When it comes to scientific ideas, most of them are forgotten almost as soon as they are published in a peer-reviewed journal; but there are precious few of them which serendipitously arrive at just the exact moment and time, and those are the ones that manage to change the whole world.
Such is the case of the Gaia hypothesis, which was originally proposed by polymath and environmental pioneer James Lovelock. The family of the UK scientist reported last week that he had just died peacefully on his 103rd birthday.
The first sign of how potentially revolutionary an idea will be is measured by how much it is rejected at the time it is proposed. The second sign is in how simple and obvious it feels to younger generations. In 1972* Lovelock proposed such an idea when he conceived the whole planet Earth as if it were a giant superorganism, with its myriad of complex biological and non-biological systems acting in tandem as a single entity towards a state of delicate balance.
“His Gaia theory, conceived with the Pentagon consultant Dian Hitchcock and honed in collaboration with the US biologist Lynn Margulis, laid the foundations for Earth system science and a new understanding of the interplay between life, clouds, rocks and the atmosphere. He also warned, in clearer terms than any of his peers, of the dangers humanity posed to the extraordinary web of relations that make Earth uniquely alive in our universe.”Jonathan Watts, the Guardian’s global environment editor
The Gaia hypothesis arrived in the wake of the 60’s counterculture movement, when youths in developed nations –often induced by psychedelic experimentation– became preoccupied with the world’s survival not only from the risk of nuclear war between the two superpowers, but also because of the increasing levels of industrial pollution and other dangerous imbalances caused by overpopulation. The fact Lovelock decided to name his revolutionary idea after the Greek goddess of Earth perhaps made it both easier for it to capture the imagination of the hippie movement, as well as equally unappealing to older folks who scoffed at it as ‘New Age nonsense’ at best**, or ‘Neopaganism’ at worst –perhaps this is the reason why nowadays these ideas are known under the more sober title of ‘Earth system science’.
Another inconvenient thing with ideas that change the paradigm, is they often take a life of their own and move in directions not intended by their original creators. With the case of Gaia, New Agers regarded it as scientific ‘proof’ that the Earth is not only alive, but also endowed with some sense of planetary consciousness; Lovelock was deeply against such ‘mystical’ interpretations and rejected them publicly.
But New Age ‘tree-huggers’ are not the only ones who embraced Gaia and ran with it. Among researchers of Forteana, there have always been a few who suspect strange manifestations –from lights in the sky to all sorts of things that go bump in the night– have something to do with the planet itself. Even the patron saint himself (Charles Fort) in his introduction to Lo! (1931) predicted that: “Someday there may be organic science or the interpretation of all phenomenal things in terms of an organism that comprises all”.
One of the first researchers to propose the planet having a bigger impact in paranormal phenomena than we give it credit for was Ivan T. Sanderson with his twelve ‘vile vortices’ which he proposed in 1968 –the Bermuda triangle being the most famous one– where all sorts of unexplained disappearances and other manifestations allegedly take place.
By 1975 Jacques Vallee –after departing from the ‘nuts-and-bolts- interpretation of UFOs with his seminal Passport to Magonia– wrote The Invisible College; in it he proposed that UFOs operated as a ‘cultural thermostat’ regulating a giant system exerting control on humanity’s mythologies and religious movements. To Vallee, UFOs are not spaceships but archetypal objects in the Jungian sense of the word, that are both physical and psychic in ways we have failed to grasp since we’re too dazzled by their displays and obsessed with the promise of advanced technology.
That same year, paranormal raconteur John Keel went even further than Vallee did with The Eighth Tower, directly connecting Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis with his own theories about what he called ‘the Superspectrum’ –incredibly powerful energy fields in the electromagnetic scale which are ‘sentient’, and from which ‘ultraterrestrial beings’ emerge from time to time in order to play tricks with hapless humans.
“[…] The earth itself is alive, and the earth’s mind is our God, just as ants thriving in the artificial environment of a glass ant farm may worship the small boy who tosses crumbs into their narrow, sandy world.”
Whether we talk about a cultural thermostat or a superspectrum, the real question is whether we are dealing with a system that is either as automatic as the ones regulating tidal waves, or if it is actually controlled by some sort of intelligence. And if that is the case, has it our best interests when it decides to interact with us?
To Keel, the ultraterrestrials are a pernicious influence in our planet (he doesn’t shy away from equating UFOlogy with demonology) which we must understand in order to free ourselves from their grip. While Vallee refrains from casting such moral judgments, he does agree with Keel that we need to focus on how UFOs manipulate our perceptions, lest anonymous groups with a secret agenda learn those secrets first –something he warned us about in Messengers of Deception.
By the 1980s pioneer cattle mutilation researcher David Perkins took the Gaia concept even further, and applied it to the new mystery which was making headways in the American southwest. After studying dozens of unexplained cow carcasses which could not easily be attributed to predation or other simpler causes –and yes, even the idea of aliens coming to our world to steal a cow once in a while is too simplistic once you take a hard, unbiased look at the phenomenon– Perkins began to think about the mutilations as the work of “unrecognized forces of Nature” (his own term) manifesting in our world for reasons that appear at simple glance devoid of any logic.
Ancient cultures throughout the world have always acknowledged these forces, and although they use different names for it, they can all be recognized under a simple umbrella term: the Trickster.
According to psychologist Carl Jung, the trickster is an archetype that is, “God, man and animal all at once. He is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being both superior and inferior to man.”
Enter parapsychologist George P. Hansen with his book The Trickster and the Paranormal (2001). Using an anthropological approach and applying it to paranormal phenomena Hansen saw in UFO sightings, ghostly apparitions, and cryptid phenomena, a trickster-y mechanism focused on attacking the rigidity of orthodoxy in order to inject novelty and reinvigorate society. If Lovelock saw Gaia as a set of physical systems set to preserve the health of the superorganism, Hansen now proposed a sort of ‘paraphysical system’ set to ‘disrupt’ the stagnation of human culture.
In Greek mythology Hermes is not only considered the embodiment of the Trickster but also a messenger of the will of the gods, a keeper of secrets… and a stealer of cattle.
Doctors are aware of the importance of pain as alert signals that something is wrong in the organism. If you suddenly experience an acute tooth ache, that is your body’s way of telling you have a cavity and it’s time to pay a visit to the dentist’s office (ouch). Within Lovelock’s Gaian perspective the bleaching of coral reefs is equally seen as a telltale sign of systemic imbalance within our ocean. Now that we’re combining Gaian ideas with ‘Hermeneutics’, might there be also an ulterior motive behind the ‘aches’ of paranormal manifestations, outside that of confusing us like Keel proposed in Eighth Tower?
To David Perkins one motive behind unsolved cattle mutilations*** could be to alert us about a dangerous imbalance within our ecosystem brought upon by our increasing addiction to beef and dairy products. Cattle ranches consume an excessive amount of water and land resources which are increasing the deforestation of tropical rainforests like the Amazon –not to mention all the greenhouse methane expelled into the atmosphere by cow belching. In an interview on the podcast Radio Misterioso, Perkins mentions the three “C’s” which James Lovelock thought were the biggest threat to Gaia: cows, cars, and chainsaws. Perhaps Gaia is using Hermes to tell us we should quit eating burgers?
Another way Hermes might be tricking us for the sake of Gaia might be in the way of fomenting memes of extraterrestrial visitors that will eventually inspire us to escape our home planet and migrate to other star systems****, leaving ol’ tired momma Gaia alone so she can recover and make room for the next explosion in biological evolution. Perkin’s colleague Christopher O’Brien –author of numerous books, including Stalking the Trickster which Perkins wrote the foreword of) thinks such an idea makes more sense than the Disclosure advocates’ notion that ETs are just waiting for us to get our act together before they roll the red carpet and welcome us to the Galactic Federation with arms and tentacles open –meanwhile they’ll keep on killing a few more cows and abducting humans to pass the time.
There are many more things which could be said about the appeal of combining the Gaia hypothesis with Forteana or the way all could be tied together through human consciousness, and to be sure there are other authors who have come up with similar theories as Perkins and Hansen –like Terence McKenna and Lyall Watson to name but a few more– but for now if there is anything I’d wish the reader of this essay to take from it with them, is the notion that just as Lovelock elevated environmental science by seeing the interconnectedness between the living and the nonliving within our planet, so too should different disciplines within the paranormal also strive to seek the connecting elements within each other. Just as you cannot save the coral reefs if you don’t pay attention to the atmosphere above the seas, you will never understand Bigfoot if you don’t pay attention to the elusive lights above the forests.
Keel ultimately believed that Gaia was insane, but perhaps there may be a method to the madness, and the absurdity is just Hermes’ way to make us pay attention and look at our old problems with fresh new eyes.
And… perhaps just as David Perkins suspects, the answers might turn out to be right under our noses.
Special thanks to Mr. David Perkins.
(*) In his book Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine (Oxford 1991), Lovelock writes that the first time he thought about the concept of Gaia was in 1965: “The personal revelation of Gaia came to me quite suddenly – like a
flash of enlightenment.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources, the first time Lovelock publicly proposed the term Gaia was in 1972.
By 1974 he and Lynn Margulis developed a view of Earth’s atmosphere as “a component part of the biosphere rather than as a mere environment for life” (J. E. Lovelock and L. Margulis Tellus 26, 2–10; 1974).
In 1979 Lovelock published the book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth which fully cemented the idea in popular culture.
According to David Perkins in private conversation, it was in 1979 when he first learned about Gaia “and went to the races with it.”
(**) Famous biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins publicly criticized the Gaia hypothesis, claiming it was nothing but a catchy metaphor and didn’t conform to Darwinian principles.
(***) According to Perkins, “In the late 70s and early 80s I was still pursuing the nuclear connection [to cattle mutilations] … that somebody or something was drawing our attention to the various aspects of nukes in the environment.” The ‘Gaian’ connection is just one of many he works with simultaneously.
(****) Lovelock himself was skeptical of the possibility of our species’ adapting to an extraterrestrial ecosystem in our current condition. His last book, Novacene, explored the possibility of humanity circumventing the calamity of environmental collapse by embracing the Singularity and a transhuman future. Maybe if we evolved into spindly biological robots (ahem) that would do the trick?