Can the Concept of Gaia be Redeemed for Biology and Earth System Science?

For some, the announcement of the arrival of the Anthropocene has sounded the death-knell for serious consideration of the concept of Gaia. After all, if there is anything that the end of the Holocene demonstrates, it is that the homeostatic stabilisation mechanisms that are enacted in Gaia to regulate habitable conditions for life on Earth have been decisively overwhelmed by the destabilising effects of human-induced activity. [1] What further use can there be for Gaia, then?

But don’t speak too soon. For this forthcoming article in The Anthropocene Review, “Life on Earth is Hard to Spot” (Timothy Lenton, Sébastian Dutreuil and Bruno Latour) makes a case for the ongoing value of the concept of Gaia to the disciplinary fields of biology and Earth System Science (ESS), and to philosophical and theological speculative thought in general.

In broad terms, the authors argue that the productive deployment of the concept of Gaia within the natural sciences has been in eclipse not because of the arrival of the Anthropocene as a fundamental paradigm disrupter, but because “different scientific disciplines have persistently missed the extraordinary and variable influence of Life on the Earth”. Here, the term “Life” (with a capital “L”) is being used in contradistinction to the word “life” or “living beings”. By referring to “life” or “living beings”, biologists and Earth system scientists have construed the biotic component of Gaia too narrowly; what is addressed is this particular living thing as a subset of other living things. The authors suggest this sort of error is found, for example, in “niche construction theory” (pace Lalande), whose examples of adaptive environmental effects are drawn from an overly-localized empirical field: the building of nests and burrows by these particular animals or the alternation of nutrient cycling by those particular plants, for example. No doubt, there is certainly more work needed to formulate and substantiate this accusation.[2] But conceptually the authors of this article wish to contrast this narrow definition of “life” with their own concept of “Life” (with a capital “L”). Here, “Life” denotes the “total ensemble of all living beings”. There are no subsets or genera of “Life”. The context in which “Life” operates is only the abiotic. “Life”, then, becomes a suitable candidate for the role of biotic partner in homeostatic regulatory processes of the sort identified by Lovelock and Margulis. Or, to put it another way, the formula “Life + abiotic environment” can be taken as an apt definition for the mechanism of Gaia.

The bulk of the article goes on to provide a sort of genealogy of the category errors that have been made by confusing “life” with “Life”. By focusing their study on the physical systems of the Earth (biogeochemistry, climatology, oceanography, solid Earth geophysics and so on), ESS, for example, failed to see how the negative entropy of the Earth’s heat exchange had to pass through “Life”. The article points out that, for many Earth system scientists, the raw logic of their work would lead them to posit a “Mars system” as analogous to that of the Earth system, even though there are no living beings on that planet. “Life” indeed! This is an ironic inversion of Lovelock’s original insight about life on Mars made whilst he worked at the JET Propulsion Centre in Pasadena, California. It shows how a basic misapprehension of what constitutes biota has slipped in to ESS. The article provides similar diagnoses of the assumptions lying behind the Earth system models of NASA and the IGBP.

By positing “Life” as the most accurate definition of the biotic component of the Earth, then, the article argues for a redemption of the concept of Gaia within biology and ESS. And yes, even its teleological pretensions! This is where the article gets interesting for political theology. For one of the key reasons why Gaia theory has been dismissed is on account of its invocation of goal functions and the apparent purposiveness that seems to indicate. Conceptually, the very notion of teleology was thought to imply a consciousness that biologists believed could in no way be attributed to the Earth system. How can this be reconciled?

The article merely hints at an answer to this question. But the crucial point is this: Lovelock introduced ideas of feedback, self-regulation, homeostasis and goal-seeking behaviour from the field of cybernetics. The type of functional talk upon which he was drawing does not imply norms: it does not specify what the entity should do in this particular system. Insofar as biologists defer from the teleological implications of Gaian mechanisms, then, the error (so this article claims) comes not from the side of Gaia theory, but from the intellectual history of biology itself. As the authors put it: “the issue of teleology […] is embedded within discussions from 18th century natural theology, where the functions of organs within organisms or of species at the surface of the Earth were designed by God or where the apparent design of a biological entity was used to prove the existence of God”. So there is a political-theological aetiology to biologists’ own critiques of Gaia as teleological.

I think there is great potential in this suggestion. But more work is needed here to show what is meant. How and when did the biological sciences imbibe a concept of teleology that originated in theistic, rationalistic proofs for the existence of God? The article ends with this plea:

Two issues merit further discussion which we leave for further papers: a more detailed history of ESS and its relationship with Gaia, and a serious discussion of Gaia’s teleology, linking the theoretical efforts developed by the Gaian scientific community with philosophical debates on causality and on the way Gaia has changed what we mean by ‘life’.

There is much to be said here. And I will take up aspects of this challenge in my forthcoming book: The Political Theology of Bruno Latour.

But one text that will certainly be useful in this regard is that of French epistemologist of science Philippe Huneman, whose 2008 book Métaphysique et biologie Kant et la constitution du concept d’organisme shows how Kantian notions of “regulatory principle” and “natural end” fed into the early stages of the development of the discipline of biology and inclined it to a certain understanding of teleology.

So more work needs to be done.

But this is an important intervention in the field of Gaia Studies, drawing attention to the value the concept retains at the time of the Anthropocene.


[1]  A classic statement of this is Crutzen PJ (2004), ‘Anti-Gaia’, in: Steffen W, Sanderson A, Tyson P et al. (eds) Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure. Berlin: Springer, p. 72.

[2]  Is it really the case that evolutional biology can be arraigned for being neglectful of the category of “Life”? Much of this claim rests on a prior argument made by one of the authors, cf. Dutreuil & Pocheville (2015), ‘Les organismes et leur environnement: la construction de niche, l’hypothese Gaia et la selection naturelle’, Bulletin d’histoire et d’epistemologie des sciences de la vie, 22: 27–56.

2 thoughts on “Can the Concept of Gaia be Redeemed for Biology and Earth System Science?

  1. I fell on this which may be interesting for you (I have not read it, I judge from the title)

    Meso-Metaphysics and
    Paradigmatic Environmental Anti-Modernism:
    Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth and
    the Rejection, and Embrace, of Metaphysical Necessity*

    As for me, the article of Lenton et al. gave me the impression that Gaia is a concept close to the move that makes phenomenology attractive. Something like a “model-wise empowered phenomenology”. If I combine Latour’s focus on the “empirical” (for example his insistence that when a scientist points to a galaxy she points to some photo or data point on a screen) with this vision of Life pushing its tentacles through the abiotic regime (probably in a quite fractal way, if one considers the models) and with Latour’s criticism of the modern concept of matter (and therefore a certain conception of the abiotic as well) the result is a Gaia which is a very funny “animal” indeed. I sort of get the point the authors want to make when they extol the mysterious/unknown aspect of Gaia.

    My tendency also would be to think that this whole effort is more like a parable, a Golem that now needs the breath of history and revelation (of revelation which exists in history) in order to start talking to me (I am personaly interested in this effort).

    The article’s image is supposed to be an encapsulation of our wisdom about Life or better about Gaia. If I search in my tradition for similar symbols then I think I should take images of Christ (incarnation) or of Christ as a child in Mary’s bossom (which also perhaps refers in more bodily terms -of the “extended phenotype” sort- to incarnation)

    I do not know however if these could be connected (we do not have a theology of mathematical modeling, which would be helpful). I like however the activist stripe in all of Latour’s Gaian effort because it resonates well with Christianity’s uneasyness with pure theories.

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    1. I though of adding this too, as a contrapunctus (if i get the meaning right)
      “Half the universe was missing… until now”

      Different views: In the one we are transferred in a huge space, we imagine looking to us as tiny things (the view from Sirious) and a huge sea of ions. How many other views are possible? Can we think of this sorting out of things as the equivalent of the lines that meet in the same point in infinity in projective geometry? Are there other readings except the fundamentalist one (to make a religious joke) of litteral reading of the models?

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