Gaia Hypothesis – The Earth as a Living Organism

The earth as a organism
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I was watching a movie Bhoomika and get to know about a hypothesis called Gaia Hypothesis which explains earth has properties of a living organism. This fascinated me to dig deeper about this and after reading lots of articles(which I felt are bit complicated to understand), I understood few things which I will try explain in simpler form.

What is Gaia Hypothesis?

The Gaia hypothesis, also known as the Gaia theory, Gaia paradigm, or the Gaia principle, proposes that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet. Over 50 years ago, scientist James Lovelock hit upon the idea that Earth is a complex, self-regulating organism. At the suggestion of a friend, novelist William Golding, he called his idea the Gaia hypothesis, after the Greek goddess who symbolizes Earth.

What does Gaia Hypothesis says?

Gaia hypothesis says that Earth is a living system and uses similar mechanisms that living creatures use to stay alive, by constantly regulating temperature, chemical and physical inputs and outputs and adaptation through evolution. Let me make this simple for you. Have you ever thought about

  • Why global surface temperature of the Earth has remained constant, despite an increase in the energy provided by the Sun?
  • Why atmospheric composition remains constant, even though it should be unstable?
  • Ocean salinity is constant?

The Earth’s atmosphere currently consists of 79% nitrogen, 20.7% oxygen and 0.03% carbon dioxide. Oxygen is the second most reactive element after fluorine, and should combine with gases and minerals of the Earth’s atmosphere and crust. Traces of methane (at an amount of 100,000 tonnes produced per annum) should not exist, as methane is combustible in an oxygen atmosphere. This composition should be unstable, and its stability can only have been maintained with removal or production by living organisms. This process can be related to the process of Sweating in humans. Sweating is our body’s natural way of keeping us cool. Some sweat evaporates from your skin, taking heat with it. Like animals inhaling of Oxygen and exhaling of Carbon dioxide can be related to release of toxic gases from the environment.

Is earth a living organism?

The idea that the Earth is alive may be as old as humankind. The ancient Greeks gave her the powerful name Gaia and looked on her as a goddess. Before the nineteenth century even scientists were comfortable with the notion of a living Earth. According to the historian D. B. McIntyre (1963), James Hutton, often known as the father of geology, said in a lecture before the Royal Society of Edinburgh in the 1790s that he thought of the Earth as a superorganism and that its proper study would be by physiology. Hutton went on to make the analogy between the circulation of the blood, discovered by Harvey, and the circulation of the nutrient elements of the Earth and of the way that sunlight distills water from the oceans so that it may later fall as rain and so refresh the earth.

Does Gaia Hypothesis proves that earth is a living organism?

The Gaia hypothesis was first scientifically formulated in the 1960s by the independent research scientist James Lovelock, as a consequence of his work for NASA on methods of detecting life on Mars.

James Lovelock defined Gaia as:

A complex entity involving the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.

This theory is based on the idea that the biomass self-regulates the conditions on the planet to make its physical environment (in particular temperature and chemistry of the atmosphere) on the planet more hospitable to the species which constitute its “life”. The Gaia Hypothesis properly defined this “hospitality” as a full homeostasis. A model that is often used to illustrate the original Gaia Hypothesis is the so-called Daisyworld simulation.

But, one of the criteria of the empirical definition of life is its ability to replicate and pass on their genetic information to succeeding generations. Consequently, an argument against the idea that Gaia is a “living” organism is the fact that the planet is unable to reproduce. Lovelock, however, defines life as a self-preserving, self-similar system of feedback loops like Humberto Maturana’s autopoiesis; as a self-similar system, life could be a cell as well as an organ embedded into a larger organism as well as an individual in a larger inter-dependent social context. The biggest context of interacting inter-dependent living entities is the Earth. The problematic empirical definition is getting “fuzzy on the edges”: Why are highly specialized bacteria like E. coli that are unable to thrive outside their habitat considered “life”, while mitochondria, which have evolved independently from the rest of the cell, are not?

So, it’s a controversial topic and scientists are still debating on it.

But the thing that we should keep in mind is Save Earth, Save Life. Saving our earth and its environment becomes highly important as it provide us food and water to sustain life. Our well-being solely depends on this planet it gives food and water to all living things to it is our responsibility to take care of it.

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Sources: ENVIRONMENT AND ECOLOGY, NCBI and pri.

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