Gaia, daughter of Pangloss
by Gwydion M. Williams
Voltaire was not just an elegant literary man, but also a pioneer of modern thought. The first man in Europe to advocate human rights from a purely secular perspective. His novel Zadig has the essential elements of the detective story, almost a century before Poe and Conan Doyle. He also helped bring Newtonian physics to a Continental audience: undermined people who had turned the valuable insights of Cartesianism into a pseudo-religious dogma. His short story Micromegas is probably the first tale that asks how Earth might seem to alien eyes. It is not usually cited as the first Science Fiction story, and he certainly learned things from Swift. But all the standard ingredients of SF are there, more than half a century before Frankenstein.
Beyond all these, there is Voltaire’s Candide, which has the unforgettable Dr Pangloss. Pangloss’s notion of ‘everything for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ is an idea that continues to plague us more than two centuries after Voltaire.
‘Gaia’ as developed by Professor James Lovelock is the latest popular version of Panglossian folly. The danger to our planet is downplayed by the assumption that ‘Mother Nature’ will somehow put up with everything we chose to throw at her. Gaia will clean away all of our messes, like a good mother looking after some foolish little boys. Though the ‘nanny state’ is now rejected, the ‘nanny universe’ is firmly believed in.
The original Gaia, the classical mother-goddess of Greek mythology, was not a nice person. That Gaia demanded gruesome sacrifices and creating a whole series of monsters as foes for the Olympian Gods. She was also perhaps a Triple Goddess – similar figures in other mythologies certainly were. And Lovelock’s Gaia could also be seen as having three aspects, ranging from valid speculative science to out-and-out mysticism. I chose to classify them as follows :-
- Gaia the Worldie-beast
- Gaia the Great Cosmic Nanny
Daisy-Gaia is fully explainable by known laws of physics, chemistry and biology. I derive her from Professor Lovelock’s well-known example of ‘Daisyworld’. Disconnected and accidental actions by individual organisms help to stabilise the planet as the sun gradually heats up. It all works sensibly: you can even run SimEarth on your home computer and see it actually happening. But how many such fortunate accidents can there be? Real-life daisies have a way of being much the same colour in hot lands and in cold.
It is perfectly possible to return from Los Vegas with a small fortune, and not just by the classic method of going there with a large fortune. In a system of blind chance there are winners, plenty of winners. But in the long run, it is the casinos that grow fabulously rich. Likewise a few self-stabilising mechanisms in an ecosystem does not mean that the ecosystem as a whole is self-stabilising. ‘Intermittently self-destructive’ would be nearer the mark.
Statistically speaking, Russian Roulette is perfectly safe in more than 83% of cases. This does not mean that it is a good idea, or that you can get away with it for very long. The odds are slightly better than I thought they would be. After 25 such follies, using a fresh gun each time, as many as one person in one hundred would still be alive. Such a person would undoubtedly think that they possessed a ‘charmed life’ and had ‘beaten the odds’. But if enough idiots were to try it, one or two would be bound to be lucky.
A sick person may very often get better if they just stay in bed and rest. Even someone who carries on working may get through their illness. The human body had a certain robustness, a strong self-healing capability. People will recover from the most horrific illnesses and injuries – sometimes. But unlike lizards, we can not grow back a lost limb. Unlike the Hydra, having one’s head cut off is not a minor set-back which a tough individual can bounce back from. The more complex the system, the less it is able to rebuild itself when seriously damaged
Messing around with the atmosphere is overwhelmingly likely to lead to some sort of disaster, even if present dangers of ozone and greenhouse gasses can be contained. And it concerns me that ‘Gaia’ is used as an excuse for doing nothing. It gives a gloss of science and spirituality to the selfishness of prosperous comfortable people. The normal desire to spend as little as possible on things that bring a person no immediate pleasure or profit.
I agree with the sentiment expressed in the book Jurassic Park – a sentiment that the film unfortunately cut out. Humans can not possibly destroy life on Earth, because life is far too adaptable. But we could quite easily bring about changes that were fatal for civilisation. Wealth-creating pollution-spewing industries have a long-term cost that might prove fatal for human life in general.
Perhaps Daisy-Gaia explains why we have lasted this long. Disconnected organisms just happened to collectively stabilise the environment. But this model of the world also suggests that our luck may run out quite suddenly and unexpectedly (as happens in SimEarth if you play it for long enough).
Or do we assume that the system is fully self-regulating, so that even the most unexpected changes will be coped with? That’s the next version, Gaia the Worldie-beast. Just as individual cells in the human organism act for the good of the whole organism, so might different species of bacteria and the like be actually part of a greater whole.
It is perfectly possible to imagine some sort of ‘world-beast’, a collective entity that we mistakenly perceive as disconnected bacteria acting individually. James Lovelock in his introduction to The Ages of Gaia credits the original notion in its scientific form to James Hutton, the pioneering 18th-century Scottish geologist. But the fact that a pioneer like Hutton could see the world as alive does not mean that it really is alive. Just as Newton’s views on gravitation are more widely accepted that his interpretation of the Book of Revelations.
Lovelock seems not to know that Hutton’s grand idea was expressed rather earlier by the philosopher David Hume. One of the voices in Hume’s imaginative dialogue speculated that ‘the world arose by vegetation, from a seed shed by another world.’
Hume and Hutton form part of a quartet of original 18th century Scottish minds. The other two were the economist Adam Smith and the chemist / physicist Joseph Black, the man who taught James Watt the underlying logic of heat in a steam engine. Hume was one of the limited number of patients whom Black treated in his capacity as a fully qualified doctor. Adam Smith was the executor of Hume’s will. Black and Hutton were the executors of Smith’s will. The four of them were close and undoubtedly exchanged many ideas.
[I have details of this in my book Adam Smith: Wealth Without Nations.]
This remarkable link between thinkers in the spheres of ‘arts’ and ‘science’ was well known to John Rae in his 1895 Life of Adam Smith. But has since been forgotten about. In Professor Ian Simpson Ross’s recent scholarly biography of Smith, Hutton is reduced to a mere name, the author of Considerations on Coal and Culm. There is no indication of how important he was to the development of human thought.
As is often the case with pioneers, some of Hutton’s ideas were decidedly strange
‘Blood, he stressed, is equally being used up and replenished, so that its agency is constant. Though Hutton did not specifically say so, his designation of man as microcosm indicates that he assumed there to be some equivalent process in the inanimate world. He later discovered one, for Hutton’s subsequent conceptualisation of the geocosm, our earth, would be remarkably similar to his view of the human body, with soil replacing blood and fertility, life.’
Hutton seems to have believed in a sort of ‘Agricultural Deism’. He was deeply and mistakenly certain that Divine Providence was looking after the soil.
Whether begun by Lovelock, Hutton, Hume or the Ancient Greeks, the notion of a ‘worldie-beast’ is an interesting one. But it is open to one quite simple objection. Multi-cellular organisms are living systems of great complexity, simply because those that manage it well leave behind more descendants that those that manage it badly. The same may well apply to individual types of bacteria – and does definitely apply to curious creatures like the Slime Moulds. But for a ‘worldie-beast’, how could natural selection apply?
Reversing the question, what sort of environment could reasonably allow the natural evolution of such a being? Nothing on earth, certainly, since it can only be tried once on any one planet. But in the chaotic dust-gas-ice cloud around a very young star, there might be various short-lived environments where a very primitive sort of life might briefly flourish. Though I can’t go along with many of Fred Hoyle’s ideas, the notion of some sort of life from space is strengthening. And during the tens of millions of years before things became too unfavourable, and in the continuous passage from one new star to another, some sort of colonial bacterial organism might evolve and learn various tricks of self-regulation. Tricks that it might retain in the much more stable and long-lived environment of a planet.
Panspermia is an idea that was about centuries before Hoyle. David Hume had a version of it, though he seems to be thinking more of a comet as the seed of a whole solar system. And all known comets have velocities that indicate that they have always been part of our own solar system. But similar ejecta from an evolving solar system could easily take spores of a ‘worldlet-beast’ from star to star. Particularly since new-born suns tend to form in large close-packed ‘nurseries of stars’. From all of the material that must be thrown out into deep space by gravitational interactions as the planets are formed, a small amount of spore-carrying matter might occasionally be pulled into another such embryo solar system.
This is, I admit, an utterly wild hypothesis. But not impossible. The galaxy might indeed contain a population of ‘worldlet-beasts’, spreading gradually from one star-forming cloud to another. There is no need to suppose that such things would exist in all galaxies, or even most. We might be a very rare accident in all of the billions of galaxies, who knows?
If complex self-regulating life developed as a weed-like migratory pattern of ‘worldlet-beasts’, then planetary life would be something of a side issue, albeit a very fortunate one. Unless modern cosmology is wildly wrong, the universe is only a few times older than life on Earth. If galactic life is evolving, this can only be happening in the original environment of very early solar systems.
One might of course including intelligent life as part of a cycle. Humans as ‘spores of Gaia’ who are almost ready to disperse Earth’s biosystem to other stars. But where is the mechanism whereby Gaia the Worldie-beast could ‘know’ that it was time to develop a particular line of naked ape to the point where space travel became possible?
Gaia the Worldie-beast is also vulnerable on the same point as Daisy-Gaia. The fact that Earth’s ecosystem has recovered in the past does not prove that it will always recover in the future. I have not yet died, but I do not regard myself as unkillable. My body has recovered from various illnesses, but who knows what will hit me next? At the age of 45, I am almost certainly closer to the end of my life than to its beginning.
Thinking about these matters, I had a chill vision. I imagined tens of thousands of Earth-like worlds where global self-regulation broke down after one or two or three billions of years. Our existence as a world old enough and complex enough for intelligent life may be only a lucky accident, like rolling a pair of dice and getting seven sevens in a row. Seven sevens in a row seems miraculous, but is bound to happen if you go on rolling the dice for long enough. So the long persistence of life with more or less stable conditions may be a very rare and special occurrence. Most worlds with the initial conditions of the early Earth may fail and end up with weak collapsed or extinct ecosystem, as seems to have happened on Mars and Venus.
We could even be unique. It could be that rocky planets going round ordinary yellow stars normally suffer a drastic ecological collapse long before the star’s middle age. Or that life normally stays content as a mindless slew of bacteria, without the build-up of oxygen that disrupted all life and made possible the rise of more complex organisms. So we may be truly alone after all.
The starting point of life on Earth was ordinary enough, and we would still look ordinary enough to any distant external observer. But the survival of the flourishing biosphere that allowed us to rise may be the product of a series of lucky accidents.
Unwelcome ideas can not be rejected just because they are unpleasant – that was the mindless optimism that Voltaire created Pangloss so as to ridicule. It should be noted that most of aristocrats purged or driven out in French Revolution were followers of Voltaire, while Marie Antoinette was strongly influenced by Rousseau. But this positive influence stopped when it came to a matter of sacrificing immediate pleasures to long-term survival. They did too little to late to change a system they did not really believe in.
When common sense suggests that serious painful reforms are necessary, one can always seek refuge in ‘spiritual values’. A sincere seeker after ‘spiritual values’ will show great dedication and self-sacrifice and is perhaps worthy of respect. Though such characters may also get demented and engage in self-torture and self-destruction. And there will also always be much larger number of characters who will only want to know about such matters when the answers are soft and easy and reassuring. In this context one must place Gaia’s third face, Gaia the Great Cosmic Nanny.
Lovelock’s ideas always have sounded like religion dressed up in scientific language. And in a chapter entitled God and Gaia, he is good enough to confirm that this is exactly what they are.
‘What if Mary is another name for Gaia? Then her capacity for virgin birth is no miracle or parthenogenetic aberration, it is a role of Gaia since life began.’
This muddles Christianity and science without being particularly true to either.
Incidentally, it puzzles me that ‘virgin birth’ is such a sticking point for so many people. Humans can not do it spontaneously, any more than we can live underwater or spin out spider silk. But if one were willing to believe that God the Creator wished a particular baby to be born, inducing a pregnancy in an unmated female would be no large trick. We today can already cause an egg to be fertilised and implanted in a woman’s womb without any actual sexual act. In a century or two, it might be possible for a woman to give herself a jab that would send special cultured viruses into an unfertilised egg. This modified egg would then act as if it had been fertilised, change from haploid to diploid, and might even produce a male child without benefit of a Y chromosome. Water into wine is a scientific conundrum – even with ‘nanotechnology’, where do the carbon atoms come from? But virgin birth is a simple enough possibility. If Lovelock wants to reconcile science and religion, he is going about it the wrong way.
But Lovelock seems more of a would-be prophet than a reconciler of existing ideas. Thus
‘What I have written so far has been a testament written around the idea of Gaia. I have tried to show that God and Gaia, theology and science, even physics and biology are not separate but a single way of thought.’
Just as cricket, football and snooker are all the same game, presumably.
All major religions insist that we must care for each other, and also take careful steps to preserve anything we regard as valuable. From very different starting points, Judaism and Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism and Confucianism all insist on the merit of looking after the poor and needy, and the wisdom of keeping peace with one’s neighbour, and the merit of forgiving enemies. You could see this as a gradual growth towards a proper understanding of the true Will of God. Or you could see it as a kind of religious ‘survival of the fittest’, with creeds only flourishing when they also serve the needs of their believers. This second view would also explain the widespread unpleasant occurrence of religious persecution and religious wars of conquest – worthier and milder creeds that were not intolerant just got pushed out of existence.
You can try reconciling these two alternatives if you like – many religious thinkers have done so, accepting an historical-materialist component in their histories of human spirituality. This I can accept as a valid alternative to my own purely materialist viewpoint. With so much of the universe still mysterious, there is still room for a possible spiritual dimension. Science anticipated Black Holes, but did not foresee that the swallowing of normal matter by these invisible Black Holes would give rise to most of the brightest objects in the universe. Science knew all about carbon bonds, but Buckminsterfullerene was quite unexpected. So if someone says that there might be spiritual aspects to life as well as material ones, I am quite willing to agree that there might be.
It is another matter entirely when people start drawing damaging conclusions from their own particular vision of this possibly ‘spiritual dimension’. Thus many intelligent people will insist that the Pope has absolute infallible authority to pronounce on such difficult matters as euthanasia and contraception, even though individual Popes may make mundane errors like forgetting someone’s name or loosing their reading glasses.
Cricket, football and snooker could be ‘reconciled’ into a single game of ‘Footsnookcrickball’, but this would probably not be a good idea. There are also dozens of ways in which it might be done – defending the goal with a cricket bat and taking free kicks by hitting the ball with a gigantic snooker-cue might improve the game, but most probably would not. Likewise in ideas, there is as good a case for separation as for merger.
Even if one believes in supernatural interventionist beings, one also has to have very specific beliefs about them before one can start feeling reassured. Evidence for the actual existence of the savage and often hostile Gaia of the Ancient Greeks would not be at all reassuring.
Charles Dickens had his own version of Pangloss: Mr Micawber, who was sure that something was bound to turn up. But, as the poor man was to discover, things that turn up unexpectedly may well not be good news. Human life has just lately been smitten by an unexpected ozone hole, by the unexpected appearance of AIDS and BSE, by the unexpected revival of tuberculosis. We have also learned that life is definitely absent or extinct on the Earth-like world of Venus; extinct or marginal even on Mars, where we used to have such high expectations. A very careful regard for life on Earth is needed if human life is to preserve itself in the long run.
 Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part VII.
 Dean, Dennis R. James Hutton and the History of Geology. Published by Cornell University Press. Ithaca and London, 1992. Page 2
 New Scientist page 4, 11 June 1994
 The Ages of Gaia, p 206
 Ibid, p 212