Gaia Hypothesis Essay, Research Paper
Explain Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis.” Be sure to include the concept of symbiosis
or mutualism. What role do human beings play in this hypothesis?
The Gaia Hypothesis is the theory that living organisms and inorganic material are part of a dynamic system that shape Earth’s biosphere, in Lynn Margulis’s words, a “super organismic system”. The earth is a self-regulating environment; a single, unified, cooperating and living system – a super organism that regulates physical conditions to keep the environment hospitable for life evolution therefore is the result of cooperative not competitive processes.
In the mid-1960’s, Dr James Lovelock was approached by the NASA, who asked him for help in searching for life on Mars. In 1965, Lovelock proposed some physical tests for determining whether Mars held life or not. He proposed that a top-down view of the entire planet be employed. The test would analyze the composition of the planet’s atmosphere. If it held no life, the planet should have an atmosphere close to the chemical equilibrium state, as determined by chemistry and physics. If the planet held life, the metabolic activities of life forms would result in an atmosphere far from the equilibrium state.
Lovelock examined the atmospheric data for the Martian atmosphere and found it to be in a state of stable chemical equilibrium, while the Earth was shown to be in a state of extreme chemical disequilibrium. He concluded that Mars was probably lifeless.
In that same year, Lovelock began to think that such an unlikely combination of gases such as the Earth had, indicated a homeostatic of the Earth biosphere to maintain environmental conditions conducive for life, in a sort of cybernetic feedback loop, an active control system. By the end of the 1960’s, Lovelock had definitively organized his theory. The novelist William Golding, Lovelock’s neighbor, suggested he call the control system Gaia, after the ancient Greek Earth Goddess. First on his own in 1972, and then later in 1973 with American microbiologist Lynn Margulis, Lovelock formally proposed the idea of Gaia as a control system. The name for the complex system of climate control has remained “Gaia” since then, and in 1979 his book, Gaia – a new look at life on Earth first presented the Gaia hypothesis to the wider public. Gaia has become a very important in the human.
The Gaia hypothesis…suppose(s) that the atmosphere, the oceans, the climate, and the crust of the Earth are regulated at a state comfortable for life because of the behavior of living organisms. Specifically, the Gaia hypothesis said that the temperature, oxidation state, acidity and certain aspects of the rocks and waters are at any time kept constant, and that this homeostasis is maintained by active feedback processes operated automatically and unconsciously the biota. Solar energy sustains comfortable conditions for life. The conditions are only constant in the short term and evolve in synchrony with the changing needs of the biota as it evolves. Life and its environment are so closely coupled that evolution concerns Gala, not the organisms or the environment taken separately.”
The mutualistic system that James Lovelock has suggested encounters all of life on Earth. Diverse groups of organisms all around the world (plankton in the oceans, trees in the forests, bacteria in swamps etc.) are working together to help stabilize the Earth’s environment, and keep the Earth habitable for life itself. For instance, they keep the Earth’s temperature fairly constant despite long-term variations in the sun’s energy output (preventing the Earth from either freezing or getting too hot for life), and they help to keep the atmosphere filled with oxygen, and prevent the oceans from becoming filled with nasty nitric acid. They help maintain a reasonable amount of rainfall over the Earth’s land surface, and transport vital nutrients (such as iodine) needed by land plants from the sea to the land.
To me this idea of a grand global mutualism seems to run foul of the basic problem that most organisms are engaged in much shorter term battles for survival (against other members of their own species, against other competing species and against predators and prey) that determine their behavior much more than any long-term goal of saving the planet over thousands and millions of years. Also, if the ‘temptation’ to cheat in a mutualism is great on the scale of flowers and bees, think how tempting and easy it would be for an organism to cheat on the scale of the whole planet, with mechanisms often taking thousands of years to operate. It’s not as is the bad consequences of cheating are just around the corner, or that they increase noticeably if you as an individual cheat because there are so many billions and trillions of organisms involved in the relationship. I really can’t believe that such a mutualism would ‘work’. It may be that as a fortunate, incidental ‘by product’ of their ever day activities, organisms help stabilize the Earth’s environment, but not because they have evolved characteristics specifically for this purpose.
If the Gaia mechanisms really do work to stabilize the Earth’s environment for all the life on Earth, then in a sense I suppose it is a real mutualism, in that it works; but it’s one that hasn’t been selected for. Seems to me that the organisms involved in controlling the Earth’s environment have not been selected by evolution for being good at taking part in this mutualism, they just incidentally happen to have these beneficial effects on the planet while going about their normal daily business.