Gaia's evil twin: Is life its own worst enemy? - New Scientist showcases Peter Ward on his "anti-Gaia" Medea hypothesis

Several weeks ago I posted about a story reviewing Peter Ward's new book "The Medea Hypothesis: Is life on Earth ultimately self-destructive?":

http://www.dailygrail.com/node/7159

Ward is a professor of biology at the University of Washington in Seattle. This article is an adaptation from the book by Ward himself:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20...

The article also usefully explores some of the varied forms of the Gaia hypothesis; and the graphic interactive timeline of extinctions is a great synopsis of the evidence.

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dp1974's picture
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The historian and philosopher of science (and self-confessed Darwinian and a Heraclitean, to boot) looks at the bigger picture and argues that the truth lies some where between the two ladies:

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/sto...

daydreamer's picture
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The Gaia hypothesis was interesting, though i found it more so before i studied geology.

In Rose's page he comments about American biologist Lynn Margulis and her support of Gaia. Her work on complex cells (eukaryotes) from simple cells (prokaryotes) was inspirational and something we studied at uni, but it gets me thinking. She has an organically centristic philosophy that let her see the holistic organic transformation between the prokaryotes and the eukaryotes before anyone else figured it out, but what are the affects of holding a philosophy like that. I think it can make you look like a genius where reality is in line with your philosophy and 'crazy' where it is not. We all do this of course and i make the argument only to remind myself of the impact of holding philosophies in science as well as a reminder that it takes all sorts, i would guess philosophies blind more than they assist as there are more incorrect ones than correct ones.

Gaia functions as a metaphor, taking it too far drifts into spirituality and philosophy. The metaphor probably works well in affecting the public philosophy and in that case it is useful. Environmental and physical scientists are already much more likely to be taking environmental issues seriously compared to the general public so the metaphor is not as neccessary in that domain. Scientifically the idea is not valid, it grates with me as a geologist as referring to the 'planet' as alive makes the failure to recognise how small a part of it the biosphere is. To refer to the biosphere as alive requires a bit of a play on words rather than of science.

One thing struck me though that i hadnt really thought of before; i thought i would write down before i forgot it.

Gaia is fine as a metaphor and a philosophy towards the planet (so long as it helps on an individual level), but philosophies have to be understandable and be simple enough to be passed on. This might be why they always fail on one scientific front or another. The requirement for them to be simple enough to understand and small enough to learn in a given time is very different to science, which often requires alot of study and time. To learn all of science is impossible so perhaps it is impossible for a philosophy to encompass it. Given this it is no surprise that none completely fit the bill with regard to the natural world.

red pill junkie's picture
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You should read Frank Herbert's Dune books. In them he discusses quite a lot about ecological notions, but not in terms of the balance and interactions of living organisms, but in the sense of the complex organization of systems that deal with the exchange of energy.

If you view it that way, then yes: our planet is very much alive.

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daydreamer's picture
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Agreed. I think this is the only sense i can get behind using a 'life' metaphor for the entire planet. I am much more at home metaphorically with the idea of the biosphere as 'alive'.

Either way though it plays with our concepts of life. There are a few key concepts that i would include in a definition of life and the planet lacks them all. It is complex though, though not as complex as biological life. Perhaps that is a way to describe it, biological life and geological life, though i wouldnt be tempted to use it.

The planet is mostly composed of molten rock in various states of differentiation with, if you buy it, a large molten metal interior. Whereas life self organises and consumes energy in the process, the planet is reacting to the energy from its aggregation and from the input from radioactive decay. This has heated the rocks and they are cooling down, progressing along chemical series and behaving like the inside of a lava lamp. Then again we geologists do refer to Mars, with it failed tectonics, as a dead planet (metaphorically compared to earth and only in surface geology) so there we go. Metaphors are personal things i guess. If someone wants to think of the planet as alive in that sense then that is cool with me, but it is outside of the technical debate biologically and geologically.

Oh, Dune is a very good book. I will own up to a heresy, I also like the film.

earthling's picture
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You know, in that sense the universe is self aware, because we are.

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red pill junkie's picture
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the planet is reacting to the energy from its aggregation and from the input from radioactive decay

What about exterior energy input? Solar, cosmic rays, etc? Could we not see the planet as a form of "vegetable" that transforms the energy from the sun into other sources of energy?

PS: Yeah, I also like the movie ;)

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earthling's picture
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One of the features of "life" is the ability to perpetuate, i.e. to make more life. Typically living stuff does this is done by making (approximate) copies of itself. Planets or solar systems don't really fall into that category.

Unless of course you count in planetary features such as ourselves, who may eventually do some real planetary engineering. None of that lame moving-the-earth stuff to get another billion years of habitat. We'll just make a new solar system.

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red pill junkie's picture
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You could say that the reproduction of stars and planets is somewhat similar to the way some organisms use spores to propagate themselves. As a star dies it explodes and sends all these heavy elements that will eventually coalesce and create new stars and planets somewhere else.

All this talk made me think that trying to understand the life of planets and stars would be as difficult as trying to grasp the life cycle of a dandelion... if we were citizens of Whoville ;)

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daydreamer's picture
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Nah. I think we're just listing the difference between chemical evolution, nuclear evolution, geological evolution etc etc etc. The point is that biological evolution is special in that it produces something we call life. The other types of 'evolution' discussed in the metaphors have aspects similar in principle to aspects of biological evolution, such as replication through gravity driven aggregation etc, but thats like pulling out allegory between anything metaphoric. You'll notice that you have to strain an argument quite a bit to drag say a geological system close enough to be a biological metaphor, then even further in an attempt to get it to be biologically valid. No one has ever suceeded in doing more than this in any intellectual sense other than metaphor.

All we are doing is pointing out where some aspects of unrelated systems are a little bit like biological evolution.

earthling's picture
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We are also pointing out how order does in fact arise from disorder, under the right conditions.

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red pill junkie's picture
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Yeah, but... WHY? Why does that happen? I think that's one of the big questions out there.

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daydreamer's picture
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Depends what order we are talking about. Lots of order can be explained.

The only difficulty i have is in deciding whether to accept scientific ideas like relativity, though given the weight of evidence for it the main reasons not to seem ideological or philosophical. Of course QM and Relativity dont glue, but that doesnt mean its wrong just like Newton's equations are not wrong per se, just limited in application. Though Newtons ideas of constant space and constant time were obviously thrown out so we are talking about changes in concepts to degrees here. Anyway i digress...

Part of the problem i am having is in deciding where there might be limits to the how/why philosophical boundaries. A stock theological answer at the moment is that science is very good at doing the how and religion does the why. I find it very difficult to tell whether we are placed as a species right now to be able to tell whether we are just making the question up. I am not so much concerned with the answer to the question as opposed to even justifying that we are in a position to ask it.

Personally i think its another revealer of the questioner rather than the question. If the topology of spacetime is not the answer to why we get order from disorder on planetary and galactic scales that people want to hear (given that it does answer it) then i dont know how to approach the why question. I dont know what sort of answer people want if they are not seeking a physical one. Each person probably wants there own.

At the moment i am stuck on 3 questions.
1: Where did the universe come from.
2: How did life get started.
3: Does consciousness survive death.

Perhaps it is due to the state of my education, a god of the gaps event within it, but these are the prime areas for the Why questions (in terms of injecting meaning) as opposed to the How questions. I've spent years studying the evidence for how planets form so its not a why question for me anymore.

red pill junkie's picture
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I wasn't even thinking about God in that one —honest! :)

I was asking why we find ourselves with systems of increasing complexity in energy distribution and transformation, that supposedly evolved from much simpler states. What is the inherent element that drives that complexity, in which we could say life and consciousness are the ultimate emergent outcomes?

...Hell, maybe I'm talking about God, but let's leave the old bugger alone for a moment and deal with the issues from another perspective ;-)

Now, what about if we see the complexity as coded instructions. Life solves that through DNA. Through DNA you get the instruction for a giraffe instead of a lion or a seal. But what about non-living systems? Is there some sort of a 'DNA coding' in which you get to have a star instead of a nebula or a black hole? Is there a fundamental element in space-time where such information is 'stored'?

Maybe I'm formulating an immensely stupid question with this. If that's the case I'm sorry ;-)

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daydreamer's picture
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Hi RPJ,
I've been trying to think of a way to answer this without being to long winded.

The answer to your question is no, there job done ;)

The DNA coding leading to stars are the laws of physics. The question is where do they some from?

There is such a colossal difference between something like DNA and the universal laws that even to list a few takes alot of space. Just consider the freedom in writing a book compared to how water must cool if in a cooler environment.

The maths for some of the behaviours of the laws are well known. F=MA, t=t0/sqr(1-(v2c2)), e=mc2, g=Gm1m2/r2, g=Gm1/r2 etc, theres thousands of them. They do not give the freedom of information, order and complexity arrise on top of them becuase of the 'behaviour' occuring and such things as like charges resulting in regular atomic lattices etc. This is all just maths, which is why it is so predictable.

If you see ALL complexity as coded instructions then it becomes reasonable to ask where it is coming from, but from an evidenced position we are left realising that it arises from these mathematical laws, so we are left asking where they come from. This is not the same as asking if they are storing large amounts of data and directing change in the universe.

I read a scientific paper on size once. Size is probably one of the least thought about aspects of our existence and its perspective, once absorbed, can help to understand many things which seem unknown.

Why is the universe like it is? Why are we like we are?

Well, biological evolution requires a special type of complexity, complexity that does not occur on the scale of single atoms or molecules. It requires atoms to bind together to create complex molecules, and these in turn have to bind together and interact. This is the scale at which biological processes begin. For complex organisms, as opposed to single celled, by definition you require multi-cellularity. So here we are at a particular scale in the universe where tens of thousands of atoms and molecules have bound together and started behaving chemically as life. This might be in the order of a millimeter etc, lets generalise and say humans are about 1 meter long. The sub atomic is about ten to the minus 30 meters, the universe about ten to the 30 meters, we are about at the middle of the scale. We are at the exact point where complexity increases, but where gravity isnt a big problem. If we add a few ten to the tens, say make us 1000m or 10000m (like an asteroid) then our own gravity becomes a problem. Obviously if we were on a smaller planet or a bigger one it would have consequences to our biology too. Too little and we float off and too much as the structure has to become so reinforced that food supply/nutrient distribution become problems. I hope you are seeing here that whereas complexity sets the lower limit of where life exists gravity sets the upper one.

This is the reason we sit at the scale we do.

Now lets consider the size and age of the universe. For us to evolve takes a considerable amount of time. This means that by the time conscious intelligent beings evolve in the universe a large amount of time has gone by. It is no surprise the universe is old and because it is old and expanding it is no surprise it is big.

Size can be a mind altering perspective. It is no surprise the universe looks like it does because we are here to look at it. It is also no surprise that we sit at this scale because the laws dictate where complexity can occur and where it cannot. All this because of these laws of nature.

These laws are more like train tracks than information storing and processing devices so they serve a different function. I think that because they are simple we get uniformity and order and because there are so many of them interacting we get complexity. This happens because there is alot of matter moving around trying to follow all these train tracks and sometimes one train track sticks up more, so to speak, and so is easier to follow. Fortunately for us the information storing, self replicating and mutating systems of life give matter another 'freer' direction to go, and some of it has done.

red pill junkie's picture
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So the question is: where do the laws of physics come from, and why do the physics constants are set the way they are?

Because if someone says the Universe is thus because of the laws of physics, it's almost as saying that it's the way it is because God created it —a quick escape without explaining a thing ;)

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daydreamer's picture
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Agree completely.

When you listen to the best and most educated theologians this is where they are at.

I think it is important to see the difference and how far our understanding has come.

I think there is a subtle difference between what you say above, though i agree with the broadstrokes of an argument suggesting deistic input (though it still remains just a method of filling a hole).

Using this sort of laws of physics argument is not only incredibly well evidenced across the sciences, but also means the 'how' question is answered right back to the start (though with some bits stronger than others). It is not an escape from anything up till that point. At that point science simply holds up its hands and says 'we have a few theories, some will be tested in the next 20-50 years, but we don't have evidence to suggest an answer'. This is the honest answer. I would put forward that there is nothing wrong with saying we don't have an answer to where these laws came from.

People saying that is evidence for a deity, or that God did it are not saying we don't know. For their own reasons they are inserting an answer into something we don't know, which, to me at least, is dishonest.

This is the difference, and i believe, the answer to your escape observation.

As an addition to this i would add that each culture will add its own version of a deity, but more than this the notion of even doing this is culturally dependent. It sort of shows the funnyness of it, like different cultures coming up with their own culturally relativistic version of gravity (as was done in the past) and inserting it into a gap before gravity was explained. While being a good way of looking at cultures it is also a good way of telling when people have no idea whats going on.

[edit]I should add before i get any comeback that obviously every physicist will have his own ideas and that hypothesis wll abound aplenty, it would be disappointing if they didnt as where would we go if no-one even had a guess to try and test. When physicists get together though they will admit they dont have the answer. This is the polar opposite of the religious in invoking God as an answer here. Whereas personality will still affect interpretation they will agree that they do have the answer.

red pill junkie's picture
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Quote:

It sort of shows the funnyness of it, like different cultures coming up with their own culturally relativistic version of gravity(as was done in the past) and inserting it into a gap before gravity was explained

Oh? Was the LHC fixed and fired up the past weekend? Because I was under the impression that we still don't know exactly what Gravity is :-P

—Sorry for messing with you. Point of the matter is that I'm in agreement with you re. the answers of Science; but it's fun to play the devil's advocate once in a while ;-)

It's interesting though, to make these thought experiments in which we try to look at the properties of Nature's constants from a different POV. Right now they are viewed as an inherent property in the structure of the Universe; in fact, that the Universe and the laws of physics emerged together, although this might not be the case at all.

For instance, I read in Discover magazine how a physicist proposed a Multiverse theory in which a 'father' Universe spawned a 'child' Universe after the former disappeared, and the father would inherit the same physical constants to its descendant. So if that's the case, then the laws of our Universe preceded it.

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;) Devils advocate is indeed fun. Its worth playing it with yourself too, which is why i am often cautious writing somethings here. If i can pull my own thoughts apart then i dont tend to write them.

Yeah, gravity was a good choice :) I struggle when playing devils advocate with myself on these issues. Overall though i dont think that Newton was wrong, after all his maths works very well. He got his concept of absolute space and absolute time wrong though, and perhaps Einstein has it wrong with absolute space-time (i only just read a book on this so it is fresh in my mind). Depending on what the LHC churns out i would expect it to revolutionise our view of gravity, but what it isnt going to do is throw relativity out of the window, just like relativity didnt throw Newtonian physics out of the window (though it did throw its metaphors out). This is hard stuff indeed. Very hard. It puts us at the forefront of physics, philosophy, the philosophy of science and of the use of philosophical relativism.

I've come across the father-child multi-verse theory before. Personally i think it is likely that there are multiple universes, though i didnt always. There's no reason to favour the idea that there is only 1, in terms of evidence anyway. Any evidence for multiple ones is very weak though. Nobody knows.

Roll on the LHC hay, that machine is going to rock!

red pill junkie's picture
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I'm a LHC & CERN fan, too!

Even if they do manage to create a mini-black hole that gulps the entire Earth, at least that's a cooler way to go than the dinosaurs :-P

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daydreamer's picture
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Agreed, at least we'll go down in Galactic history.

Our entry might go down like this

Was mostly harmless.

earthling's picture
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I know I posted an answer to this post yesterday (the one with the DNA stuff. Where did it go?

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red pill junkie's picture
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Weren't you the one who posited that imaginary memories are as real as memories of actual events? :-P

Don't know, man. I didn't delete any messages yesterday.

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