For Gaia's Sake: A Theory That Never Took Off

By Emily Duchenne - Social Anthropology Student @ Linacre College, Oxford


Many different societies and groups of people see the world as an interconnected being, where life and non-life flow in harmony with each other to create a planet within which we can exist. Diverse religions such as paganism through to Buddhism remain either based on, or draw from, such holistic and spiritual beliefs that place the Earth as a superorganism with components that regulate the conditions for life. These beliefs rarely find their way into scientific discussion, where empirical evidence, measurement and the journey towards a singular truth take precedence in the minds of scientific actors and communities. However, the 1970s proved to shake the bedrock for these traditions, with the formulation of the Gaia Theory.

The Gaia Theory was first hypothesised in 1972 by chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis. It was a hypothesis arguing the Earth to be similar to a self-regulating Organism, whereby the biota and abiotic environment were at equilibrium with one another - in other words, the living and non-living components of ecosystems helped to support and produce one another. Where Lovelock and Margulis differed from the religious and spiritual beliefs that are millenniums old however was that they attempted to support their hypothesis through scientific models and data, producing a mathematical simulation known as ‘Daisyworld’. Nevertheless, this theory was criticised across mainstream science and has struggled to find acceptance for a number reasons including opposing philosophical scientific perspectives, teleological critique, inconsistencies with Daisyworld, and frustration within scientific communities regarding the use of ‘flowery’ language by the authors. These factors I will explore in this article to evaluate why the Gaia hypothesis was unable to gain traction within scientific communities across the 20th century.

A significant reason for the lack of acceptance of Gaia theory is the argument that the theory is not falsifiable. In other words, the theory could not be disproven, and so did not belong in the realm of scientific discovery and endeavour, but rather in the grey and looked down upon area of pseudoscience. Prominent philosopher of science Karl Popper (1902-1994) argued that science must be self-critical, and to prove scientific claims, one must attempt to disprove one’s own hypothesis; if the hypothesis cannot be tested, it is a demarcation of pseudoscience from science. This is what much of the scientific community felt Lovelock and Margulis’s is theory to be, as a relationship of feedback's and equilibrium could not be disproven due to the current state of environmental habitability that exists. Although Lovelock and Margulis followed the teachings from American philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) in that they gathered significant amounts of data, including ocean salinity, atmospheric make-up and global temperatures to prove their hypothesis as correct rather than embark on a journey of falsifying, the level of scepticism faced from the scientific community due to these shortcomings was difficult to overcome.

Another key reason for the poor traction of Gaia across scientific communities was the links with teleology that ended up causing uproar with prominent figures in biology and ecology. The concept of teleology is that things can be explained by the purpose they serve, and many saw Lovelock and Margulis’s hypothesis as attempting to link the actions of biotic and abiotic components towards an end goal of creating habitable conditions for life on Earth. This was, and still is, considered not only laughable across the scientific world, but a riposte to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Furthermore, the fact that this teleological argument was picked up by non-traditional, self-proclaimed ‘hippie’ communities who believed in harmony between life and Mother Earth. This served to further alienate Gaia from scientific communities, and whilst Lovelock and Margulis denied the claims that he supported teleological perspectives, the links to teleology ended up pushing his theory well away from mainstream science.

A final reason for Gaia’s struggle was the emotive and ‘flowery’ language used by Lovelock and Margulis in their publication. Naming the theory after the Greek goddess of Earth served to make their ideas seemingly align with Pagan, non-scientific thinking, for which Lovelock and Margulis faced much backlash from. The descriptive, often poetic language used throughout Lovelock’s papers made him an easy target for the positivist scientists critiquing him. furthermore, Lovelock was a chemist and Margulis a microbiologist; neither were experts in ecology, biology or geology, therefore their opinions were considered less valid by many.

Despite not finding a place in scientific discussions, it is this language that has made Gaia Theory particularly successful outside of science and in non-traditional communities, as the language resonates with a message of protecting Mother Earth (in spite of Lovelock’s own controversial views on climate change being inevitably counteracted by regulatory measures). This means that although the language used meant scientific alienation, the greater accessibility of the theory for non-scientific communities has ended up shining a light on anthropogenic damage of the Earth, becoming an important way in which the Earth and how we use it is conceptualised.

Whilst Gaia theory remains contentious and overall has been rejected from mainstream science, increasing concern for climate change could see a revival of Lovelock and Margulis’s is theory. At the time of its proposal however, the theory struggled to find acceptance due to the emotive language, but more significantly from the unfalsifiable nature of the theory and its links to teleology. For these reasons, it is unlikely the theory will ever find a place in mainstream science.

Further reading:

  1. Barrotta, P., 2011. James Lovelock, Gaia Theory, and the rejection of fact/value dualism. Environmental Philosophy, 8(2), pp.95-114.

  2. Katinic, M., 2013. Holism in deep ecology and Gaia-theory: a contribution to eco-geological science, a philosophy of life or a new age stream?. The holistic approach to environment, 3(1), pp.3-14.

  3. Lovelock, J.E., 1995. New statements on the Gaia theory. Microbiologia (Madrid, Spain), 11(3), pp.295-304.

  4. Volk, T., 2002. Toward a future for Gaia theory. Climatic Change, 52(4), p.423.