I have always been someone that, whilst having faith in science and understanding its place in the advancement of mankind, I also have reservations about it. It can at times, by its very nature, be too focused, self absorbed and clinical and often reluctant to see the bigger picture or admit that it doesn't have the best approach towards understanding the world around us. I am also someone who has an active interest in environmental issues as well as being open to more mystical and spiritual ideas. It is within these middle grounds that some of the more interesting ideas regarding the unseen workings of our surroundings are to be found. The late Pope, John Paul II said, "Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes." And I think that the message that opposite beliefs can act as checks and a balance against each other is an important concept to remember. It is because of these often conflicting views of the world that I carry around in my head that I find the work of James Lovelock so intriguing a man who is seen as a visionary by some and a fringe lunatic by others, but some of the most successful theories have started off in these marginalized areas, Copernicus, Giordano and even Galileo were vilified in there time for such radical ideas that the earth is not the centre of the universe but now are seen to be the people that made the big breaks through to our modern understanding of the universe.
Before I launch into the book itself and my opinions of it, it will be necessary to explain the Gaia Theory, as I'm sure many readers will have little or no understanding of it. By his own admission the theory is yet unproven, but everything is theory until it is accepted by enough people and has enough evidence to back it up. I for one don't have a working knowledge and detailed understanding of electricity, but I am sure that when I turn a light switch on the room will light up, and if it doesn't its not because the ideas behind electricity are wrong but because one of the possible variables in the system has changed, that is the bulb has probably blown. Similarly, I don't have to fully appreciate the whole of the theory to put faith in it and maybe one day these ideas, or elements of them will have their place in the mainstream, but for now they are seen as being a bit left field, but bear in mind those eminent scientists I mentioned above and you will realise that Lovelock is in good company.
The idea behind Gaia is a fairly simple idea to grasp but a massively wide ranging and complex to dissect but we should begin with fact that Lovelock proposes that the earth is alive. Right before you close the page and move on to another review of the latest washing machine with childish images of a man in the moon face or quasi-pagan goddess worship, let me explain. Think of Gaia as a control system for regulating life on this planet, an evolving system made up of all living things, plants and animals as well as rocks and the atmosphere. It is self-regulating, acting as a series of reactions, no foresight, no planning; we are not talking about teleology (the suggestion of design or purpose in nature) here. We are not talking about the earth being alive in the same way the ancients saw it, as a deity in its own right, but alive more like a tree. A tree doesn't move but it is endlessly conversing with the soil, sunlight, water and nutrients. It slowly grows and changes, it can be harmed, it can wither, it can die, but everything about it is done so imperceptibly that the old oak tree at the bottom of your garden looks the same as it did when you were a child, yet you know that it is alive. View the earth as a similar system and you have Gaia.
One of the problem people have with a concept such as Gaia is that it doesn't fit our understanding of life. But what is life? Ask different groups of scientists and you will get different answers. A physicist will define life in terms of entropy and energy, a Darwinist will talk of evolution and natural selection, a biochemist will talk in terms of chemical potential and genetics. Ask a geophysiologist and you will find an answer along the lines of "a living organism is a bounded system open to a flux of matter and energy, which is able to keep its internal medium constant in composition, and its physical state intact in a changing environment" This is known as homeostatis and this is a good summation of Gaia. The problem with science, as I proposed at the beginning is that it is too focused on its own areas and definitions, to understand Gaia you need to take a more holistic view. So how does Lovelock back up his living planet argument? Well the book is a very well laid out series of analogies, scientific facts and easy to follow diagrams that take you through the various elements that support his theory. It is aimed at the laymen, no real scientific understanding is required, as such it is an easy read and although we are dealing with some large concepts here, he has managed to break them down through the use of simple metaphors with systems and objects that you will already be very familiar with.
The bottom line of the argument is this. Has life on earth evolved in reaction to the random changes of the planet, its atmosphere and surface activity, or has life itself regulated the planetary conditions for its own betterment. Lovelock puts up a good argument for the latter but it will be for the reader to decide if his arguments hold water. It is a very interesting book and we are lucky to be living in a time when people can publish new theories with only the fear of ridicule and criticism rather than persecution and I think that the notion of the Gaia Theory is one that will have a major part to play in our understanding of the world around us.