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Attfield, Robin, Robin Attfield, Attfield, Kate. The Concept of ‘Gaia’
2016, eLS. electronic Encyclopedia of the Life Sciences
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Added by: Björn Freter, Contributed by: Robin Attfield

Abstract: The Gaia theory of James Lovelock proposes that the Earth is a self-regulating system, or super-organism, maintaining conditions hospitable to contemporary planetary biota. Objections to this theory, concerning its alleged untestability and circularity, are considered and countered. Favourable evidence includes Lovelock’s daisyworld model of a planet regulating its own temperatures and thus maintaining homeostasis, and his discoveries of actual regulatory mechanisms such as the biological generation of dimethyl sulphide, which removes sulphur from the oceans and seeds clouds whose albedo reduces solar radiation (a negative feedback mechanism). After some decades of scepticism, sections of the scientific community have partially endorsed Gaia theory, accepting that the Earth system behaves as if self-regulating. Whether or not this theory is acceptable in full, it has drawn attention to the need for preserving planetary biological cycles and for the planetary dimension to be incorporated in ethical decision-making, and thus for a planetary ethic.

Comment: This interdisciplinary survey of the Gaia hypothesis, its critics and its supporters, could be used in Philosophy of Science or Philosophy of Biology classes to clarify the concept of Gaia, which is often presented too vaguely by those who have not considered issues such as whether this hypothesis is falsifiable or not; it could also be used in Ethics classes because of its section on Gaian ethics. We show how Lovelock has devised indirect ways of testing this hypothesis (or better, the Gaia theory), how a critic (Kirchner) has presented it as either falsifiable but unsurprising or unfalsifiable and thus useless, and how a supporter, Tim Lenton has sought to explain how it can be reconciled with Darwinian evolution. Finally we show how elements of the theory have been endorsed by a scientific conference, but other aspects, such as the purposiveness of Gaia, were not endorsed.

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Midgley, Mary, , . Individualism and the Concept of Gaia
2001, Science and Poetry, chapter 17. Routledge.
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Added by: Anne-Marie McCallion, Contributed by:

Abstract: The idea of Gaia—of life on earth as a self-sustaining natural system—is not a gratuitous, semi-mystical fantasy. It is a really useful idea, a cure for distortions that spoil our current world-view. Its most obvious use is, of course, in suggesting practical solutions to environmental problems. But, more widely, it also attacks deeper tangles which now block our thinking. Some of these are puzzles about the reasons why the fate of our planet should concern us. We are bewildered by the thought that we might have a duty to something so clearly non-human. But more centrally, too, we are puzzled about how we should view ourselves. Current ways of thought still tend to trap us in the narrow, atomistic, seventeenth-century image of social life which grounds today’s crude and arid individualism, though there are currently signs that we are beginning to move away from it. A more realistic view of the earth can give us a more realistic view of ourselves as its inhabitants.

Comment: This is an easy text to read and so would be fine for less experienced philosophers. Midgley argues that Lovelock’s Gaia constitutes a way of seeing the world (or myth) that has important consequences for multiple aspects of our lives (social, political, moral, etc.) by combating the unhelpful individualism she sees as stemming from the social contract myth. Whilst this text is easy to read, there is a lot going on under the surface which arguably conflicts with standard assumptions about philosophical practice (in particular, Midgley’s pluralism and account of myths). As such, it is a great text for bringing these things to the fore and exploring a different view of what philosophy is for. It would be suitable for courses pertaining to environmental ethics, animal ethics or interdisciplinary discussions regarding the environment and ecology.

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