The Gaia Hypothesis Is Either Trivial And Useless Or False And Ridiculous

Guess which is Schellnhuber.
Guess which is Schellnhuber.

Hans Schellnhuber is an adviser to the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In the peer-reviewed Nature paper “Climbing the co-evolution ladder” (431, 913 (21 October 2004)) he and two co-authors wrote:

Stanislav Lem’s science-fiction masterpiece, Solaris, tells the gripping — and scary — story of a super-intelligent super-organism that has transmuted into a vast ocean covering most of the surface of a distant planet. Thus information-processing (that is, active) life and force-driven (that is, passive) environment have finally merged into a single entity.

Earth, these authors tell us, has not “yet” reached this “this vanishing point of evolutionary history. But modern civilization already perturbs — if not dominates — various large-scale processes and components of the planet.” Dominates. They speak of a global “metabolism” of carbon and other elements, and of a global “anatomy” that is “largely a product of relentless socio-economic action.” Largely.

The remainder of the brief article sketches steps in the evolutionary history of organisms, with open hints that man tends toward or actually is an aberration. The authors point out the trivial truth that all animals evolve inside a system in which other animals live and which is geologically arranged in particular ways.

They end with these words, “Pursing this concept of entwined evolution may reveal where we are ultimately heading — towards Solaris, or something even scarier.”

It is clear from the context, and from this plain statement, that the authors believe the earth—or rather, Earth—may become, or perhaps already is, a self-aware, rational creature. Solaris, incidentally, is summarized on Wikipedia:

Solaris chronicles the ultimate futility of attempted communications with the extraterrestrial life on a far-distant planet. Solaris is almost completely covered with an ocean that is revealed to be a single, planet-encompassing organism, with whom Terran scientists are attempting communication. What appear to be waves on its surface are later revealed to be the equivalents of muscle contractions…

The ocean’s intelligence expresses physical phenomena in ways difficult for the protagonists to explain using conventional scientific method, deeply upsetting the scientists. The alien mind of Solaris is so greatly different from the human mind of (objective) consciousness that attempts at inter-species communications are a dismal failure.

In a separate peer-reviewed paper, also in Nature, “‘Earth system’ analysis and the second Copernican revolution“, Schellnhuber opens what turns out to be a paean to computer simulation with the statement “we see much that is relevant to unravelling the mysteries of the Earth’s physique, or ‘Gaia’s body'”.

He writes later on that

Ecosphere science is therefore coming of age, lending respectability to its romantic companion, Gaia theory, as pioneered by Lovelock and Margulis. This hotly debated ‘geophysiological’ approach to Earth-system analysis argues that the biosphere contributes in an almost cognizant way to self-regulating feedback mechanisms that have kept the Earth’s surface environment stable and habitable for life.

Taken to an extreme, the Gaia approach may even include the influence of biospheric activities on the Earth’s plate-tectonic processes — through modulation of thermal and viscous gradient fields across the upper geological layers…

Schellnhuber asks, “But is it really Gaia who commands the engine room of the Earth system?” He answers there is no “clear answer”. A clear answer would be, for instance, “No: don’t be absurd.” The answer which he prefers might be found in this revealing paragraph:

Although effects such as the glaciations may still be interpreted as over-reactions to small disturbances — a kind of cathartic geophysiological fever — the main events, resulting in accelerated maturation by shock treatment, indicate that Gaia faces a powerful antagonist. Rampino has proposed personifying this opposition as Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.

Interesting how glaciations are a “a kind of cathartic geophysiological fever” and not a chill. Be sure you caught the right word. It is geophysiological, not geological.

He continues:

About four billion years into Earth’s history, a third planetary might emerged, a challenger to these two intransigent forces [Gaia and Shiva, the external shocks such as asteroids]: human civilization. Let us stay with mythological imagery and call this power Prometheus.

Enter his simulations, i.e. models, the second Copernican revolution. “These models seek to integrate the main processes and forces — Gaia, Shiva and Prometheus — through effective quantitative equations.” Curiously, about the use of these models he says “insights acquired during the present climate crisis may enable humanity to suppress future glaciation events by judicious injection of ‘designer greenhouse gases’ into the atmosphere.” Global warming can be a good thing.

Now to Gaia herself, or rather to the idea or hypothesis. Lovelock, one of the originators of the idea, in a peer-reviewed Nature paper “Gaia: The living Earth” (426, 769-770 (18 December 2003); a paper in which he approvingly cites Schellnhuber) said it was his “hypothesis that living organisms regulate the atmosphere in their own interest.” He also said “the concept of a live Earth is ancient”, which is very true. Pantheists, for instance, believed it long ago. His summary of the theory:

Briefly, it states that organisms and their material environment evolve as a single coupled system, from which emerges the sustained self-regulation of climate and chemistry at a habitable state for whatever is the current biota.

Like life, Gaia is an emergent phenomenon, comprehensible intuitively, but difficult or impossible to analyse by reduction — not surprisingly it is often misunderstood…

Gaia theory does not contradict darwinism, rather it extends it to include evolutionary biology and evolutionary geology as a single science. In Gaia theory, organisms change their material environment as well as adapt to it.

It should be plain that the Gaia hypothesis is, in one sense, trivially true and doubted by no one. Obviously, all life is part of one big whole, everything influences everything else to varying degree, and man is one animal among many. If a habitat cannot sustain an organism, that organism moves on or dies. And every organism, including man, influences his environment; indeed, must. Evolution does not happen in a bottle; organisms are adapted to the environment in which they live. There are no penguins in the Sahara.

Since this is true, and trivial, it is silly to put a mythical name to it, particularly one which evokes the idea of sentience or rationality, or worse. Taking Gaia in its purely metaphorical sense adds nothing to our understanding, but it can and does detract.

But there is another sense where Gaia is just plain false. “The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components.” Self-regulating is not true.

Now a body, your body, is self-regulating. It maintains homeostasis: your internal temperature is somewhat constant, as is your salt content, and so forth. You ingest and excrete. Further, you are not aware, for the most part, of these regulations. Your body just carries out its business. But you are aware. And your body—its parts, that is—acts for an end, which is the good of you. Your parts are not independent of you, either. You don’t seen colons walking (slithering?) down the road.

And this is so of other organisms: their bodies act for their ends, which are the good of those organisms. Their parts are also their parts and not independent of them.

The earth, or rather its parts, which includes us and carrots and plastic, is not acting towards the end of the good of the earth. Earth is not an “emergent” system. It is a collection of individual lifeforms and plain stuff, like rocks, lakes, and oceans. And an atmosphere which extends into space, and becomes part of space.

The earth does not note that it is heating up and in response “self-regulate” in some fashion, say, by launching another glaciation. Its “parts” don’t act in unity toward the goal of the good of the Earth-as-life-form. Each species and each thing reacts, as it must, to its ever-changing environment, but the result is only seen as stable by happenstance. Or by—and who will admit this?—divine design.

“Self-regulating” is either wishful thinking or a clear instance of false pattern recognition. For instance, Gaia sure hates most of the plants and animals that she bore. She’s killed off most of them, and ruthlessly. None of us will be having a trilobite salad for dinner tonight. Nor will any of us become a late night snack for a saber-toothed tiger. There are no glaciers perched over Detroit today, though there will be in the future, most likely, nor is there greenery near the north pole, though there used to be.

Gaia is a useless concept. The people who employ it cannot resist the allure of stretching the metaphor past the snapping point. I’ve yet to see where the sympathetic writer doesn’t imply, perhaps indirectly, that he knows what, for instance, the ideal climate is, or the ideal ecosystem. If he thinks he does, let him say so and be done with the mumbo-jumbo. No teasing hints!

Instead, all we get are plaintive whiny warnings that Gaia is angry and will, if we continue to anger her, cause the sky to fall. We also hear absurd statements that while Gaia may be self-regulating, mankind is somehow able to separate himself from his Mother Earth and un-regulate the Earthly self. Nobody ever explains how. If we are part of nature, which we are, then we are part of it, inseparable from it. Just like radishes, aardvarks, and boulders.

Everything, as I said above, effects everything else, and this includes us. As should be obvious to any scientist or philosopher, there is no way to “minimize” man’s effect on nature. Even if we all went the way of the Dutch tomorrow, our corpses and artifacts will forever shape the future.

Now it is a whole other discussion about what our purpose is; that is, what end we are acting toward. But it cannot be that this end is Mother Gaia Earth. Also, if you think about it, this whole other discussion is the only one worth having.


  1. About 20 years ago Adrian Bejan proposed the idea that an underlying principle of physics is at the root of all systems. He calls it the Constructal Law. So instead of some spiritual force driving nature, it’s a matter of natural design that causes system configuration and regulation. Like fractals, it works at multiple levels — in simple systems such as drainage networks as well as in complex systems of systems such as the climate. It also works in human organizations. No need to invoke animism when mechanism suffices.

  2. Rich

    I wondered the same thing – I can only speculate that it’s a cultural reference to “The Flying Dutchman” (a portent of doom).

    Briggs: This Schellnhuber has the “ear” of “your” Pope; or worse, his are the “hands” of the Pope in writing that useless Encyclical? Maybe the Pope “channeled” Herr Schellnhuber in a feat of “automatic writing”.

    (Yes, Bob, there may be “nuggets” in the Encyclical, but without reference to “Global Warming”, without the allusions (illusions) concerning “Renewable Energy”, and the Pantheistic mode of the document, it says nothing new that hasn’t already been said about the poor. It is an empty document.)

  3. Briggs:

    The subtext of “The Gaia Hypothesis Is Either Trivial And Useless Or False And Ridiculous” was “The Encyclical Is Either Trivial And Useless Or False And Ridiculous”, correct?

  4. Dang–I thought we were headed for those pure energy beings I saw on Star Trek and other scifi. It seemed logical…..Why become a giant ocean when you can become pure energy? It’s also interesting that extremely brilliant organism always seem to fail in communicating with or understanding lesser creatures. Not sure how that works. I do wonder how we know Gaia’s mad.

    You know, religions generally have a God that is distinctly different from mankind. This Gaia thing is simply anthropomorphizing of the planet. It’s us, only bigger and more important. Since Gaia cannot speak or communicate clearly, we are free to make up whatever we want and proclaim it as true. A silent, large being useful for political manipulation.

    Briggs–Have you yet regretted that widget update notice? 🙂

  5. Scotian,

    That I may be wrong is a trivial truth, too. Another is that I may be right.

    Think of a chemical buffer in a beaker. Place a drop of acid into the beaker and buffer acts to raise the pH. Then put a drop of base and the buffer acts to lower the pH.

    It would be folly to say that the beaker is “cognizant” and “self-regulating” in a metaphorical sense. We can say it is “self-regulating” in a strict chemical-causal sense, of course. But in no way, for instance, is the Tums you chewed after the Indian Buffet “aware” that it is protecting your gut.

    The atmosphere is the same, analogically, to the beaker. That temperatures goes up because of A, and goes down because of B, and these are simple physical responses. The effects are in line with the essence of the atmosphere (and what it touches, etc.). But they are not because Mother Earth needs to be protected.

    Do not forget that even “self-regulation” is a chimera. Look at the geologic history of the earth! A very loose “regulation” indeed.

  6. Sheri:

    Star Trek Deep Space 9 had a Solaris-like ocean character, Odo? He was part of the “oceanic” collective, but could take humanoid form. Every once in a while, though, he melted into a puddle of “goo” and resided in a bucket. I believe he was psychically “linked” to the collective, but for some reason, took on an unofficial ambassadorial role on the space station, maybe as a buffer to protect the “collective”.

  7. John B (): Oto was sent out with other changelings by the founders. He ended up ambassador after being kept in a jar for time. The Collective did resemble the Solaris “creature”, though the Collective could communicate with humans and others. (There was a STNG episode that covered the inability to communicate with another species.)

    Wiki has this “Solaris is one of Lem’s philosophic explorations of man’s anthropomorphic limitations. ” Since it was written in the early 60’s humans have come an incredible distance with anthropomorphic behaviours. Pets are referred to as children and dressed up, have parties, weddings, etc. I wonder if that would have changed Lem’s explorations of the phenomena.

    The idea of the Earth as a sentient being has a strong psychological pull. It is an entity/diety that can been defined by anyone and there is no arguing with the definition. It is the ultimate “imaginary friend” for adults.

  8. Schellnhuber should be charge with plagiarism. Isaac Asimov had the Gaia thing as a good thing in the Foundation Series, first in Foundation’s Edge (1982) and then in Foundation and Earth (1986). Gaia ultimately wins, and is set to be come the seed of a Galaxia–universal consciousness throughout the Galaxy even down to the lowest microbe and smallest pebble.
    I wonder why Asimov didn’t publish this in Nature instead of science-fiction? Oh, I know. Much more money from science-fiction than Nature…then.

  9. Sheri: (There was a STNG episode that covered the inability to communicate with another species.)

    Actually one of my all-time favorites across the entire franchise. The people who could only think/speak/perceive metaphorically through shared experiences (e.g., the way of the Dutch). The Universal Translator could only translate literally, without any cultural understanding. That was a herculean thing to convey on the writer’s part and I thought it was executed credibly.

  10. Bob: Much more money from science-fiction?

    Tell that to L Ron Hubbard.

    According to him, Religion is where the money is at.

  11. Bob:

    L Ron Hubbard said it “then” as well.
    Old L Ron just wasn’t the writer that Asimov was (he was prolific, just not that good – his best stuff was the short story or novella length at best).

    And yes, I implied the warmest/green religion and their ability to grab resources. I dare say they’ve taken so many pages from of the Church of Scientology, the “Church” should go after them as “squirrels”.

  12. Rich: Suicide; as practiced in the Netherlands. Nothing having to do with bicycles or copious amounts of fresh bread.

  13. John B() I gave the Encyclical “excellent” parts in the first post of this series. wait until you see the second for the not-so-good-parts.

  14. Suppose, we take the Gaia hypothesis as true…. that the Earth is a self-regulating system.

    e.g. Warmer ocean temperatures result in increased evaporation and more cloud cover, which prevents further warming of the ocean. (perhaps my example is incorrect, nonetheless, assume self-regulating.)

    Then, we should be able to dump enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere with little observed affect.

  15. Ah, got it. We (UK) generally think of Switzerland as the go-to place for suicide.

    (S van der W: glad to hear it)

  16. Briggs, “Do not forget that even “self-regulation” is a chimera. Look at the geologic history of the earth! A very loose “regulation” indeed.”

    A matter of perspective I suppose. It has been regulated enough to allow life to flourish for about a billion years. The Gaia worshipers may be nuts but the reason that they are able to get any traction is the remarkable resilience of the system. I think that Willis’ insight has been remarkable. It has also been rejected as trivial by his detractors except that this triviality has not been anticipated by anyone else nor is it a part of IPCC’s various reports.

    “Instead, all we get are plaintive whiny warnings that Gaia is angry and will, if we continue to anger her, cause the sky to fall.”

    They may have got this idea from the Bible; the Flood for example.

    The real question is how far can Le Chatelier’s Principle be extended? Please note that I am not defending the Gaia crowd but the concept of emergent properties. The trivial complaint reminds me of the story about Columbus.

    I will end with “Or by—and who will admit this?—divine design.” If Gaia is part of the divine then this is a matter of heresy?

  17. Dear Dr. Briggs:

    When Lovelock saw the world as self-regulating he was expressing a view of divinity – invoking The Force in much the same way star wars does.

    Bear in mind, that religious views and expressions reflect the culture(s) of the people involved. Lovelock sees the hand of God at work, but can’t say that, so he expresses Gaia; Lucas sees the same force acting through people, and so he expresses “the force”; but both are merely restating core Christian ideas about the relationships they see between God and physical reality using the language and constructs available to them.

    (p.s. “expresses” is intentional and correct.)

  18. Scotian: “The real question is how far can Le Chatelier’s Principle be extended? ” I thought that was a “law” of science and extended indefinitely.

  19. When I read Lovelock’s first work, I thought he was being pretty reasonable and not at all metaphysical. He hypothesized that is was *possible* for a biological system on the earth to regulate temperature. He gave a simple example possibility: daisy world:

    Perhaps he went off the rails into metaphysics later – I didn’t follow it. But the idea that earth *might* be self regulating – not consciously, but just because it does – is not silly. Nor, is it proved correct or wrong. Climate data suggests that something may very well be providing negative feedback – the temperature, while fluctuating pretty wildly over a few tens of degrees, has stayed in the same band for many millions of years, and it isn’t unreasonable to suspect some sort of regulation, whether or not it is biological.

  20. I think the point Lovelock was speculating about was that the Earth is a self regulating system, which it is. But if humans pushed the system too hard (pollution, greenhouse gases, deforestation), the system would compensate and find a new self regulating balance, but perhaps not in a way that might be convenient to humans. The average temperature of the Earth is 16C but perhaps that would change to 20C or 12C which would not be good for us. There was nothing especially mystical about it, but doesn’t stop people from trying to turn the mundane in the mystical.

  21. Dr Briggs,
    Great article – a bit like ” dejeavu all over again ” for me – as I have been pointing out the corruption of our Catholic faith by the atheistic/devil worshippers for some time.
    If you have time in your busy life have a look at :

    to see the involvement of Pope John XXIII among a bunch of atheists and masons who founded the ‘Temple of understanding’ as far back ad 1960.

    The involvement of said masons and agenda 21 and club of Rome should not come as any surprise to any Catholic with a modicum of an enquiring mind.

    It has caused me at the age of 73 to cease practising my life long Faith.
    I feel as if I have not abandoned the Catholic church, rather my Mother has abandoned me.

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