Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Jorge Luis Borges and the Gaia Hypothesis

Borges (the author of The Aleph) writes:

Animals in the Form of Spheres

The sphere is the most uniform of solid bodies since every point on its surface is equidistant from its centre. Because of this, and because of its ability to revolve on an axis without straying from a fixed place, Plato (Timaeus, 33) approved the judgment of the Demiurge, who gave the world a spherical shape. Plato thought the world to be a living being and in the Laws (898) stated that the planets and stars were living as well. In this way, he enriched fantastic zoology with vast spherical animals and cast aspersions on those slow-witted astronomers who failed to understand that the circular course of heavenly bodies was voluntary.

In Alexandria over five hundred years later, Origen, one of the Fathers of the Church, taught that the blessed would come back to life in the form of spheres and would enter rolling into Heaven.

During the Renaissance, the idea of Heaven as an animal reappared in Lucilio Vanini; the Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino spoke of the hair, teeth, and bones of the Earth; and Giardano Bruno felt that the planets were great peaceful animals, warm-blooded, with regular habits, and endowed with reason. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler debated with the English mystic Robert Fludd which of them had first conceived the notion of the earth as a living monster, 'whose whalelike breathing, changing with sleep and wakefulness, produces the ebb and flow of the sea'. The anatomy, the feeding habits, the colour, the memory, and the imaginative and shaping faculties of the monster were sedulously studied by Kepler.

In the nineteenth century, the German psychologist Gustav Theodor Fechner (a man praised by William James in his A Pluralistic Universe) rethought the preceding ideas with all the earnestness of a child. Anyone not belittling his hypothesis that the earth, our mother, is an organism -- an organism superior to plants, animals, and men -- may look into the pious pages of Fechner's Zend-Avesta. There we read, for example, that the earth's spherical shape is that of the human eye, the noblest organ of our body. Also, that 'if the sky is really the home of angels, these angels are obviously the stars, for the sky has no other inhabitants'.

- Jorge Luis Borges: The Book of Imaginary Beings

This idea of Earth as a living organism, fits in also with James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis, which he first publicised in his 1979 book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.

Born in 1919, James Lovelock was educated at the University of London and Manchester University and holds a Ph.D. in medicine. In the United States he has taught at Yale, the Baylor University College of Medicine, and at Harvard University. Some of his inventions were adopted by NASA in their program of planetary exploration. It was while working for NASA that Dr Lovelock has developed the Gaia Hypothesis.

In collaboration with other NASA project researchers, Lovelock predicted the absence of life on Mars based on the consideration of the Martian atmosphere and its state of being in a chemically dead equilibrium. In contrast, the Terran atmosphere is in a chemical state described as being far from equilibrium. The unlikely balance of atmospheric gases which comprise the Earth's atmosphere is quite unique in our solar system. This fact would be clearly visible to any extra-terrestrial observer, by comparison of the images of the planets Venus, Earth and Mars.

What was happening upon the Earth which enabled the maintenance of such an unlikely combination of chemical gases -- specifically nitrogen and oxygen. What complex processes are at work within the terrestrial atmosphere -- and have occurred for many billions of years -- to explain this uniqueness? How have these processes arisen and what today maintains these processes at this equilibrium which is chemically far from equilibrium?

In the late 1960's Lovelock took the first steps in answering these questions by considering the the beginnings of life upon the planet Earth. The earliest of life-forms existed in the ancient oceans and were the smallest and the simplest -- less than single celled. Contemporary microbiological research points to the fact that almost 3 billion years ago, bacteria and photosynthetic algae began extracting the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen back into it. Gradually -- over vast geological time spans -- the atmospheric chemical content was altered away from the dominance of carbon dioxide, towards the dominance of a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen -- towards an atmosphere which would favorably support organic life powered by aerobic combustion -- such as animals and mankind.

So it was then that Dr James Lovelock, in looking for the evidence of extra-terrestrial life on Mars, observed the Earth as might an extra-terrestrial, and began to formulate a method of explanation as to why the Earth appeared therefore to be not so much a planet adorned with diverse life forms, but a planet which had been transfigured and transformed by a self-evolving and self-regulating living system. In view of the nature of this activity, Earth seemed to qualify as a living being its own right. And so the hypothesis took its initial form. And as the story goes, while on a walk in the countryside about his home in Wilshire, England, Lovelock described his hypothesis to his neighbour William Golding (the novelist of Lord of the Flies fame), and asked advise concerning a suitable name for it. The resultant term "Gaia" -- after the Greek goddess who drew the living world forth from Chaos -- was chosen. However, there was a big difference between postulating such a grand schemed hypothesis and having it accepted by the traditional scientific community, and there remained much research work to be done in order to be able to more clearly specify the entirety of the processes by which the modern planetary atmosphere had been evolved and was continuing to be evolved. And in this task, in the early years of his further research concerning the Gaia hypothesis, Lovelock was supported by the collaboration of Dr Lynn Margulis, a leading and forward thinking American microbiologist.

"The entire range of living matter on Earth from whales to viruses and from oaks to algae could be regarded as constituting a single living entity capable of maintaining the Earth's atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts...[Gaia can be defined] as a complex entity involving the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback of cybernetic systems which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet."

"To what extent is our collective intelligence also a part of Gaia? Do we as a species constitute a Gaian nervous system and a brain which can consciously anticipate environmental changes?"

And not to forget about the worshipping of "Mother Earth" (or Goddess) in certain ancient cultures, either, which has been revived in the later years in the paganist, ecologist and feminist circles.

More on the Gaia Hypothesis:

The Gaia Hypothesis:
A Resource compilation of scientific commentary on the work of Lovelock

The Gaia Hypothesis in Finnish