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Gaia Hypothesis

Evidence in support of a Gaian Earth

Gaia, Earth, was believed by the ancient Greeks to be a living, fertile ancestor of many of their important gods. The Romans, who adopted many Greek gods and ideas as their own, also believed in this organismic entity, who they renamed Terra. The Gaian notion has been personified in more recent interpretations as "Mother Earth." The Gaia hypothesis is a recent and highly controversial theory that views Earth as an integrated, pseudo-organismic entity and not as a mere physical object in space. The Gaia hypothesis suggests that organisms and ecosystems on Earth cause substantial changes to occur in the physical and chemical nature of the environment, in a manner that improves the living conditions on the planet. In other words, it is suggested that Earth is an organismic planet, with homeostatic mechanisms that help to maintain its own environments within the ranges of extremes that can be tolerated by life.

Earth is the only planet in the universe that is known to support life. This is one of the reasons why the Gaia hypothesis cannot be tested by rigorous, scientific experimentation-there is only one known replicate in the great, universal experiment. However, some supporting evidence for the Gaia hypothesis can be marshaled from certain observations of the structure and functioning of the planetary ecosystem. Several of these lines of reasoning are described in the next section.


One supporting line of reasoning for the Gaia hypothesis concerns the presence of oxygen in Earth's atmosphere. It is believed by scientists that the primordial atmosphere of Earth did not contain oxygen. The appearance of this gas required the evolution of photosynthetic life forms, which were initially blue-green bacteria and, somewhat later, single-celled algae. Molecular oxygen is a waste product of photosynthesis, and its present atmospheric concentration of about 21% has entirely originated with this biochemical process (which is also the basis of all biologically fixed energy in ecosystems). Of course, the availability of atmospheric oxygen is a critically important environmental factor for most of Earth's species and for many ecological processes.

In addition, it appears that the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere has been relatively stable for an extremely long period of time, perhaps several billions of years. This suggests the existence of a long-term equilibrium between the production of this gas by green plants, and its consumption by biological and non-living processes. If the atmospheric concentration of oxygen were much larger than it actually is, say about 25% instead of the actual 21%, then biomass would be much more readily combustible. These conditions could lead to much more frequent and more extensive forest fires. Such conflagrations would be severely damaging to Earth's ecosystems and species.

Some proponents of the Gaia hypothesis interpret the above information to suggest that there is a planetary, homeostatic control of the concentration of molecular oxygen in the atmosphere. This control is intended to strike a balance between the concentrations of oxygen required to sustain the metabolism of organisms, and the larger concentrations that could result in extremely destructive, uncontrolled wildfires.

Another line of evidence in support of the Gaian theory concerns carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere. To a substantial degree, the concentration of this gas is regulated by a complex of biological and physical processes by which carbon dioxide is emitted and absorbed. This gas is well known to be important in the planet's greenhouse effect, which is critical to maintaining the average temperature of the surface within a range that organisms can tolerate. It has been estimated that in the absence of this greenhouse effect, Earth's average surface temperature would be about -176°F (-116°C), much too cold for organisms and ecosystems to tolerate over the longer term. Instead, the existing greenhouse effect, caused in large part by atmospheric carbon dioxide, helps to maintain an average surface temperature of about 59°F (15°C). This is within the range of temperature that life can tolerate.

Again, advocates of the Gaia hypothesis interpret these observations to suggest that there is a homeostatic system for control of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and of climate. This system helps to maintain conditions within a range that is satisfactory for life.

Scientists agree that there is clear evidence that the non-living environment has an important influence on organisms, and that organisms can cause substantial changes in their environment. However, there appears to be little widespread support within the scientific community for the notion that Earth's organisms and ecosystems have somehow integrated in a mutually benevolent symbiosis (or mutualism), aimed at maintaining environmental conditions within a comfortable range.

Still, the Gaia hypothesis is a useful concept, because it emphasizes the diverse connections of ecosystems, and the consequences of human activities that result in environmental and ecological changes. Today, and into the foreseeable future, humans are rapidly becoming a dominant force that is causing large, often degradative changes to Earth's environments and ecosystems.

Resources

Books

Lovelock, J. The Ages of Gaia: A Bibliography of Our Living Earth. New York: Norton & Co., 1988.

Margulis, L., and L. Olendzenski. Environmental Evolution. Effects of the Origin and Evolution of Life on Planet Earth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

Smith, L. E. Gaia. The Growth of an Idea. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Periodicals

Huggett, R.J. "Ecosphere, Biosphere, Or Gaia? What To Call The Global Ecosystem." Global Ecology And Biogeography 8, no. 6 (1999): 425-432.

Bill Freedman

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Formate to Gastropoda