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Gaia, originally the ancient Greek name for the Earth conceived as mother-goddess, today refers to the insight that Earth as a whole is a living, self-maintaining system. This idea was put forward in the 1960s by British scientist James Lovelock to explain how the extraordinary mix of unstable gases manages to persist in the Earth’s atmosphere. The answer, he proposed, is that living organisms provide a constant flow of gases to maintain its improbable balance. Taking the suggestion of novelist William Golding, Lovelock christened his vision of a living Earth as Gaia –– a fateful decision that proved controversial, but gave his radical idea a double life as both scientific theory and an imaginative vision challenging the modern image of machine nature.

In this post-Darwinian understanding of Earth’s history, living creatures have done more than adapt to conditions on Earth; they have played an active role in creating and maintaining the world we know. Not unlike the human body, our planet continually sustains and renews itself through a global metabolism that depends on living organisms as well as chemical and geological processes to keep it suitable for life. Besides maintaining the atmosphere and the planet’s climate, various parts of the system also shield the Earth from the sun’s dangerous radiation and recycle water and four nutrients vital to life: carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorous.

Lovelock’s Gaian framework has helped counter the rigid specialization within science and has fostered the study of the Earth as an interconnected living system, but its most lasting impact may lie beyond science. The conviction that the Earth itself is alive in some sense has been expressed through the ages in various religious and cultural traditions, including our own during the Renaissance. In Timaeus, a dialogue describing the physical nature of the world, Plato describes the Earth as “that single living creature...of which all other living creatures, severally and generically, are portions.” Now this ancient and archetypal perception of a creative, dynamic, living Earth has returned through the door of modern science.

The Gaian story of life and Earth as an ongoing collaboration advances a far more attractive and optimistic vision than the modern era’s metaphor of world as machine, which portrays a passive, deterministic alienating nature that few would be eager to claim as kin. The same has been true for some recent versions of evolutionary theory, which, in the spirit of the modern era, view life primarily through the lens of competition and the metaphor of selfish genes. Through Gaia as metaphor, it is possible to glimpse the organic unity of the Earth and be awed by our own existence within this rich, complex, and wondrous whole. It also opens the possibility for a new cosmology or worldview that embraces nature and humanity in a single common order, providing a foundation for a new cultural map that can guide us in the planetary era.

Additional resources

  • Exploring the Gaia Hypothesis - a presentation by James Lovelock and Bill Donohoe, excerpted from Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine.


Author: Dianne Dumanoski