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The Gaia Theory

Konstantin Suslikov

For hundreds of years, the Earth has been viewed as little more than an ordinary rock.
The auspicious placement of this rock allows it to remain warm and relatively well protected
from large scale impact events by the huge gravitational field of the Sun, which, coupled with
that of Jupiter, regularly absorbs most of the large objects that our own atmosphere can’t
readily disassemble. This so-called Goldilocks zone, being neither too hot nor too cold, was
somehow conducive to the formation and maintenance of the curious anomaly we know as
organic life. Give or take the last few decades, three hundred years of science and philosophy
seemed to indicate that Life was something that was patently unique and separate from the
rest of the physical, inorganic universe. The planet, in its entirety, was generally appreciated as
little more than a handy skillet for grilling the perfect steak, or merely the stage for a
hodgepodge of competing species. It is only very recently that these peculiar paradigms were
directly challenged.
The notion of a “Gaian” Earth is not entirely new, however. Its beginnings in
contemporary science can be traced back to a lecture given by Dr. Joseph Black, the discoverer
of carbon dioxide, in the mid 18th century. He gave the lecture as a stand-in for a sick James
Hutton, widely considered to be the father of geology, who wrote, “I consider the Earth to be a
super-organism and that its proper study should be by physiology.” He is considered to be one
of the first scientists who actively challenged the religious notion concerning the creation of the
Earth and everything on it, as described in the Old Testament. In order to do this he created the
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theory of Uniformatism, his personal flavor of evolution, which stated that everything is
constantly being recycled at a roughly constant rate.
The first time the Earth was viewed in a truly holistic sense was by the first satellites
that captured images of our little blue and green ball suspended in the vast, glittering vacuum
of the cosmos. Although these images have become seared into public consciousness to the
point of being cliché, the accompanying scientific readings showed us that our planet is
composed of many of the same elements as our close neighbors. We noticed sustained polar
ice caps, relatively similar atmospheric chemistry, an abundance of basic elements, and roughly
comparable dimensions. Yet our planet was completely different from the dead and barren
wastelands that lay nearby. We were able to understand that air, soil, rivers, oceans and forests
are not simply necessary for the formation of life, but are simultaneously its byproducts and
constituent components. These things are to life what blubber is to a seal, or a thick winter coat
is to us. Not exactly alive, but things designed to protect against the harsh realities of existence.
The experience of being on the outside and looking in provided for the unique viewpoint that
the Earth might be more than just our home, but a huge, deeply interconnected living system
capable of self-regulation.
A theory which comprehensively addressed this new and radical perspective of our
planet was developed in the early 1960’s by British scientist and inventor Dr. James Lovelock.
Lovelock studied chemistry at the University of Manchester before earning a Ph.D from the
London School of Tropical Medicine. He conducted research for Yale, Harvard and Baylor before
being contracted by NASA to be part of the Viking team which endeavored to discover evidence

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of life on Mars. His work for NASA in developing instruments and techniques for the analysis of
alien atmospheres and surfaces provided new, far-reaching insights about life on earth. The
most significant of these inventions was an electron capture detector which was key in the
discovery of how Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC’s, could linger and severely damage the ozone
layer. As a side note, Lovelock also claimed to have invented the microwave.
Novelist William Golding suggested the name “Gaia” in keeping with what the Greeks
called the Earth, personifying it and believing it to be a goddess. Shortly after its inception, the
theory began to attract many key thinkers and leading figures in the scientific community. Lynn
Margulis, a microbiologist from the University of Massachusetts, was one of its first supporters
and later, one of its key proponents.
The Gaia theory posits, on a base level, that biological organisms interact with their
inorganic surroundings to create complex, self-regulating systems that exist to maintain a set of
optimal conditions for supporting life. It proposes that biota, or living organisms, influence their
environment, and that their environment in turn influences them via Darwinian mechanisms. It
describes a kind of co-evolution that is the result of cooperative, rather than competitive
processes. The Gaia theory is particularly interested in viewing the biosphere as a whole and
observing how the evolution of organisms affects its overall stability. Today, the Gaia theory
represents a spectrum of hypotheses ranging from the empirically proven to the extremely farfetched. Topics which have been studied extensively in these areas include global surface
temperature, ocean salinity, greenhouse effects, the Redfield ratio, and atmospheric levels of
oxygen and carbon dioxide. Over the past 25 years, many of the Earth’s self-regulating

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mechanisms have been moved from the domain of unsubstantiated theory to the pantheon of
proven fact.
In response to various criticisms of his theory, Lovelock set up a mathematical model
that reduced many of the theory’s elements into a single, basic simulation, which he called
Daisyworld. The Daisyworld model was designed to demonstrate how certain feedback
mechanisms could evolve over time fostered by the self-interest of small groups of biological
organisms. The premise lay in examining the dynamics of having two sets of budding plants, in
this case daisies, which cover the surface of a hypothetical world orbiting a star. The star’s
energy output was set to vary with time, establishing periods of high and low levels of solar
radiation. There are two distinct types of plants; dark daises and white daises. As per the laws
of thermodynamics, dark daisies would absorb more of the light, thereby raising the
temperature of the planet, whereas white daises would reflect it, effectively lowering the
temperature. His theory was that competition between the two different kinds of daisies
would result in a temperate balance that was favorable to both. That is to say, if white daises
become the dominant colored planets, the temperature of the planet would decrease, leading
to unfavorable conditions. Similarly, if the dark daisies took over, the surface temperature
would become too high. The purpose of the model was to determine if the plants could reach a
co-existence that maintained an optimal temperature for both types of daisy to grow and
reproduce. As the amounts of solar radiation increased, populations of both kinds of daisies
responded to the changes in order to maintain optimal temperature. The population of daisies
gradually changed to meet the growing or decreasing output of the star. Naturally, if this were a
barren, abiotic world, the temperature would rise and fall, unchecked, in a linear fashion.
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Future revisions of Daisyworld became more complex, incorporating new factors such gray
daises, plant-eating grazers and their natural predators. Interestingly, the homeostasis became
even more stable with their addition. Even more recently, models of real biochemical cycles of
Earth (including complex frameworks of different organisms such as photosynthesisers,
herbivores, carnivores and 2ndary carnivores,) have all echoed the stability of the original
Daisyworld experiment. It seems that as biological diversity increases, the living conditions of
these organisms are regulated even more precisely. The outcome of the experiment showed
that biotic processes could in fact regulate large, global systems.
(figure 1.)
An experiment closely documenting the aforementioned relationships took place in the
forming of the Redfield ratio. This term describes the atomic ratio of carbon, nitrogen, and
phosphorus found in plankton in the Earth’s oceans to be 106:16:1. It gets its name from
Harvard physiologist and oceanographer Alfred Redfield, who first discovered this ratio in 1934
after sifting through thousands of samples of biomass from multiple oceanic regions. This ratio
was found to be consistent in all three oceans themselves, from coastal areas to the deep sea.
From this startling discovery, Redfield deduced that phytoplankton species with different levels
of nitrogen and phosphorus interact with the oceans (and each other) in a way that maintains a
comfortable chemical composition for all species. These findings are strongly in accordance
with the results of Lovelock’s Daisyworld simulation. The concept was no longer just a
simulation, but seemed to exist in the biogeochemical processes of the oceans themselves.

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These phytoplankton were not only a microcosm of a self-regulating system in the
depths of the Earth’s oceans, but also part of a much larger one. In 1987, Lovelock presented
the CLAW hypothesis in conjunction with Robert Charlson, Meinrat Andreae, and Stephen
Warren. This theory, which is an acronym of their surnames, proposes that there is a feedback
loop between oceanic ecosystems and climate. The feedback loop begins with an increase of
solar radiation that increases the growth rate of the plankton. Certain phytoplankton
synthesize dimethylsulfoniopropionate (otherwise known as DMSP,) an organosulfur compound
which affects osmosis. DMSP breaks down into dimethyl sulfide (DMS,) which is the single most
abundant biological sulfur compound released into the atmosphere. When airborne, DMS
oxidizes to form sulfur dioxide, which in turn bunches together and forms sulfate aerosols.
These aerosols act as cloud condensation nuclei that increase the droplet count of clouds,
effectively increasing cloud albedo (which basically just means they block out more sunlight.)
This diminishes the amount of light that the phytoplankton receive, causing their growth rates
to slow. The cycle can also work backwards; less light leads to less cloud cover which leads to
increased growth. Several studies in the tropical South Atlantic seemed to support this
hypothesis.
(figure 2.)
Ocean salinity is another factor that seems to fit into the equation. The Earth’s oceans
have had a constant salinity of about 3.7% for as long as life has existed in them. This value is
almost uniform except in coastal areas with high precipitation and river boundaries, in which
case the surface salinity falls slightly below average. Salt from rivers and hydrothermal vents on

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the sea floor should be raising this value over time, yet it’s somehow remained constant. As
cells can’t handle salinity over 5%, it’s critical for this value to remain the same. Scientists have
long been baffled by this mystery but no conclusive evidence has been found to make heads or
tails of it. The Gaia theory postulates that biochemical processes are the only possible
explanation for this phenomenon, and that bacterial colonies are largely responsible for the
regulation of ocean salinity.
Earth’s atmospheric composition also supports the theory. Aside from noble gases,
everything in our atmosphere is the direct result of biochemical processes. The low levels of
carbon dioxide (.03%) are patently unusual, especially when compared to the dead and drained
atmospheres of Mars and Venus which have an abundance of it. Geologically, the biggest
source of CO2 comes from volcanoes and the largest sink for the gas is the geochemical
weathering of rocks. Lovelock predicted that the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere were directly
related to the growth of biological organisms. He established a relationship between CO2 levels
and surface temperature, stating that warmer temperatures meant more organic growth and
less CO2, and conversely, colder temperatures lead to more CO2. This theory was partially
corroborated by the findings of Volk and Schwartzman, who found that rock weathering
increased by a factor of one thousand in the presence of organic life, which Lovelock found is
more than enough to establish a method of steady state regulation.
(figure 3.)
To say that the Gaia theory has far-reaching implications would be a gross
understatement. In an age of increasing industrialization and global-warming alarmism, a
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coherent geophysiological theory could completely change the way we view ourselves and the
way we’re connected to the universe. If nothing else, the theory outlines the interrelatedness
of ecosystems and establishes how easily humans are capable of making sweeping
environmental changes that could devastate our planet beyond the limits of any ecological
repair. Although there is a great body of evidence supporting this theory, many thinkers (I use
the term loosely) and scientists ignore and ridicule it either as the result of an antiquated,
mechanistic worldview shaped by the thundering hammer blows of Darwin and Descartes or
the myopia of their respective fields. However, the theory has inspired a great deal more. Al
Gore, Vaclav Havel, Elisabet Sahtouris, John Todd, Freeman Dyson, Terrence Mckenna, and
many others have passionately argued about how we can learn from the new perspective
presented here and reshape ourselves to better fit the living systems of Earth.

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Resources:
Figure 1 – Daisyworld Results

Daisy populations reacting to increased solar luminosity.
Figure 2 – CLAW Hypothesis

Feedback loop between ocean ecosystems and climate.
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Figure 3 – Atmospheric Gases

420,000 years of ice core data from Vostok, Antarctica research station, showing levels of atmospheric
gases. Current period is at left.

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Sources:

Lovelock, James. "The Evolving Gaia Theory." Paper Presented at the United Nations University. Tokyo,
Japan: 1992. N. pag. Web. <http://archive.unu.edu/unupress/lecture1.html>.

MacIntyre, F. 1970. Why the Sea Is Salt. In Ocean Science, readings from Scientific American 223 (5): 10415 (1977).

Redfield, A.C., The biological control of chemical factors in the environment, American Scientist, 1958

Lovelock, James E.; Margulis, Lynn (1 February 1974). "Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the
biosphere: the Gaia hypothesis". Tellus. Series A (Stockholm: International Meteorological Institute)
< http://tellusa.net/index.php/tellusa/article/view/9731 >

Charlson, R. J., Lovelock, J. E, Andreae, M. O. and Warren, S. G. (1987). "Oceanic phytoplankton,
atmospheric sulphur, cloud albedo and climate". Nature 326 (6114):.
< http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v326/n6114/abs/326655a0.html>

Watson, A.J.; J.E. Lovelock (1983). "Biological homeostasis of the global environment: the parable of
Daisyworld". Tellus B (International Meteorological Institute)
< http://www.tellusb.net/index.php/tellusb/article/view/14616>

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