, " French Nobel laureate Francois Jacob quotes biologist Jean Rostand: "Theories pass. The Frog remains."[ii]

In my "metascientific" opinion, Lovelock's geophysiology – although like all other scientific theories, a system of analogies – has the proper balance of novelty and phraseology to prevail as a respectable scientific paradigm. To be taken seriously as science a theory requires that the metaphoric bases of a system of thought are not themselves continually open to question. The "geophysiological" likening of the animal body to the biosphere is part of a long tradition of microcosm-macrocosm theories in Western philosophy, and it may someday become so commonplace that its metaphorical bases are rarely questioned.

For the sake of argument, let us accept that there is a dramatic separation between Gaia as a hypothesis and Gaia as a metaphor, and that Gaia as a hypothesis to be proven true must allow itself to be proven false. From this perspective, we might state that Gaia to be proven an organism must show evidence of reproduction. Obviously, if we consider "artificial" biospheres evidence of biospheric reproduction, then certainly the idea that the Earth is alive is a proposition that not only can be tested but also must be answered in the affirmative. If the biosphere has baby biospheres, how shall we consider it if not alive? Of course, the interpretation of self-enclosed ecosystems as "baby biospheres" need not be accepted, in which case this line of argument will not have convinced you of the biosphere's "pregnancy."

More technical lines of argument can and have been offered and accepted in support of Gaia's status as a bonafide scientific hypothesis. In Lovelock's view, were it not for Gaia's rock-solid status as a scientific hypothesis, which results in predictions that can be tested experimentally, none of the important trace gases dimethyl sulfide, carbon disulfide, methyl iodide and chloride would have been sought and found when they were. This is still a bit different from stating that the view of Earth as organism is itself open to experimental proof. Lovelock is saying, rather, that such a view has stimulated geophysiological thinking, including the postulation of specific mechanisms that can be tested or set up as a model.

There is poetic justice in giving a scientific theory a name taken from Greek mythology, since science in the main has, I think, forgotten its mythological origins and nonscientific, metaphysical assumptions. It seems clear that the Gaia hypothesis, properly speaking, is not a hypothesis at all but a world view. And a nonmechanical world view cannot be legitimately debated at a scientific meeting in a culture whose mechanical world view — ultimately, particles acted upon by forces — is not open to negotiation. Thus what happened at the American Geophysical Union meeting is that an old but supremely helpful (and scientifically exciting) world view was smuggled into a world-class scientific meeting. Gaia may not, in the end, be provable as an hypothesis. It is far more than that. It is, as Karl Popper said of Darwinian evolution itself, a "metaphysical research program." Once the academics accepted the Trojan horse of a world view disguised, dressed up as a hypothesis, it was too late: a view alien to the prevailing mechanistic one had been let in; the doors were closed; the meeting began.

As the consciousness of society shifts away from the view that the universe is merely a collection of particles operated upon by outside laws, new vocabularies appear. Although Gaia bears strong traces of the "primitive" animistic belief systems of "oral" cultures, Lovelock and the scientists currently studying geophysiology in a respectable academic way are still searching for "mechanisms." Plugging into the language of cybernetics, they are looking for feedback loops and for the presence of sensitive natural "switches" that can "turn on" to release gases in short supply and "turn off" when the requisite atmospheric quantity of those gases has been sensed. They want to know how the global mean surface temperature of the Earth has stabilized and how water has avoided freezing over or boiling despite a 30 percent estimated output in the luminosity of the sun. This search for global thermostats and devices, for a description of the control processes operating computerlike at the surface of the Earth, may not be the best lexicon for speaking of the Earth. The language of cybernetics — of mechanism — should be tested with the language of geophysiology — of organism.

Destroying Science?

'There was the usual discord at another Gaia conference between the scientific establishment and what climatologist Stephen Schneider has called the "ecofreaks." As the label suggests, these are people concerned with nature in a highly emotional way, a way that sometimes seems to spill over into political fanaticism. The involved political concerns of these "ecofreaks" however, may be a welcome departure from the supercilious posture of scientists who not only assume their opinions are unassailable, but – as a matter of complete and utter scientific faith – take it for granted that they are being detached and objective.

The conference was held in October 1987 in the beautiful Cornish countryside of Camelford, at a place called Worthyvale Manor. The title of the conference was "Gaia: Theory, Practice, and Implications." Amid the serenity of the damp green surroundings, the talk was ecology and philosophy, science and politics. Trying to bridge the gap between the traditional scientists and the political greens, philosopher David Abram began his talk by manipulating a green billiard ball, making it change colors to red (representing a radioactive Earth) and back again as he spoke in verse upon the topic of ecology. He had, he said, attended a talk at the State University of New York at Stony Brook by eminent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. At the end of the talk, Gould took a question from the back of the room. "Could you please," a tentative voice asked, "could you please comment on the Gaia hypothesis?"

"I'm glad you asked that," said Gould. And he continued:

After each of the last five lectures that I have given at universities, at least one person has asked a question about the Gaia hypothesis. Yet nothing that I said in those lectures had anything to do with the Gaia hypothesis! This is very interesting. People are obviously very curious about the Gaia hypothesis. Yet I myself can't see anything in it that I didn't learn in grade school. Obviously the atmosphere interacts with life; its oxygen content, for instance, is clearly dependent on living organisms. But we've known this for a long time. The Gaia hypothesis says nothing new, it offers no new mechanisms. It just changes the metaphor. But metaphor is not mechanism!

Abram dramatically looked up at his audience. "Well," he said. "What Gould failed to say is that mechanism itself is nothing more than a metaphor."

Abram did not confront Gould's question by supplying any Gaian mechanisms because to do so would have been to use the language of the mechanical world view in question. Indeed, criticism was leveled that Abram is basically unscientific, even (horror of subjective horrors) "touchy-feely" in his outlook; that there is no room for the so-called strong version of Gaia in a scientific view of the biosphere. Kirchner, at the AGU conference in San Diego, said, "I only came here to destroy Gaia; Abram came here to destroy science."

Return of the Pendulum

Biology may be fast approaching the uncertain ground of contemporary physics (and perspectivist philosophy), where we realize that things are not as certain as they seem and that how we look dramatically influences what we see. Moreover, from the standpoint of the sociology of science, it is not uncommon for a phenomenon to be noticed, yet dismissed as unimportant by scientists until a suitable mechanism has been developed to explain the phenomenon's occurrence. This happened with continental drift, which was discarded as poppycock because forces to move mountains laterally were hotly debated and forces to move continents were unknown. Only after the theory of plate tectonics was developed to explain paleomagnetic reversals on the ocean floor, as well as the linear distribution of earthquakes and volcanoes, was evidence for the movement of continents entirely accepted. Paradoxically, as mechanisms for Gaian interaction accumulate, it may come to be accepted scientifically and undermine the language of mechanism itself.

In my view, the historical pendulum has already begun to swing back again, toward the ancient view that the world, like the individual, is a sensitive, live, unpredictable entity – an organism.

Abram proposed that in its development, science had to compromise with institutionalized religion. To do so, it was necessary to keep the metaphor of mechanism alive simply for scientists to pursue their own studies. Why? Because a mechanism implies a creator and reinforces the traditional idea of a God outside the world. That many working scientists are atheists does not mean that they are not heir to a world view with many important theological roots.

The Newtonian universe was seen as the perfect mechanism, clockwork designed by a master artificer. Science evolved from the idea of a constantly intervening, "hands-on " God lo God the inventor, able to create the cosmos and leave it to run its own course. Before Charles Darwin, London encyclopedia publisher Robert Chambers anonymously advanced the idea in his 1844 Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation that God did not separately create species and actively oversee them, but created life on Earth only once, in the beginning, and had let it run its vital course. God was like the creator of a fine Swiss watch. As science progresses further, it begins to ponder the origin and fate of the cosmos itself, leaving little room for God conceived of as outside creation. The mechanism comes to be seen as self-organizing.

Note that a mechanism that makes itself is really not a mechanism at all, but a kind of organism. Even in Charles Darwin's term, "natural selection" – which presented organized religion with its most reeling blow yet from the hands of science – we see homage paid, albeit tacitly, to the idea of mechanism: "natural selection" (coined in opposition to "artificial selection," or the breeding of other species such as pigeons and dogs by human beings) implies an artificer – a selector performing his actions from the outside. According to Abram, the pervasiveness of the mechanistic metaphor derives from its usefulness in keeping peace with those afraid that science will destroy the idea of God altogether. Who needs God if creation is self-creating? From a philosophical standpoint, God moves from being transcendent, outside the world, to becoming immanent, within the world.

From the distant or punitive father God we move to a female deity bathing us in her presence. Gaia is not only a goddess, she is immanent. We are of and in her body. People seem thirsty not only for a female as opposed to a male deity but also for immanence rather than transcendence. Some anthropologists believe prehistoric peoples worshiped the moon and female fertility goddesses. If this is so, then the rise of Gaian "religion" – a world feeling for planetary unity and interconnectedness – may represent a turn back to a sociocultural myth of Earth, the likes of which we haven't seen in thousands of years. An understanding of the Earth will require new techniques of unconscious resonance, new means of speaking. According to Abram, French philosopher Merleau-Ponty was in the midst of wrestling with such problems when he died.

It seems clear that as long as humanity continues to use language strictly for its own ends, as if it belonged to our species alone, then we will find ourselves estranged from our actions. If as Merleau's work indicates it is not merely this body but the whole visible, sensual world that is the deep flesh of language, then surely our very words will continue to tie ourselves, our families, and our nations into knots until we free our voice to return to the real world that supports it – until we allow it to respond to the voice of the threatened rainforests, the whales, the rivers, the birds, and indeed to speak for the living, untamed Earth which is its home .... The real Logos, after Merleau-Ponty, is Eco-Logos .... Unlike the language of information processing and cybernetics, Merleau-Ponty's descriptive phenomenology provides a way to think and to disclose the living fields of interaction from our experienced place within them.[iii]

Merleau-Ponty stressed a "perceptual logic" reigning underneath all our categories. The "sensible world," wrote Merleau-Ponty, "is this perceptual logic ... and this logic is neither produced by our psychophysical constitution, nor produced by our categorical equipment, but lifted from a world whose inner framework our categories, our constitution, our 'subjectivity' render explicit...."[iv] A deep language of Earth would not necessarily resemble the language of cybernetics, with its emphases on the communication and control of animals and machines.

Such a language would not shrink from its source but would drink from it thirstily, acknowledging the play of its "eco-logic" origins. If language is, as Martin Heidegger says, the "house of being," so the material Earth is the house of our bodies. Many so-called primitive cultures believe that animals arc messages from a deity or the assumption by an unseen deity of a visible form. If we recall that all language is in and of the Earth, we will come to the startling conclusion that language is not ultimately or solely a human thing. The destiny of language is far greater than all we know by the name of "human."

Picasso's Eye

The history of science reveals that there are no absolute truths. The late Robert Garrels, a Harvard University professor who spent his last years in the Department of Marine Science at the University of South Florida, is internationally recognized as one of the two or three foremost experts on global geochemistry. Yet Garrels himself quipped, "We all build more and more complicated geochemical models until no one understands anyone else's model. The only thing we do know is that our own is wrong." And: 'The chief purpose of models is not to be right or wrong but to give us a place to store our data.[v] "We all perceptually simplify, creating views of the world as complete as they are inaccurate. It is said that a man once confronted Picasso and complained about the artist's abstractions of the female figure – all those chunky Catalonians with extra eyes and misplaced limbs. Picasso maintained that his paintings were quite realistic. Every painting, Picasso said, no matter how strange, is a version of the truth. But reaching into his pocket, the man withdrew a photograph. It was a snapshot of his wife. He showed it to Picasso and asked:

"Can't you paint realistically – like that?"

"Is that really what she looks like?"

"Yes," said the man.

"She must be very flat then," said Picasso, "and quite small."

There is perhaps no representation of the Earth more inadequate than the world view that sees mankind as the chosen species, above nature, and so technologically potent that we can control the biosphere that we inhabit.

Your Majesty, Humanity

The Picasso story graphically illustrates that our ideas of reality may be absurd in the extreme. We would do well to assume Picasso's radical scrutiny as we contemplate the nature of our role as human beings in planet Earth. It is common to believe that human beings, if not the pinnacle of creation, are the highest example of evolution, the most evolved animal; but is it not curious that this flattering judgment about the supreme status of humans in the biosphere has been decided by the very species doing the judging?

Freud compared the ego to a circus clown parading about. The clown pretends with simple gestures to have caused the effects that he is only miming.[vi] For example, a flying trapeze artist might do a triple somersault in the air: the ego-clown would make circling motions with his fingers, bowing as the acrobat caught his swing. So, too, as a species, our control over the biota, the sum of organisms interacting at the Earth's surface, may be illusory. Our history is marked by wars and weapons, ever more technologically sophisticated and destructive than before. It is also mark ed by creating new technologies such as agriculture and industry to overcome former limits of the environment. Continuing at current rates of population growth, in only a few centuries the human biomass, the sheer weight of new human flesh, would expand off the Earth into space at a velocity faster than that of light; obviously that is impossible and so our growth as a species must dramatically decline in accord with earthly resources. In our self-centered way we pretend to be kings of the biosphere-stewards and engineers in charge of the environment and other species. However, if the Earth has a true physiology, our growth will be circumscribed and our role limited.

The means nature has invented for reproduction continually exceed one's expectations. The y are not limited to the simple copying of bacteria but extend to the more complex asexual dance of mitosis. In plants, fungi, protoctists, and animals, reproduction is often still more elaborate, entailing a meeting of the sexes and the cellular permutation of mitosis known as meiosis. But it would be short-sighted to think reproductive complexity reaches its height with the sexually reproducing animal. Reproduction also includes situations in which members of other species are integrally involved, such as the dependence of some flowering plants upon certain birds, insects, or bats. Many plant reproductive acts depend for their fertilization upon the eating behaviors of animals. These famous reproductive acts (the birds and the bees) show that nature does not always use like to create like, but may depend upon the mediation of totally unlike individuals. In the same manner as a given flower depends upon a bee for its propagation, so the terrestrial biosphere, in begetting technological miniatures of itself, requires human mediation to complete this, its first reproductive cycle.

The reproductive metamorphosis of planet Earth is more like the complex, associative, mediated reproduction exemplified by the birds and the bees than it is like the immediate reproduction of amoebae or the sexual reproduction of people. If the biosphere uses humanity to produce technology to reproduce itself, then biospheric reproduction would appear more complex, though no less an example of reproduction, than other reproductive acts in nature. It sounds teleological to say that the biosphere uses humanity to create technology to reproduce herself, but it may be no more teleological to say so than to claim that the human body produces sweat in order to cool itself. In both cases, we need not be discussing a thinking, humanlike entity, but only the unconscious purposiveness of an "autonomic nervous system." It is not us but the geophysiology of the Earth that may be "in charge."

If this whole, spooky, science-fiction scenario of the biosphere using us to accomplish its own ends is true, why would we be privy to the bubbling up of ecological consciousness? In other words, the spawning of technology, a prerequisite to extraterrestrial expansion of the biosphere via its "offspring," has been aided by human greed, egocentricity, and isolation. But this may no longer be the case. It may be that the time has come, from a biospheric vantage point, for us to glimpse a new role for ourselves; no longer isolationists, selfishly rearing technology for our own ends, but integrationists-connectors and vectors of disparate parts of the biosphere – no longer murderers but intermediaries and matchmakers among the millions of species participating in the life of the biosphere. In such an altered outlook, technology, language, and science would be seen to belong not to the ephemeral species of humans, incubated by the biosphere, but to the lasting destiny of our pregnant Mother: Earth.

From Biospheres: Metamorphosis of Planet Earth

[i] Ludwig Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, Thaddeus J. Trenn and Robert K. Merton, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979). It is very difficult to finish this book and still cling to the notion of a scientific reality independent of the human society that manufactures it.

[ii] Francois Jacob, The Possible and the Actual(New York: Pantheon, 1982). The Foucault quote, from Le Monde, is reprinted on the back cover.

[iii] David Abram, "Merleau-Ponty and the Voice of the Earth," Presented as a lecture at the annual gathering of the Merleau-Ponty Circle, New School for Social Research, New York, 1983.

[iv] Cited in ibid.

[v] Cited in Dorion Sagan, ed., The Global Sulfur Cycle, NASA Technical Memorandum 87570 (Washington, DC, 1985), 241.

[vi] The full Freud quote runs: "The ego . . . plays the ridiculous role of the clown in the circus whose gestures are intended to persuade the audience that all the changes on the stage are brought about by his orders. But only the youngest members of the audience are taken in by him." From History of the Psychoanalytic Movement, p. 97; cited in Walter Kaufmann, Discovering the Mind, Vol. 3, Freud versus Adler and Jung(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980), 467.