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Gaia Theory

A modern holistic biological theory named after the Greek goddess of Earth. Actually, the idea began during the Romantic movement in the 19th century as a reaction to an increasingly mechanistic view of nature. The latter is perhaps most dramatically exemplified in the book L’Homme machine (“Man a Machine,” 1748) by the French physician and philosopher Julian Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751). The Romanticists, such as Goethe (1749-1832), saw nature as a “harmonious whole.” The German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt hypothesized that the Earth’s geological forces and climate act as unifying forces and that evolution does not proceed in a mechanistic Darwinian fashion, but involves cooperation between species, i.e., co-evolution. The mechanistic view, however, gained a resurgence in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries with a knowledge of the biochemistry of cells, the formulation of laws of heredity, the discovery of subatomic particles, and the philosophic movement coming out of Vienna known as Logical Positivism. That led to the 20th century movement known as micro-reductionism, i.e., that everything in the universe is physical in nature and will ultimately be explained in terms of quantum mechanics. Astronomer Carl Sagan (1934-1996) attempted to make this view more palatable with his phrase “We are all made of star stuff,” but that did not alter the fact that the view is, as was La Mettrie’s, materialistic and atheistic.

Despite recent successes in mapping the genetic structure of living organisms, many questions remain about how cells with the same genes nevertheless begin specializing into different organs as they divide. German embryologist Hans Driesch (1867-1941), for example, showed that even if a person were to destroy one of the two cells of a sea urchin at its initial stage of cell division, the remaining cell would still develop into a complete, though smaller, sea urchin. This led to the idea that there was some other organizing principle (Dreisch used the Aristotelian term entelechy for it) involved in organic growth. This is often referred to as “vitalism,” and finds a modern adherent in Rupert Sheldrake who calls the organizing principle a morphogenic field and has conducted numerous ingeniously contrived experiments to confirm his hypothesis. But the primary forerunner of the Gaia hypothesis was systems theory. In his book The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (1996), Fritjof Capra identifies biochemist Lawrence Henderson as one of the first to use the idea of a system, that is, a complex array of parts acting as a self-regulating whole. But probably the best known theorist of a systems approach to understanding things was the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy who began to formulate his ideas in the 1930s. His work received confirming support in the 1940s with the introduction of cybernetics, the theory of feedback mechanisms, by Norbert Wiener (cf. his The Human Use of Human Beings, 1950 and Cybernetics, 1961) and also in the notion of ecology and an ecosystem. These ideas then converged in the 1970s with the Gaia theory developed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis (cf. Lovelock’s Gaia, 1979 and Margulis’ dialogue with Capra, “Gaia: the Living Earth” in The Elmwood Newsletter, 1989).

Lovelock asserted that the Earth in itself is a organism that meets the definition of a living thing. In his comparative study of Mars and Earth while he was at NASA (National Aeronautic and Space Administration), he found that unlike Mars, the Earth had an unstable chemical and atmospheric composition but that it has been maintaining this imbalance through an apparently self-regulating mechanism.

Actually, Driesch and Sheldrake are closer to the theosophical viewpoint with their ideas of some sort of non-physical organizing field, than is the Gaia theory. In the final analysis, although Gaia sounds romantic in its notion that “Mother Earth” is a self-regulating system and must be understood as a whole, not in terms of micro-reductionism, it still is a purely physicalistic hypothesis. The mathematical models which contemporary theorists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela use to explain its workings are criticized by many mathematicians. Theosophists would do well to study carefully Capra’s book, which pulls together all the diverse elements in the hypothesis in a very readable way, before they extol it as in any way supporting theosophy.


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