Father of Gaia
James Lovelock’s Gaia theory proposes that the earth, the atmosphere and the biosphere are constituent parts of a single feedback system. It’s a system, he says, that could easily dispense with us.By John Ryle • 22 September 1991 • Independent on Sunday (“The Secret of Everything” ) • Revised and expanded • Posted 2016 • 5,279 words
High on a shelf in James Lovelock’s secluded private laboratory deep in the West Country, flanked by a rack of pliers and wire-strippers, alongside a clutch of software manuals and a stuffed baby alligator, stands a compact alloy cradle supporting a coiled metal tube and a sealed wooden box. A dial on the box hints at hidden electronic circuitry. The device has an anachronistic air: not slick enough to be a piece of contemporary high-tech, it seems to be a relic of a previous era, at odds with the purring computers that fill the rest of the room, more like an exhibit in a science museum.
A museum is where it will surely end up; for this modest-looking object is the first Electron Capture Gas Chromatograph, which measures, with unusual precision, minute amounts of chemicals in water or air. It was James Lovelock’s critical contribution to this machine, a component called the Electron Capture Detector, that made it possible for him and others to collect the hard data on pollution used by environmental activists in the early days of the green movement. Later Lovelock used it to demonstrate the presence of CFCs in the atmosphere, the main cause of the hole in the ozone layer—one of the alarm signals invoked by environmentalists. And it is the Electron Capture Detector that has provided experimental evidence for the idea that made him famous, a hypothesis about the relation between life and earth that he calls Gaia.
“A close-coupled emergent domain”
The Gaia hypothesis has turned this maverick research chemist, now aged 72, into a celebrity. It has given rise to poems and religious cults, and brought pilgrims to his door, here in a fold in the Devon countryside, in the same way that autograph hunters tracked Charles Darwin down in rural Kent a century earlier, after the publication of The Origin of Species. Lovelock’s idea has inspired environmental activists and—in some cases—disappointed them with its indifference to the fate of the human species. It has been greeted with scepticism by many biologists, but embraced by others as a uniquely fruitful basis for research.
Gaia is the idea that life on Earth, along with the atmosphere, the oceans and the rocks of the Earth’s crust, forms a single self-regulating system, a kind of super-organism (though some Gaian-inclined scientists prefer to avoid the anthropomorphic overtones of this term), one that has maintained stable conditions for life on Earth over the past four billion years, a third as long as time.
Gaia, according to Lovelock and his supporters, employs mechanisms analogous to those that an animal uses to maintain the temperature of its body and the composition of its blood. It is an extension of the idea of an ecosystem to include the whole of life and a good part of the inanimate world. Gaians draw attention to the relative constancy of the earth’s climate, the constant high level of oxygen in the atmosphere and the surprisingly low level of salt in the sea. A global feedback system, they argue, is responsible for this, compensating for changes in the global climate by adjusting the rates at which gases such as oxygen, methane and carbon dioxide are produced and removed from the atmosphere, holding the climate within limits favourable to life as a whole.
This self-regulating system, they argue, acts on the same principle, ultimately, as a governor on a steam engine or a thermostat in an iron. Instead of seeing life as an accidental smear on the surface of the globe, Gaian theory sees it as a marriage of organisms with their environment. In the language of systems theory, it is a “close-coupled emergent domain”.
In a fold of the hills
Jim Lovelock lives in Devon, on a 30-acre spread in a fold of the hills between Bodmin and Dartmoor, where he works in a purpose-built laboratory surrounded by woodland. His Arcadian existence has given rise to an unjustified reputation for wealth and reclusiveness. As he shows me round his laboratory, he says “The last journalist who came down here said something about me being a shock-haired 110-year-old mad scientist living in an enchanted wood with a nubile blonde wife.”
“Obviously not very observant,” adds his wife, Sandy, an elegant American in her early forties.
Lovelock’s laboratory is a compact room, ten foot by ten foot, with a work bench and a bank of computers. There is a larger room, a trophy room, with more computers and a fax machine where Sandy Lovelock organizes the huge inflow of Gaiana: scientific papers, press cuttings, letters from fans, from religious maniacs, and from people who say that the Gaia books have changed their lives. A proportion of these—to the Lovelocks’ mild dismay—turn up to pay their respects in person.
Lovelock describes himself as an inventor. This may contribute to the mad-scientist stereotype. But, as anyone who meets him—or who reads his books—discovers, he is rather the opposite: a calm, humane man, soft-spoken, frail of physique and impassive of countenance, but vigorous in pursuit of a heterodox vision of nature, a vision that has deep appeal to enquiring laymen and—to Lovelock’s surprise—to theologians.
He dissociates himself from other heretics of life science—such as the Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake, who believes that there is an additional factor in organic evolution beyond genes and chromosomes that he calls “morphic resonance”. Nor is Lovelock interested in crop circles or cold fusion. And he is not exactly anti-establishment: he is a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Commander of the British Empire and holds several doctorates, both earned and honorary. For the last three decades he has made a living as a freelance researcher, a consultant first to NASA, then to Hewlett-Packard and Royal Dutch Shell; he has more than 60 patents to his name, including an early version of the microwave oven. He describes himself as a lifelong card-carrying agnostic. There is really nothing weird about him. It’s just that he believes that the Earth is alive. Or nearly so.