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~*What is The Gaia Hypothesis?


The Gaia Hypothesis proposes that our planet functions as a single organism that
maintains conditions necessary for its survival. Formulated by James Lovelock in
the mid-1960s and published in a book in 1979, this controversial idea has spawned
several interesting ideas and many new areas of research. While this hypothesis is
by no means substantiated, it provides many useful lessons about the interaction
of physical, chemical, geological, and biological processes on Earth. Thus, it is
a good starting point for our study of oceanography, providing a broad overview of
the kinds of processes that will interest us throughout the semester.

Throughout history, the concept of Mother Earth has been a part of human culture
in one form or another. Everybody has heard of Mother Earth, but have you ever
stopped to think who (or what) Mother Earth is? Consider these explanations.

The Hopi name for Mother Earth is Tapuat (meaning mother and child), symbolized by
a form of concentric circles or squares, as shown below. These forms symbolize the
cycle of life, the rebirth of the spirit, its earthly path, and, possibly, its
return to the spiritual domain. The lines and passages within the "maze" represent
the universal plan of the Creator and the path that man must follow to seek

A more imposing definition of Mother Earth might be found in the Hindu goddess
Kali. She is the Cosmic Power, representing all of the good and all of the bad in
the Universe, combining the absolute power of destruction with the precious
motherly gift of creation. It is said that Kali creates, preserves, destroys. Also
known as the Black One, her name means "The Ferry across the Ocean of Existence."

The ancient Greeks called their Earth goddess Ge or Gaia. Gaia embodies the idea
of a Mother Earth, the source of the living and non-living entities that make up
the Earth. Like Kali, Gaia was gentle, feminine and nurturing, but also ruthlessly
cruel to any who crossed her. Note that the prefix "ge" in the words geology and
geography is taken from the Greek root for Earth.

James Lovelock has taken the idea of Mother Earth one step further and given it a
modern scientific twist. (Are our modern Mother Earth "hypotheses" any more
refined than ancient Mother Earth myths?). Lovelock defines Gaia "as a complex
entity involving the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality
constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and
chemical environment for life on this planet." Through Gaia, the Earth sustains a
kind of homeostasis, the maintenance of relatively constant conditions.

The truly startling component of the Gaia hypothesis is the idea that the Earth is
a single living entity. This idea is certainly not new. James Hutton (1726-1797),
the father of geology, once described the Earth as a kind of superorganism. And
right before Lovelock, Lewis Thomas, a medical doctor and skilled writer, penned
these words in his famous collection of essays, The Lives of a Cell:

Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth,
catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded
surface of the moon in the foreground, dry as an old bone. Aloft, floating free
beneath the moist, gleaming, membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the
only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos. If you could look long enough,
you would see the swirling of the great drifts of white cloud, covering and
uncovering the half-hidden masses of land. If you had been looking for a very
long, geologic time, you could have seen the continents themselves in motion,
drifting apart on their crustal plates, held afloat by the fire beneath. It has
the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information,
marvelously skilled in handling the sun.

Thomas goes even one step further when he writes:

"I have been trying to think of the earth as a kind of organism,

but it is more for me like ... a single cell."