The Gaia (pronounced GAY-ah) hypothesis is the idea that Earth is a living organism and can regulate its own environment. This idea argues that Earth is able to maintain conditions that are favorable for life to survive on it, and that it is the living things on Earth that give the planet this ability.
The idea that Earth and its atmosphere are some sort of "superorganism" was actually first proposed by Scottish geologist (a person specializing in the study of Earth) James Hutton (1726–1797), although this was not one of his more accepted and popular ideas. As a result, no one really pursued this notion until some 200 years later, when the English chemist James Lovelock (1919– ) put forth a similar idea in his 1979 book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Gaia is the name of the Greek goddess of Earth and mother of the Titans. In modern times, the name has come to symbolize "Earth Mother" or "Living Earth." In this book, Lovelock proposed that Earth's biosphere (all the parts of Earth that make up the living world) acts as a single living system that if left alone, can regulate itself.
As to the name Gaia, the story goes that Lovelock was walking in the countryside surrounding his home in Wilshire, England, and met his neighbor, English novelist William Golding (1911–1993), author of Lord of the Flies and several other books. Telling Golding of his new theory, he then asked his advice about choosing a suitable name for it, and the result of this meeting was that the term "Gaia" was chosen because of its real connection to the Greek goddess who pulled the living world together out of chaos or complete disorder.
Origin of Earth's atmosphere
Lovelock arrived at this hypothesis by studying Earth's neighboring planets, Mars and Venus. Suggesting that chemistry and physics seemed to argue that these barren and hostile planets should have an atmosphere just like that of Earth, Lovelock stated that Earth's atmosphere is different because it has life on it. Both Mars and Venus have an atmosphere with about 95 percent carbon dioxide, while Earth's is about 79 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen. He explained this dramatic difference by saying that Earth's atmosphere was probably very much like that of its neighbors at first, and that it was a world with hardly any life on it. The only form that did exist was what many consider to be the first forms of life—anaerobic (pronounced ANN-ay-roe-bik) bacteria that lived in the ocean. This type of bacteria cannot live in an oxygen environment, and its only job is to convert nitrates to nitrogen gas. This accounts for the beginnings of a nitrogen build-up in Earth's atmosphere.
Words to Know
Biosphere: The sum total of all lifeforms on Earth and the interaction among those lifeforms.
Feedback: Information that tells a system what the results of its actions are.
Homeostasis: State of being in balance; the tendency of an organism to maintain constant internal conditions despite large changes in the external environment.
Photosynthesis: Chemical process by which plants containing chlorophyll use sunlight to manufacture their own food by converting carbon dioxide and water to carbohydrates, releasing oxygen as a by-product.
Symbiosis: A pattern in which two or more organisms live in close connection with each other, often to the benefit of both or all organisms.
The oxygen essential to life as we know it did not start to accumulate in the atmosphere until organisms that were capable of photosynthesis evolved. Photosynthesis is the process that some algae and all plants use to convert chemically the Sun's light into food. This process uses carbon dioxide and water to make energy-packed glucose, and it gives off oxygen as a by-product. These very first photosynthesizers were a blue-green algae called cyanobacteria (pronounced SIGH-uh-no-bak-teer-eea) that live in water. Eventually, these organisms produced so much oxygen that they put the older anaerobic bacteria out of business. As a result, the only place that anaerobic bacteria could survive was on the deep-sea floor (as well as in heavily water-logged soil and in our own intestines). Love-lock's basic point was that the existence of life (bacteria) eventually made Earth a very different place by giving it an atmosphere.
Lovelock eventually went beyond the notion that life can change the environment and proposed the controversial Gaia hypothesis. He said that Gaia is the "Living Earth" and that Earth itself should be viewed as being alive. Like any living thing, it always strives to maintain constant or stable conditions for itself, called homeostasis (pronounced hoe-mee-o-STAY-sis). In the Gaia hypothesis, it is the presence and activities of life that keep Earth in homeostasis and allow it to regulate its systems and maintain steady-state conditions.
Cooperation over competition
Lovelock was supported in his hypothesis by American microbiologist Lynn Margulis (1918– ) who became his principal collaborator. Margulis not only provided support, but she brought her own scientific ability and achievements to the Gaia hypothesis. In her 1981 book, Symbiosis in Cell Evolution , Margulis had put forth the then-unheard of theory that life as we know it today evolved more from cooperation than from competition. She argued that the cellular ancestors of today's plants and animals were groups of primitive, formless bacteria cells called prokaryotes (pronounced pro-KAR-ee-oats). She stated that these simplest of bacteria formed symbiotic relationships—relationships that benefitted both organisms—which eventually led to the evolution of new lifeforms. Her theory is called endosymbiosis (pronounced en-doe-sim-bye-O-sis) and is based on the fact that bacteria routinely take and transfer bits of genetic material from each other.
Margulis then argued that simple bacteria eventually evolved into more complex eukaryotic (pronounced you-kar-ee-AH-tik) cells or cells with a nucleus. These types of cells form the basic structure of plants and animals. Her then-radical but now-accepted idea was that life evolved more out of cooperation (which is what symbiosis is all about) than it did out of competition (in which only the strong survive and reproduce). The simple prokaryotes did this by getting together and forming symbiotic groups or systems that increased their chances of survival. According to Margulis then, symbiosis, or the way different organisms adapt to living together to the benefit of each, was the major mechanism for change on Earth.
Most scientists now agree with her thesis that oxygen-using bacteria joined together with fermenting bacteria to form the basis of a type of new cell that eventually evolved into complex eukaryotes. For the Gaia hypothesis, the Margulis concept of symbiosis has proven to be a useful explanatory tool. Since it explains the origin and the evolution of life on Earth (by stating that symbiosis is the mechanism of change), it applies also to what continues to happen as the process of evolution goes on and on.
The main idea behind the Gaia hypothesis can be both simple and complex. Often, several similar examples or analogies concerning the bodies of living organisms are used to make the Gaia concept easier to understand. One of these states that we could visualize Earth's rain forests as the lungs of the planet since they exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. Earth's atmosphere could be thought of as its respiratory system, and its streams of moving water and larger rivers like its circulatory system, since they bring in clean water and flush out the system. Some say that the planet actually "breathes" because it contracts and expands with the Moon's gravitational pull, and the seasonal changes we all experience are said to reflect our own rhythmic bodily cycles.
Many of these analogies are useful in trying to explain the general idea behind the Gaia hypothesis, although they should not be taken literally. Lovelock, however, has stated that Earth is very much like the human body in that both can be viewed as a system of interacting components. He argues that just as our bodies are made up of billions of cells working together as a single living being, so too are the billions of different lifeforms on Earth working together (although unconsciously) to form a single, living "superorganism." Further, just as the processes or physiology of our bodies has its major systems (such as the nervous system, circulatory system, respiratory system, etc.), so, says Lovelock, Earth has its own "geophysiology." This geophysiology is made up of four main components: atmosphere (air), biosphere (all lifeforms), geosphere (soil and rock), and hydrosphere (water). Finally, just as our own physiological health depends on all of our systems being in good working condition and, above all, working together well, so, too, does Earth's geophysiology depend on its systems working in harmony.
Life is the regulating mechanism
Lovelock claims that all of the living things on Earth provide it with this necessary harmony. He states that these living things, altogether, control the physical and chemical conditions of the environment, and therefore it is life itself that provides the feedback that is so necessary to regulating something. Feedback mechanisms can detect and reverse any unwanted changes. A typical example of feedback is the thermostat in most homes. We set it to maintain a comfortable indoor temperature, usually somewhere in the range between 65°F (18°C) and 70°F (21°C). The thermostat is designed so that when the temperature falls below a certain setting, the furnace is turned on and begins to heat the house. When that temperature is reached and the thermostat senses it, the furnace is switched off. Our own bodies have several of these feedback mechanisms, all of which are geared to maintaining conditions within a certain proper and balanced range.
For Earth's critical balance, Lovelock says that it is the biosphere, or all of life on Earth, that functions as our thermostat or regulator. He says that the atmosphere, the oceans, the climate, and even the crust of Earth are regulated at a state that is comfortable for life because of the behavior of living organisms . This is the revolutionary lesson that the Gaia hypothesis wants to teach. It says that all of Earth's major components, such as the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the
saltiness of the oceans, and the temperature of our surface is regulated or kept in proper balance by the activities of the life it supports. He also states that this feedback system is self-regulating and that it happens automatically. As evidence that, if left alone, Earth can regulate itself, he asserts that it is the activity of living organisms that maintain the delicate balance between atmospheric carbon dioxide and oxygen. In a way, Love-lock argues that it is life itself that maintains the conditions favorable for the continuation of life. For example, he contends that it is no accident that the level of oxygen is kept remarkably constant in the atmosphere at 21 percent. Lovelock further offers several examples of cycles in the environment that work to keep things on an even keel.
Lovelock also warns that since Earth has the natural capacity to keep things in a stable range, human tampering with Earth's environmental balancing mechanisms places everyone at great risk. While environmentalists insist that human activity (such as industrial policies that result in harming Earth's ozone layer) is upsetting Earth's ability to regulate itself, others who feel differently argue that Earth can continue to survive very well no matter what humans do exactly because of its built-in adaptability.
Earth as seen from space
An important aspect about the Gaia hypothesis is that it offers scientists a new model to consider. Most agree that such a different type of model was probably not possible to consider seriously until humans went into space. However, once people could travel beyond the atmosphere of Earth and put enough distance between them and their planet, then they could view their home from an extra-terrestrial viewpoint. No doubt that the 1960s photographs of the blue, green, and white ball of life floating in the total darkness of outer space made both scientists and the public think of their home planet a little differently than they ever had before. These pictures of Earth must have brought to mind the notion that it resembled a single organism.
Although the Gaia hypothesis is still very controversial and has not been established scientifically (by being tested and proven quantitatively), it has already shown us the valuable notion of just how interdependent everything is on Earth. We now recognize that Earth's biological, physical, and chemical components or major parts regularly interact with and mutually affect one another, whether by accident or on purpose. Finally, it places great emphasis on what promises to be the planet's greatest future problem—the quality of Earth's environment and the role humans will play in Earth's destiny.