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Review: Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth

OK, I’ll be honest, I’m not the kind of guy who sits down with a novel and reads all day.

I don’t like reading something unless there’s a purpose to it, other than simple entertainment.

So my bookshelf is typically filled with edifying material; such as programming primers and books covering scientific, astronomical and historical topics.

So Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, very much falls into the genres I prefer to fill my head with.

I’ve been trawling around for some time trying to find something definitive on the Gaia Hypothesis, other than the abridged and often interpreted sources to be found on the internet.

I had a sort of preconceived idea of what I was going to be reading; a strange mix of mysticism and science that would in all likelihood only further cloud the idea of what the Gaia Hypothesis is really all about.

So you can imagine my surprise when I eventually read the book, which to a large degree is nothing like I imagined.

You can say many things about James Lovelock, but what you couldn’t say is that he’s not honest, respectful of criticism – no matter how harsh – and modest, often to a fault.

What I found refreshing is his modesty and how he has on occasion interwoven some quite scathing attacks on his ideas and somehow found value in almost every one of them.

The way that Lovelock presents the Gaia Hypothesis as a collective effort is also worthy. Rather than seeing the hypothesis as his own, my interpretation is that he sees his efforts as a sort of rendering and processing of the many efforts of his contemporaries.

A measure of the man, I’m sure.

However, having recently read an excerpt from a book by the self-professed father of the video game, Ralph H. Baer, I’m not sure whether worthy character traits are so rare in the rarified and heady heights of science and engineering.

While Baer is at times the typically brash and boastful American, he too isn’t in least bit pained to acknowledge the efforts of those around him, regardless of what these people might think of him in return, much like Lovelock.

While the book does dip into technical minutia and couched scientific in-speak from time to time, with the odd graph and chart to add weight to an argument while filling the head of the layman with meaningless chemical symbols, there’s little room for the fanciful romanticism or mysticism that I felt must been associated with his work, which is exactly the kind of thing I expected.

Whether my preconceived ideas were the result of the varying quality excerpts garnered from the internet and other sources, or whether I had just built up my own ideas of what I was to read, I just don’t know.

To be honest, I’m not sure and I’m not sure that it matters too much, either.

Instead, you’re taken on a journey whereby Lovelock explains the many varied influences that have led him to his hypothesis and the various people and events that have caused him to refine his ideas.

Some of the most disparate and seemingly unrelated sources often form the very basis of his hypothesis. But then again, the Gaia Hypothesis is vastly overarching and interdisciplinary, in hindsight, that was always going to be the case.

Put simply – and I must stress the very simplistic nature of what I’m about to say – the Gaia Hypothesis is the proposal that if life exists, then life will thrive and exist in abundance.

Further, the Earth is not a collection of separate spaces, or ‘biospheres’, but instead a collective of biospheres that interact with one another on a very deep and fundamental level.

Such is the massively deep nature of their relationship that Lovelock puts forward an worthy case for a self-regulating but non intelligent super-organism that is Gaia.

And there I feel is the seed of the mysticism I may well have foreseen. It’s easy to misinterpret such an idea as meaning a maternal force of life that exhibits the properties of a deity, but this simply isn’t the case.

What struck me most was Lovelocks dismissive asides directed against our conscious and indirect efforts at polluting our world.

He goes on to speak of several instances in which other organisms generate much more harmful ingredients than anything man could hope to create.

In reading this book, my own theories have been confirmed, principally that we are now the custodians of this planet and that it is now our role to watch over all life and manage the world for successive generations to enjoy.

Throughout this book, there is a vein of hope for our adventurous but otherwise foolish species.

And there is also a warning that if we don’t change our ways, we will damage the environment we rely on for our very existence…

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

1 reply on “Review: Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth”

“I don’t like reading something unless there’s a purpose to it, other than simple entertainment.

So my bookshelf is typically filled with edifying material; such as programming primers”

I’m exactly the same, my books only cover programming, Hayne’s manuals, an encyclopedia and some books about the making of Doom 3 and Half-Life 2. I don’t have many books, the Internet is my book 🙂

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