The Blogosphere Gaia Hypothesis

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 10/09/06

Part I of a five-part series on the history and future of the blogosphere.

In the 1960’s, James Lovelock, a scientist working on the Viking Mars program, formulated what he called the Gaia hypothesis.  As Lovelock explained in his 1989 book The Ages of Gaia, the experience of analyzing a planet as an entire potential ecosystem completely altered his outlook on his own planet, Earth: (material not in quotes taken from a review by Stephen Miller)

“The name of the living planet, Gaia, is not a synonym for the biosphere-that part of the Earth where living things are seen normally to exist. Still less is Gaia the same as the biota, which is simply the collection of all individual living organisms. The biota and the biosphere taken together form a part but not all of Gaia. Just as the shell is part of the snail, so the rocks, the air, and the oceans are part of Gaia. Gaia, as we shall see, has continuity with the past back to the origins of life, and in the future as long as life persists. Gaia, as a total planetary being, has properties that are not necesarily discernable by just knowing individual species or populations of organisms living together… Specifically, the Gaia hypothesis says that the temperature,oxidation, state, acidity, and certain aspects of the rocks and waters are kept constant, and that this homeostasis is maintained by active feedback processes operated automatically and unconsciously by the biota.”

Even the shifting of the tectonic plates, resulting in the changing shapes of the continents, may result from the massive limestone deposits left in the earth by bioforms eons ago.

“You may find it hard to swallow the notion that anything as large and apparently inanimate as the Earth is alive. Surely, you may say, the Earth is almost wholly rock, and nearly all incandescent with heat. The difficulty can be lessened if you let the image of a giant redwood tree enter your mind.The tree undoubtedly is alive, yet 99% of it is dead.The great tree is an ancient spire of dead wood,made of lignin and cellulose by the ancestors of the thin layer of living cells which constitute its bark. How like the Earth, and more so when we realize that many of the atoms of the rocks far down into the magma were once part of the ancestral life of which we all have come.” The root question of Gaia’s critics, and a central point in his theory concerns the difference between a planetary environment which might only be the aggregate result of myriad independent life forms coevolving and sharing the same host, and one which is ultimately created by life forms deployed, so to speak, to accomplish the purpose of the larger being. Is the idea of Gaia only a romantic and dramatized description of the terrestrial biosphere and its effects, or is there a planetary being, whose life cycle must be counted in the billions of years, which spawns these evolving life forms to suit the purpose of its being. Do our kidney cells ask each other these sorts of questions? While your white blood cells thrive and reproduce, going about their business,they are indisputably serving the life of the larger body which you use, though whatever consciousness they experience in their realm is certainly far from that which you, the larger being, the whole, experience.

Recent scientific work, such as in the field of complex systems, have begun to give us the impression that this opposition of terms, the larger caused by its constituents, or the costituents created by the larger, may be one of those oppositions which are the constructs of our own minds, and must be dropped if we are to understand the truth, which is neither the one nor the other, but more difficult to comprehend and more fascinating to behold. Perhaps there is awareness appropriate at every level.Perhaps that is a property of life.

And what might be the nature of its evolution, this planetary being called Gaia? Anthropocentrists to the last, we might assume that the production of the human species is a great step upward for Gaia, a sort of rapidly evolving brain tissue. Or that she prepares the earth as a cradle and crucible of consciousness evolving. Other analogies come to mind: are we part of her arsenal of interplanetary spores?

Like the terrasphere, the blogosphere has grown up from a medium not particularly conducive to life.  The Internet is impersonal, expensive, and anti-visual in a community sense (you can’t see who you’re talking to).  Yet from the depths of the online void were born online communities that rival physical ones in importance: first the roughhousing cavement of Usenet, then the more refined and evolved networks of today.  Sites like Dean Nation and Daily Kos experienced population explosions that were not entirely attributable to their owners’ skillful marketing plans.  The interconnection of the blog world — filled as it is with bloggers like Ezra Klein, who has written for at least six high-traffic sites during the past three years — and the undeniable efficacy of evolution, with bloggers such as Josh Marshall attaining prominence, then branching out like trees to encompass other writers, complete the analogy.

The Gaia hypothesis (the soil-based one, that is) is extremely controversial in the scientific community.  Its detractors have accused Lovelock of constructing a theory that was overtly teleological, that did not meet the scientific burden of proof (i.e., that earth could not be conclusively demonstrated to be a single living organism), and most importantly that held implications that were outside the realm of science.  Yet these very implications are what makes the theory so attractive to non-scientists.  As Gaia co-author Lynn Margulis puts it:

…There is no special tendency of biospheres to preserve their current inhabitants and so Earth is not a living organism which can live and die all at once, but rather a kind of community of trust which can exist at many discrete levels of integration.

If Gaia is to be believed, and the Earth operates as a single living organism — if every living thing is connected in symbiosis with every other living thing — if we are all a part of each other’s existence — then we must take extra-special care with our every action.  We must treat every person, every leaf, every tree as if it were our own soul; for the earth only works when it works in tandem, as one community, as one body.  We must value every life as we would a part of our own corpus — and no more tread on another than we would step on our own toes.  Finally, we must make every decision in our lives as if the whole world were a part of us: the Golden Rule internalized and made a way of life.

The blogosphere, like the earth, is most effective when taken as a whole.  When Dailykos and Redstate came together to oppose the insidious Net Neutrality legislation, they singlehandedly swayed all of Congress; when numerous local and national bloggers worked side by side on behalf of Ned Lamont, they took down a U.S. Senator.  But the nattering nabobs of entropy too often set blogger against blogger, seek to aggrandize personal disputes over the good of the blogosphere, and lose sight of the long-term goal of all bloggers: changing our country for the better by election and by reflection.

It’s time, I believe, for a Blogosphere Gaia Hypothesis.  It’s time for bloggers everywhere to realize that their personal beefs with others, their umbrage taken at the posts of insensitive but effective authors, their dismissal of people who would otherwise be allies to the cause, run counter to the good of the blogosphere.  President Grover Cleveland said “A public office is a public trust“; it is time that we recognized that a public blog is one too.  Instead of running our sites for our own gain, we should take pains to wield them in support of the common good; instead of squabbling amongst ourselves, we should work to accomplish our common goal.

And so I hereby pledge, to the best of my ability, to live by the implications of the Blogosphere Gaia Hypothesis:

At all times, I will act online in a manner that best furthers the blogosphere at large; I will operate not for my own gain, but for the good of the blogosphere as a whole; and I will seek, through my online participation, to use the blogosphere as a tool to improve the world.

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