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The Life and Legacy of a S c i e n t i f i c R e b e l
e d i t e d by
from a Close Friend and Colleague
oday, November 24, 2011, is Thanksgiving, and I’m still shaken by the news that Lynn died two days ago. The news came from her lab by that laconic and heartless medium, email. I come from an older generation and still expect deeply moving or important news to come by a personal letter, not as a message sandwiched between slices of spam. It will take a long time to digest the fact that Lynn is no longer with us. The idea that Earth is a live planet that regulates its surface and atmosphere in the interests of the biosphere is intimately connected with us both. It arose in my mind at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1965, when I shared an office in the Space Science building with Carl Sagan. At that time it was no more than an unusual idea that I shared with a small group of space, atmospheric, and climate scientists and three years before my friend the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Bill Golding gave the concept the name Gaia in homage to that classical Greek goddess of the earth. Lynn, at the time, was developing her theory of endosymbiosis, which is closely linked to Gaia, but it was seven years before we met as colleagues in 1972. She had written inviting me to call at her lab when next I was in the United States to talk about oxygen in the atmosphere, so I traveled to Boston from New Hampshire by bus, met Lynn at the airport, and traveled with her on the MTA to her lab at Boston University. She was the first biologist I had met who became excited by the idea of Gaia, and certainly the first to take it seriously. After a lively afternoon talking
with her and her students, I asked if she could recommend a nearby motel where I could stay so that we might continue the discussion next day. Lynn said, “No, why not come home with me and meet my family? We can continue the discussion there and you can travel back here with me tomorrow.” It was not long before a full collaboration was in progress, and it led to the publication of two papers on Gaia, one for the Swedish journal Tellus and the other for Biosciences. In some ways it was more like a revolutionary war than a collaboration. Lynn was like a wartime general who led her troops from the front; she went into combat against the cronies of the earth and life sciences firmly established in their turf dugouts. The war went on for nearly thirty years, until a partial peace was declared in 2001 by the Amsterdam declaration, where it was agreed that the earth was indeed a self-regulating system comprising all forms of life, the air, the ocean, and the crustal rocks. That peace was reluctantly signed by university-based scientists who wanted to keep their own sciences intact and not share them with those who occupied the other buildings around the campus. It was well put by the eminent geologist Dick Holland, of Harvard University, who referred to Gaia as “a charming idea, but not needed to explain the facts of the Earth.” Not surprisingly Gaia is still not favored by established science. The battle goes on, and we will all sorely miss Lynn’s fearless and forthright outbursts. I recall her reply to an ill-informed scientist who made the claim that one or other of the alleged threats to the environment would destroy all life on earth: “Gaia is a tough bitch.” For that audience, it was just right. Battling scientists usually fight with sharpened pens dipped in acid ink or with words spoken through subtly distorting megaphones, not with atom bombs. Lynn’s style of fighting, one that would have met with the approval of her fellow American General Patton, did not go uncriticized. Lynn and I often argued, as good collaborators should, and we wrangled over the intricate finer points of self-regulation, but always remained good friends, perhaps because we were confident that we were right. In these times of Facebook and letting it all hang out, many might find it hard to understand how we could work closely together and yet not be romantically involved. The nearest we came to intimacy was in 1972, when I had my first heart attack in the road just outside and then inside Lynn’s home in Newton, a suburb of Boston.
I might not have written this had not Lynn and her husband, Nicky, given the help and support I needed. It is interesting to me that our battles with other scientists were limited to those in the earth and life science departments of universities. Physicists and chemists were properly neutral, and climate scientists and meteorologists often welcomed Gaia. We collaborated with several scientists at that cathedral of science, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) at Boulder, Colorado, from 1962 until the 1990s. They included James Lodge, Will Kellogg, Steve Schneider, Lee Klinger, and Robert Dickinson. During the 1980s, there was almost a censorship by peer reviewers of any paper about Gaia, unless it was critical of it. Apart from the distinguished geologist Robert Garrels, geologists were, like Dick Holland, quietly dismissive of Gaia and remained so until the 1990s. But an increasing number of earth scientists came out of the sediments and began to realize that the earth did indeed regulate its climate and chemistry. Disliking the name Gaia, with its New Age associations, they called their neogeology “earth system science.” Evolutionary biologists, especially neo-Darwinists, were among Lynn’s favorite targets and soon the arguments became so fierce that at one point the talented wordsmith and neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins referred to Lynn as “Attila the hen” and the distinguished English neoDarwinist John Maynard Smith referred to Gaia as an evil religion. When Ford Doolittle published his now famous critique of Gaia in CoEvolution Quarterly, I could not stand aside and let this well-written and apparently logical demolition of Gaia become the last word. After some fairly ineffectual attempts to compose a verbal response, it occurred to me that so complex were the factors determining the mechanism of a planetary self-regulating system, that a properly mathematical computer model was needed as an answer. It is important to know that even the simplest of self-regulating mechanisms resists rational explanation; to explain them requires a circular argument. Cause-and-effect thinking, so prevalent in science, fails to explain the facts of physiology, quantum physics, and many other real but inexplicable dynamic systems. I took time off and composed a computer program for the mathematical model, which is now known as Daisyworld. I launched it at a meeting hosted by our good friend Peter Westbroek in 1978 on the Dutch island of Walcheren. I knew that Daisyworld was a definitive
answer to the neo-Darwinists’ criticisms of Gaia and that it must be properly published in a peer-reviewed journal. This was done in collaboration with another friend, Andrew Watson, who among other qualities is a competent mathematician. So unpopular was Gaia then, that despite my track record of numerous previous papers published in Nature, the journal would not take our Daisyworld paper. It did not matter too much because the highly regarded Swedish journal Tellus took it. The emergence of Daisyworld marked a watershed in the development of Gaia as a theory of the earth. A great deal of the further papers on Gaia were about mathematical models that descended naturally from Daisyworld. They involved extensive collaborations with my colleagues Tim Lenton and Stefan Harding. At the same time it led to a drifting apart of the collaboration that Lynn and I had together. We remained close friends but returned to our original scientific bases, biology for Lynn and transdisciplinary science for me. For me, and I hope eventually for most of science, Lynn’s greatest contributions were in cellular biology. She discovered endosymbiosis, the process by which the complex eukaryotic cells of present-day life evolved through the successful fusion of simpler and singular prokaryotes, bacteria. This is a key step in the evolution of life on earth. Her great contribution to Gaia was to show that microorganisms now, and from the beginning, were the infrastructure of Gaia. Our tendency to ignore bacteria is an example of our false pride. Lynn was the first to tell me that we humans are mere cellular communities. They are huge ones, comprising 10 billion living cells, but 90 percent of these are not human cells but cells of other microorganisms, most of which evolved to be friendly. The history of Gaia might be summarized by saying that I had, thanks to NASA, a top-down view of the earth through telescopes and spectrometers, and saw it as a system where the biosphere regulated its climate and chemistry. This was in 1965 and when astronauts, and all of you vicariously, saw directly through your eyes that blue/white iconic sphere. In the early 1970s, Lynn gave us all the bottom-up view of Gaia through her microscope and showed that it was made of microorganisms and alive. James Lovelock, inventor, chemist, and originator of the Gaia hypothesis, is author of several best-selling books, including The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning.