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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 America