This is a critique of B. Latour and T. Lenton paper: “Extending the domain of freedom, or why Gaia is so hard to understand” (Latour and Lenton 2019). The Editor of Critical Inquiry journal reject directly this text without peer-review.
I sincerely believe, in strictly scientific terms, that it is premature to dismiss so forcefully the idea that Gaia is not an organism that the authors defend in the cited paper.
Let me explain citing the refered work as if there were a dialogue between Latour and Lenton (hereafter L&L) wtih me (hereafter CC):
(L&L): “Even though Margulis was fond of seeing Vladimir Vernadsky as a forerunner, Lovelock has never agreed with this, and we concur. While Vernadsky brings all life forms within one homogeneous sphere—the biosphere— he gives them no agency whatsoever, such that any organism could be replaced by any other. Furthermore, this system has no more history than Hutton’s. Historians are fond of continuity and of discovering precursors, and it is often true that Alexander von Humboldt or Vernadsky read like Lovelock, but, as is well known, precursors are often dis-covered only after their successors retrospectively shine a new light on discoveries that once had a different meaning”.
(CC): Lovelock remarks that Vernadsky surely had the idea that the biosphere behaved like a living being and that he gave it up due to ideological pressure (Lovelock writes: “I suspect that he [Vernadsky] would have liked to subscribe to the first traditional view, but the pressures of scientific rectitude in his days, and in particular the political pressures on him in Russia, probably forced him towards more the “liberal tendency” [Lovelock 1996, p. 16])”. In this text Lovelock points out that he does not renounce this idea of a living Gaia, but the reality is that this organic vision is affirmed by Lovelock himself several times: “This then is the first tradition that sees the Earth as a living organism. It is the view to which I subscribe, and I believe it to have a firm scientific basis” (pag 15-16). Margulis herself will enter into contradiction when defending the autopoiesis of Gaia (Margulis 1990). While Maturana and Varela’s project is to define the common minimum to all living beings, they don’t find autopoiesis below bacteria (organisms), and Margulis will say that the highest autopoiesis is Gaia. Thererefore, contradictorily, Margulis is also affirming Gaia as an organism by defining and defending Gaia as the higher autopoiesis in the sense of Maturana and Varela, rather than as a complex physico-chemical entity or mechanical system or process.
(L&L): Why Gaia Is Not an Organism
“Given the explosion of new knowledge available from ESS, it is no wonder that none of the usual metaphors worked. It is clear today that Gaia could not possibly have been considered an organism for at least three reasons.
The first is the level of exterior resources Gaia depends on to survive.
If Gaia is clearly not like an animal, it’s because animals are heterotrophs, meaning that they feed on organic matter, whether alive or dead. This is the reason why comparisons of Gaia to literally any kind of body, be it the Earth mother, an animal, or a body politic, cannot be anything but wildly inaccurate metaphors.”
(CC): Obviously Gaia is an autotrophic organism, in fact the analogy used by Lovelock himself is that of a tree. Of course, to establish different analogies with other organisms we can go to other organisms, for the idea of exchanges of matter and energy with the environment, as autotroph, we must speak of other autotrophic organisms. For cycling ratios and their analogies, heterotrophs or any organism can be valid (in fact, it must be very complex), for temperature homeostasis it is better to use the analogy with a hive or a homoeothermic animal, instead a tree, or bacteria etc. Would that be like saying that given that a tree is not a heterotroph, therefore so a tree cannot be a kind of body?
(L&L): “However, Gaia cannot be compared to a plant, alga, or cyanobacterium because those are open systems continually exchanging matter and energy with their surroundings. In contrast, Gaia is nearly a materially closed system, with minimal matter exchanges between the inner Earth and space but with a vast degree of internal recycling.”
(CC): This is the mistake of Margulis and others, which I humbly believe is also present in your approach. It turns out that organisms have an internal medium and a semi-permeable border, all of them, exactly like Gaia has. In order to produce autopoiesis, as Maturana and Varela point out, there are more processes inside the organism (and one way to measure it are cycling ratios!) than with respect to the exterior (in any case through borders that are manufactured by the autopoiesis or the organism itself). It is incredible that what best proves that Gaia is analogous to a highly complex organism, even surpassing most of the most complex organisms, is used as an argument to minimize her organic character. Our rate of water cycling in our bodies is similar to Gaia’s C and N rates, and we are organisms. In fact, the internal cycling rates of organisms are an intrinsic property of their definition (“autopoiesis”, Maturana and Varela biologists would say). I doubt that complex non-organic dissipative systems can be found in the universe with that “function” or cycling ratios. I don’t know of any counterexample. The only known counterexample is Gaia?
(L&L): “This is another difference with the Darwinian formulation of nature in which organisms are continually interacting with other organisms in their environment, as well as continually exchanging materials with their outside.”
(CC): Most of my cells are exchanging energy, matter and information with other cells and not with what lies outside my body, exactly as the organisms in the body called Gaia do. Another “proof” that Gaia could be an organism by being totally analogous to her sub-organisms.
(L&L): Gaia is not interacting with other Gaias.
(CC): The same applied to the first bacterium, the first eukaryotic cell, the first multicellular, the first lichen, the first termite mound, and so on.
(L&L): “While any organism has an environment, strictly speaking Gaia has no environment except itself.”
(CC): I do not think so, its environment is “Cosmos, Helios and Vulcan” (these of course are only physically describable abiotic environments, although Vulcan not only influences but it is influenced by Gaia).
(L&L): “If by environment we mean what with which any entity engages in a reciprocal relation. To be sure, the rest of nature can be said to reside “around Gaia” but only from an astronomical point of view of someone residing in outer space.”
(CC): With apologies, I believe that you are repeating a mistake that Lovelock and Margulis apparently did not make in their early work (later they did): you seem to identify Gaia with Earth here. Gaia is very materially related to Vulcan, and as for the outer space, being almost empty, there is almost no reciprocity.
(L&L): “Viewed from the inside of Gaia, the rest of the universe is simply beyond the outer limits of its system. Properly speaking, Gaia resides inside itself.”
(CC): No. Gaia is very influenced by the fact that the Earth traps her in a narrow “biofilm” by gravity, being her external part the “cosmic void”. But even meteorites, comets, particles, etc. generate exchanges, and the fact that energetically it is a commensal of the Sun does not mean that for this reason it is not an organism, like any tree.
(L&L): “The second reason why Gaia cannot be compared to an organism is that it has no homogeneous internal milieu.”
(CC): Bones, blood, muscles, in what way are they homogeneous? Isn’t the salinity of the oceans more homogeneous than our blood? Isn’t the atmosphere more homogeneous than our blood?
(L&L): “In other words, not only does it not have an outside, it does not have a coherent inside either.”
(CC): Don’t the very high cycling ratios define a coherent inside? It is precisely because the oceanic circulation, the pH, the salinity, etc. are regulated, or that the salinity or the pH recovers after a Great Extinction, etc. that gives organic coherence to Gaia.
(L&L): “It is that sort of heterogeneity in the many cycles that have been discovered over the years that makes the idea of a homogeneous biosphere so misleading. Shylock was sure of killing Antonio by carving “a pound of flesh,” but Gaia does not have such a unity that extracting a pound of life would kill the whole.”
(CC): Again this analogy is invalid. Take a “pound” (all the carnivores for instance) from Gaia and see what happens (carnivores weigh much less than a pound in that analogy, remember the effect that a few “miligrams” added in the form of wolves has produced in Yellowstone). On the other hand, take a pound from a tree anywhere and it will remain alive. Again, you are thinking of a zoomorphic Gaia instead of a more modular Gaia such as Pando (clonal Populus tremuloides). Having many cycles again makes it more organic and no less than other “organisms”: don’t we have many cycles within our own body? If you follow the connections of a hormone or follow an O2 molecule in our body, you will see the complexity and heterogeneity of the many cycles in which each atom takes part, in a totally parallel way to what happens in the body of Gaia.
(L&L): “It has no whole in the way an animal body is whole.”
(CC): I believe this is zoocentric again. Look for analogies with Pando or a coral or a termite mound. Please don’t think in anthropocentric or antropomorphic terms only.
(L&L): “This is what makes the question of deciding if it is alive or not especially moot and why it does not make much sense to defend or to attack the belief that the Earth is alive.”
(CC): On the contrary, the criticisms are in fact “she passes the test” for the hypothesis that Gaia is an organism. That is not a belief, it is a scientific hypothesis within a scientific theory that is also testable and predictive and which has passed tests that have not passed standard biological theories (neo-Darwinism for example). (What Gaia has not passed is the censorship of the academic mainstream until present, of course, except for the hypothesis that Gaia could be an organism as a scientific hypothesis in a peer review journal in Spanish [Castro 2013]).
(L&L): “The question of what is alive and what is not in Gaia is so hard to pinpoint that some solid mineral forms are directly produced by life (biomineralization), some are indirectly due to life because they rely on the oxygenation of the atmosphere, and some are fully abiotic. Similarly, some gases are uniquely biogenic (isoprene, dimethyl sulphide), many others have their abundance massively altered by life, and some do not interact with life (noble gases).”
(CC): Again, are my bones alive, is alive the cork of a tree? Are alive the bark and the interior of a Pando tree trunk? Does the biomineralization of the roots of a tree or a coral prevents from defining them as organisms? Don’t we breathe argon and oxigen in every breath? (we recycle oxigen but not argon and both can it be found in our bodies.)
(L&L): “Gaia is very much a patchwork and not a unified domain, sphere, region or entity. Depending on which chemical cycle you consider, you will have to pass through a long chain of living forms or none at all.”
(CC): You could write the same sentence about Pando or a termite mound…
(CC): In the following sentences, you distinguish the cycling of CHNOPS atoms versus those that living beings do not use, but the same applies. The cycling of H2O in my body is very high, or that of the components of proteins if I follow these (about 100Kg of proteins are cycled, I build several Kg daily, but I only need 100 grams from the outside). But the argon that I breathe or a CFC that I drink will go down the drain without a single cycling.
(L&L): “The third reason why Gaia is not an organism is the disconnect between the immense amount of energy falling on Earth that activates its enormous machinery and the tiny but distributed amount that life forms have been able to piggyback on. We always tend to forget that only a small fraction of the total energy (electromagnetic radiation) being absorbed at or near the Earth’s surface and powering the climate is captured by a life form and converted to electrochemical form (although in parts of the visible spectrum the fraction captured by life is significant.”
(CC): This third reason is also invalid. The energy that Gaia uses or modifies through perspiration or albedo modification are not negligible. The energy that moves the oceanic belt is analogous to the energy that moves my blood, and therefore not “minute”. Photosynthesis is only a small part necessary for Gaia’s “cells” to feed themselves so that they spend the rest of their energies in the functions of Gaia. Perhaps your perspective is “cellulocentric”. Since you start from the fact that Gaia is not an organism, you do not realize that Gaia also uses a lot of energy through its living cells. The entropy production without Gaia would vary at least 15% more slowly on a planet scale (my own calculations, de Castro 2020), something that is not negligible for a “biofilm”. In fact, you cite the Gulf Stream as more energetic, as if it were not a Gaian process. You are mistaking Gaia for the sum of individual organisms and their energy consumption only for their survival as individuals. Remember that evapotranspiration, which absorbs 50% of the solar energy in a tree, is a necessary function to rise nutrients —not everything is photosynthesis. Furthermore, physical calculations (de Castro 2019) show that a tree would not require as much energy to do this nutrient-raising function, and the only Gaian explanation is that it is working more for Gaia than for ‘itself’, in a ratio of at least 50:1. When you see Gaia as an organism, it makes sense, even if it looks inefficient for the tree. Otherwise, we have to go to the stupidity and historical contingency of the “organisms”, but where then is the “intelligence” of the plants? (Gagliano 2017). Why then the moral philosophy that you Latour defend lately through Gaia if it is finally so “little thing” and only useful for the human being – when anthropocentrism is one of the main problems that has led us to the civilizational crisis that we have-?
(L&L): “Far from looking like a biosphere added to other spheres, Gaia appears as a reticular, lacunar, dappled, distributed sort of entity for which there is no precedent nor comparison possible.”
(CC): If so, we should not call a human body an organism: a bacterium in symbiosis with us could say exactly the same thing about us. A T lymphocyte in the human body, or a cell from a Pando leaf, or a termite for its termite mound would say of the organisms to which they belong that “appear as a reticular, lacunar, dappled, distributed sort of entity for wich there is no precedent nor comparison possible … “
(L&L): “Lovelock and Margulis did not overanimate a dead Earth for some mystical reason; they simply refused, for strictly scientific reasons, to deanimate it, that is, to deny the agency of life forms. Although it’s true that Gaia requires a special effort from science, neither Lovelock nor Margulis entertained the idea of an alternative, more intuitive and superior Gaian science.”
(CC): And that was, despite their genius, their mistake and their surrender to the classical worldview. And I sincerely believe that it is yours too, despite your brilliance. I understand that Lovelock and Margulis were like Copernicus “apologizing” to the geocentrists for the heliocentrism or like Kepler and Brahe using astrology while repudiating it in favor of astronomy. If you reject precisely what would be like a Copernican revolution in biology (and philosophy), an organic Gaia means, then we are not really advancing at the speed that our historical moment calls for. I wish you and many others had the strength and opportunity to debate this issue, while you are asking biology to take the teleological nature of living beings seriously again. I think that Vernadsky, Lovelock, Margulis and you, while trying to foster a Copernican revolution, keep adding geocentric “epicycles” so as not to be condemned to the stake. The Copernican revolution is still waiting for biology when we need it most…
With warm best wishes,
Carlos de Castro
Castro, C. de (2013): En defensa de una teoría Gaia orgánica. Ecosistemas 22(2):113-118. Doi.: 10.7818/ECOS.2013.22-2.17
Castro, C. de (2019): Reencontrando a Gaia. A hombros de James Lovelock y Lynn Margulis. Ediciones del Genal, Málaga
Castro, C. de (2020): Teoría Gaia orgánica. Libros en Acción, Madrid (re-edition of the 2008 version by Abecedario editorial, Badajoz).
Gagliano, M. (2017): The mind of plants: Thinking the unthinkable. Communicative & Integrative Biology, 10:2, e1288333, DOI: 10.1080/19420889.2017.1288333
Latour B. and T.M. Lenton (2019): Extending the Domain of Freedom, or Why Gaia Is So Hard to Understand. Critical Inquiry 2019 45:3, 659-680
Lovelock J. (1996): The Gaia Hypothesis. 15-33. En P. Bunyard (Ed.): Gaia in Action. Science of the living Earth. Floris Books
Margulis, L. (1990): Kingdom Animalia: The Zoological Malaise from a Microbial Perspective. AMER. ZOOL., 30:861-875