What is Gaia?

Před nějakým časem jsem na FSS absolvoval kurz Holistic Science and the Theory of Gaia, který vedl Stephan Harding z britské Schumacher College. Nutným výstupem bylo sepsání eseje, která/který by se týkal/týkala (jak kdo chcete) holistického přístupu k přírodní vědě, konkrétně kontroverzní a mojí oblíbené teorie Gaia. Po dvou letech od napsání a odevzdání jsem se konečně dostal k jejímu/jeho zveřejnění.


In this essay I will describe meanings of the word „Gaia“ both from the scientific and spiritual point of view. I’ll also talk about conventional and holistic science. In conclusion I‘ll offer some of my own ideas regarding this topic.

Conventional science and its leaks

The origin of scientific research lays in the 17th century in England and France and some of its best-known representatives are Francis Bacon and René Descartes. Their opinions became fundamental for contemporary „objective“ world-view. Stephan Harding tells this about Francis Bacon: „Bacon suggested that we must torture nature’s secret from her in order to gain dominion over nature for the benefit of humanity, that we must gain knowledge for control of nature“ (HARDING 2001). [1] In short, Bacon’s heritage tells us that nature herself does not have any value.

Next is René Descartes who gave us mechanistic point of view and set the very basics of scientific method. He thought that everything in material world is just an inert machine (HARDING 2001). He also declined every idea except existence of the human mind and reason. Or at least he tried to. In time his declaraction „Cogito ergo sum“ became almost legendary.

But Czech economist Tomáš Sedláček in his book Ekonomie dobra a zla (Economics of the Good and the Evil) claims that Descartes in fact based his philosophy upon his groundless beliefs. „If he had truly doubted he couldn’t tell that he believes in empiric world which is real and non-deceiving and on the basis of this transposition make his verification[2] (SEDLÁČEK 2009:148). According to Sedláček, Descartes believed in true God and he refused thoughts of God’s deception. However he didn’t prove that (SEDLÁČEK 2009:144).

Another suggestion of scientific fake detachement comes from Thomas Kuhn who attends to the concepts of paradigm and „normal“ science. Normal science means „research tightly anchored in one or more former scientific conquests which is accepted by some academic community as a basis for further scientific practice[3] (DISMAN 2002:12). And Kuhn‘s meaning of paradigm is „accepted examples of current scientific practices which include laws, theory, application and instrumentation[4] (DISMAN 2002:12).

There are sociologists (e.g. Geertz [5]) suggesting that scientific approach is just a social construct and it‘s similar to others – like ideology or religion. The difference between science and ideology or religion lays mostly in lingual instruments and values. Science tries to be impassive and non-evaluative so it uses technical language without any emotive word. Whereas ideology uses emotions and sentiment in order to somehow electrify the audience. Despite of this difference both approaches are just social contructs and depend on society. I think any scientific discovery thus may be abused for ideological purposes and dominant ideology may control the research topics.

Werner Heisenberg, one of the great quantum physicists, said that „what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning“ (HARDING 2001). So it was quantum physics what told us that the behaviour of the very basis of matter is directly influenced by us and our observation. This implies that there is no universal objectivity in any intellectual approach nor in the scientific one.

Holistic science

Holistic science is an alternative approach to the conventional reductionism-based one. Stephan Harding (2001) differs two modes of holistic science – detached and participatory. The first mode is considered as a more „holistic“ version of conventional science. It works with the emergent phenomena (to be described later), but it has the same values as conventional science – gaining knowledge for control of nature and for mankind’s utility.

The second, participatory mode also works with the emergent phenomena, but it also appreciate instrinsic value of every living being and nature herself. It is inspired by pre-scientific view and finds human not only as observer, but as participating experiencer of the world. I dare suggest that participatory holistic science maybe partially gives up seeking universal objectiveness chimaera and profits from richness of subjective experience.

Emergent phenomenon

The phenomenon of emergent properties can be shortly described by one Aristotle‘s qoutation: „The whole is more that the sum of its parts.“ [6] Harding provides more sofisticated Silbertein’s definition of this phenomenon: „Emergent properties are qualitatively new properties of systems of wholes that posses causal capacities that are not reducible to any  of the causal capacities of the parts“ (HARDING 2001).

This can be simply understood for example in chemistry. Each chemical element has its own qualities (state, density, colour, reactivity or toxicity), but when we fuse them to one compound, this can have (or have not) a plenty of other qualities. For example hydrogen and oxygen are both very reactive gases and side-by-side they make very explosive mixture, but as one substance they form water, absolutely harmless and life-giving liquid.

Alternative form of emergent properties I also found in sociopsychology. Especially in a well-known case of mass psychology. An individual himself/herself may be very polite, calm and peaceful person. But when we put him/her to a group of hard-core football fans, there might emerge diametrically different characteristics, like aggression or rudeness. Another example might be interpersonal relations. It’s a well-known event, when some person starts to behave different and not understandably in unknown situation, perhaps in presence of a person of the opposite sex or while delivering a speech in face of a large crowd. It thus seems that contextual aspect is absolutely vital for cognition at all.

Scientific Gaia

Emergent properties of the Gaian system are based on very similar principle. The core of this theory or hypothesis lays in relations and feedbacks between biota and its environment (water, atmoshpere and rocks). How living beings affect and change their environment and environmental changes have impact on the way of life, this created huge self-regulating system (HARDING 2010b:3). But the self-regulation seems to be an „unintended side effect“ of expressions of life, not the only primary raison d’être of all the biota. Self-regulation only emerges from the whole network.

In the theory of Gaia also hermeneutics (act of interpretation) has its significance. By this it can be also described what Gaia means. „The expression of life what shapes the context within life understands itself (e.g. the atmosphere), thus leading to new interpretations and to new meaningful expressions (metabolic novelty) – the hermeneutic circle lives as Gaia“ (HARDING 2010a:49).

The primary principle of self-regulating system is presence of negative (i.e. inhibitory) feedbacks. These are also included in cycles in which biota may affect Earth’s temperature, weather and landscape too. One cycle (see both HARDING 2010a and b) pursues biologically assisted silicate rock weathering. In wet, molecules of the silicate rocks can be pretty easily dissociated by some sort of bacteria. These bacteria release silicon from the rock and bond carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide instead of it. This leads to loss of CO2 in the atmoshpere, fall of temperature and less rainfall. Less rainfall however makes further silicate rock weathering more difficult. But of course this is only one link in a great self-regulating Gaian chain.

„Gaia“ is the name of an Ancient Greek goddess of Earth and personification of Earth. Because of this is the theory, despite of its unquestionable scientific effort, often criticised or rejected as vague and too mystical. Name of Ancient goddess really might evoke us something neo-paganistic in style of New Age movement. Even James Lovelock, the autor of the Gaia hypothesis, started to regret using this word and tried to rename it to geophysiology, but this term didn’t take such roots. [7]

Thinking about Gaia

I think, in accordance to what has been written above in this essay, the spiritual or esoteric dimension of Gaia and holistic science is beneficial and somehow necessary. As mentioned, even conventional left-minded science is based upon some sort of right-minded intuition or faith. Actually many masterpiece discoveries and inventions have their origin in inspiration and passion. Also appreciating intrinsic value of nature requires something more than seeking own prosperity and utility, an unselfish sense of belonging to everybody and everything around. And we might go further than we now imagine.

It’s not only our world, our biota, all Gaian properties or landscape’s genius loci we can deeply sense, experience and appreciate. Because there’s not, or at least I think that there’s not, any exact definition of live, any exact Gaia’s border.

Even such a huge system or „superorganism“ like Gaia is strictly dependent on something external, on the sunlight and on the Moon’s gravity. Also Jupiter’s great gravity have positive effect on Earth’s life (e.g. it can preserve our planet from asteroids, or possibly vice versa). [8] So it means that Gaia may not be the whole, but only next part of much greater self-affecting system. And understanding this system with all its influences may be beyond our capabilities. And I think that our inability of verification is why scientists don’t want to mention this possibility.

But there’s a possibility, which could be one day verified. It regards exploitation. I think even if we manager to preserve Earth‘s nature, we might in future exploit the Moon on Mars by digging metals and so on. And we might say it’s not bad. Because there’s no live neither on the Moon nor on Mars, right? And even if… how on Earth does it affect us on the Earth? But to say there’s no life because we haven’t found it, that’s not a sign of erudition, that’s a sign of ignorance. And ignorance often leads to never dreamt terrible consequences.

If we want to search for life, we have to define what live is. It’s an active movement, a metabolism, reproduction? Is it a soul? And what is soul? Who has soul so who’s alive? Is materia non-living and is our body only mechanism and does soul give it life? Are animals only bodies without soul? And is there any soul without body? These are only few of many questions we can ask and we also asked. But many times we ignorantly answered something like „I never saw soul without body, I never saw a rock to express life…“ or worse „I THINK for example dog howl is the same thing as steam train whistle…„… so what I can’t measure, doesn’t exist, rocks are lifeless and animals are merely machines.

Topic of ignorance reminds me beginning of another ancient quotation, this time by Buddha: „Meditation brings wisdom, lack of meditation leaves ignorance…“ [9] And this leads us back to right-minded thinking, to deep experience. It‘s often rejected as irrelevant and irrational. But importance of irrational thinking patterns, inspiration and emotion, is out of question. Also Richard Feynman, one of the greatest quantum physicists and Nobel prizewinner, made his masterpiece inspired by flying plate in Cornell University dining-hall (FEYNMAN 1989:144-145).

And it’s quantum physics, what might verify much from pre-scientific world-view. Quantum physics says, that everything is composed from atoms with the same always moving subatomic particles and those are in fact just oscillating superstrings. [10] That means materia is only one, the same in human body, plants, rocks. This materia is living at all, moves and changes itself all the time. And, as mentioned earlier, also our mind, its experience and inspiration, means change.

Thus I believe life actually is change itself. Don’t care if it‘s in human, animal, rock or in piece of furniture. Feeling this just could make one belonging to creation at all, make him/her appreciate value of everything, starting with all nature’s wonders, ending with something as common as annoying relative. Then once we could stop wasting nature so as ourselves.

Change as proof of life is always everywhere, cannot be neither stopped, destroyed nor even seen. That might be another interpretation of anima mundi, soul of the world. Or you could call that God.

[2] Author‘s translation; Originally: „Kdyby skutečně pochyboval, nemohl by přece (ani ve snu) pronést, že věří v empirický svět, jenž má být skutečný a neklamavý, a na základě této přesmyčky provést svůj ‚důkaz‘.“

[3] Author‘s translation; Originally: „… výzkum pevně zakotvený v jednom či více minulých vědeckých výdobytcích, které určitá vědecká komunita přijímá jako základ pro budoucí praxi.“

[4] Author‘s translation; Originally: „Paradigmata jsou přijímané příklady aktuální vědecké praxe, příklady, které zahrnují zákony, teorii, aplikace a instrumentaci.“

[5] Geertz, C. (2000). Ideologie jako kulturní systém. Interpretace kultur. Praha: SLON.

[7] Information in this paragraph took from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaia_hypothesis (2/1/2011).

[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superstring_theory (2/1/2011).


Aristotle’s and Buddha’s quotations: http://thinkexist.com/quotation/meditation_brings_wisdom-lack_of_mediation_leaves/143674.html (2/1/2011).
http://thinkexist.com/quotation/the_whole_is_more_than_the_sum_of_its_parts/154798.html (2/1/2011).

Disman, M. (2002). Jak se vyrábí sociologická znalost. Praha: Karolinum.

Feynman, R. P. (1989). To snad nemyslíte vážně!. Praha: Mladá fronta. ISBN 80-204-0023-0.

Gaia hypothesis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaia_hypothesis (2/1/2011).

Geertz, C. (2000). Ideologie jako kulturní systém. Interpretace kultur. Praha: SLON.

Harding, S. (2001). Earth System Science and Gaian Science. Earth System Science. Proceedings of the International School on Earth and Planetary Science, p. 227-233. University of Siena. Also at: http://www.schumachercollege.org.uk/learning-resources/earth-system-science-and-gaian-science (2/1/2011).

Harding, S. (2010a). Animate Earth. Brno. Electronical presentation background for course Holistic Science and the Theory of Gaia.

Harding, S. (2010b). Gaia and Earth Jusrisprudence. Brno. Author’s own electronical release.

Sedláček, T. (2009). Ekonomie dobra a zla. Praha: 65. pole. ISBN 978-80-903944-3-8.

Superstring theory: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superstring_theory (2/1/2011).

Vědci pochybují o ochraně Jupitera: http://www.ideje.cz/cz/clanky/vedci-pochybuji-o-ochrane-jupitera (2/1/2011).

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