is most celebrated as the ‘discoverer’ of Gaia. Pete Moore spoke to him at his home in the depths of Devon on 3 March 2005.
Photography: Andrew Firth
You are most famous as the ‘discoverer’ of Gaia. Can you explain when and how it was that you came up with the hypothesis?
It goes right back to 1965, when I was working at the Jet Propulsion Lab [in Pasadena] as a Nasa contractor, helping their engineers to make instruments spaceworthy. Because I had a medical research background, I couldn’t help talking to the scientists there who were concerned with the experiments to find out whether there is life on Mars and I found that what they had in mind was almost unbelievably naive. They seemed to assume that because Mars was a desert they’d be looking for the same sort of life they’d find in the Mojave Desert. And my natural question was: How on earth do you know, if there is life on Mars, it’s anything like here?
After a while, they said: ‘Well, clever dick! You tell us what we should be doing!’ I said: ‘I’d look for an entropy reduction on the whole planet.’ Of course, that drove them nearly mad, because they were all biologists and they didn’t know what entropy was and they thought I was just obfuscating.
And what is an entropy reduction?
It isn’t an easy thing to explain, but the inverse of entropy is roughly equivalent to order. Inanimate things tend to end up in equilibrium sooner or later, and that is a state of very high entropy, or low order – whereas something alive, which is infinitely more complex, will have a very low entropy indeed.
Anyway, I got called in to see the director of the lab and he said, ‘You’ve got until Friday to give me an experiment we can send to Mars.’ I went away and thought about it and by Friday I could tell him: It’s really quite simple. All you have to do is analyse the atmosphere of Mars. If there’s life on the planet it’s bound to get its raw materials from the atmosphere, as there isn’t any other mobile medium – there’s no ocean – and it would dump its waste products in the atmosphere for the same reason. And those two processes would change the composition of the atmosphere in a way that would give it less equilibrium than it would have on a dead planet.
Shortly afterwards, some people in France were able to analyse the atmosphere of Mars without going there – which was, of course, the last thing Nasa wanted! – and they showed that it was very close to chemical equilibrium: nearly all carbon dioxide and very little else.
How did this lead to the Gaia hypothesis?
It came to me in a flash of inspiration: My God! The Earth’s atmosphere must be regulated by life
As a control, I looked at the Earth – and the more I looked at our atmosphere the more astonishing it was. It was weird, weird beyond belief. You have things like oxygen and methane co-existing, for one thing. The chances of this occurring by ordinary, random chemistry are so remote that no computer will even give you a figure.
Then there was far too little carbon dioxide. It’s pouring out of volcanoes all the time, so where the heck is it all going? I mean, it’s a trace gas on Earth – it was only about 300 parts per million at that time. Then there were gases like nitrous oxide that can only be made biologically. When you looked at the whole atmosphere, you found that everything either was made or had been profoundly modified in amount by life at the surface.
That included even the nitrogen, which currently makes up almost four-fifths of the atmosphere. If the planet was dead, in the course of a few million years all of that nitrogen would have finished up as nitrate ions in the sea, because every time there’s a lightning flash the nitrogen combines with oxygen to form nitric acid which is washed out in the rain. It’s only returned to the atmosphere because bacteria break nitrates down and release it.
I was with [the astronomer] Carl Sagan, looking at the analyses of the Martian atmosphere that had just come in, and it came to me in a flash of inspiration: My God! That means the Earth’s atmosphere must be regulated by life. It would never have a constant composition – as we know it does – if there wasn’t something continuously regulating it.
Sagan said, ‘I can’t believe that. That’s a lot of nonsense.’ But then he said: ‘There might be something in what you say, because we know that the Sun has warmed up 30 per cent since life began on Earth and one of the great puzzles of astronomy is: Why has the Earth’s temperature stayed constant?’
And so I got firmly in my mind this entity that was looking after the composition of the planet and keeping it always habitable.
Why did you decide to call this entity ‘Gaia’?
A year later, I was walking to the post office in my village and I met [the novelist William] Golding, who was a neighbour of mine. He wanted to know what I was up to in science and when I told him, he said, ‘If you’ve got an idea like that, you’d better give it a good name!’ He suggested ‘Gaia’. I thought he meant ‘gyre’, after the great whorls of the ocean, but he meant the Greek goddess [of the earth].
That was disastrous, of course, because scientists are very strait-laced – much more than theologians – and if you go mixing goddesses with science they get real panicky.
It strikes me that Gaia has a similar problem to the ‘selfish gene’: people seize on the metaphor, invest it with their own assumptions of what it means and end up talking about something totally different.
We live, according to a number of good physicists, in a self-organising universe. It’s nowhere near as random as people imagine
Exactly. It’s too easy to do that. And people don’t really like to think rigorously. But the greatest difficulty of all with Gaia is that it’s largely inexplicable. All self-regulating systems are. There are a lot of things that everybody knows about – like life, or consciousness – that you cannot explain in words.
Words largely express linear things – cause-and-effect kind of thinking. Systems thinking you can express mathematically, but to try to explain it in words is probably impossible. It’s like that intriguing property in quantum physics called ‘entanglement’.1Entanglement is involved when two microscopic particles that have once interacted show some correlation in their behaviour even when they have become separated by a very large distance. Its equivalent in systems theory is ‘emergence’.2Emergence occurs when complex patterns, structures or behaviours arise from interactions between systems governed by simple rules. Both are things you cannot hope to explain. But your unconscious mind can deal with emergence quite happily, and you can invent things that use it that work perfectly.
Some people will see that as the fingerprint of intelligent design, that something can come into being so complex that we can’t understand it. Or is it just that we don’t yet know enough to make sense of it?
I would take a third way. I would say that we are a relatively primitive animal still, and it is as beyond us to think about these things consciously as it is for a dog to think about astrophysics. We have an awful lot of hubris about our ability to think.
Is Gaia a system, then, or is it just a metaphor?
It is a metaphor, but it is much more than a metaphor: it is a self-organising system.
We live, according to a number of good physicists, in a self-organising universe. I remember that [the astronomer] Fred Hoyle rather foolishly once said that life appearing by chance is about as probable as a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747. He was totally wrong. The universe is littered with the spare parts of life already formed. Amino acids, bits of DNA, all sorts of things, were probably already on the early Earth, having been deposited from space, and the putting-together of those bits and forming cycles from them are all according to the rules of the universe we live in. It’s nowhere near as random as people imagine.
The theologians could happily call that ‘the hand of God’, of course.
Theologians have taken it in one direction, for sure, but the New Agers have taken Gaia in another. How happy do you feel about that?
You can’t stop them, can you? I mean, if you want to keep it secret, you can; but if you make it public, it becomes public property. Anything can happen.
Does it excite you or annoy you?
It used to annoy me when I was having terrific battles with other scientists, because they would keep rabbiting on about ‘Oh, it’s just a lot of New Age nonsense.’ That was unfair, because it was mostly hard science – but I should have realised that they were extremely mad at me for upsetting their comfortable world and they were just hitting back.
Right up until I introduced the notion of Gaia, the earth scientists were quite happy that the Earth evolved entirely according to physics and chemistry and the biologists were happy that life was simply a passenger that merely adapted to what it found. A chap called G E Hutchinson kept on burbling away that organisms are all making things like nitrous oxide and methane, but no one took much notice. And then I threw a rock in the puddle with the idea of an organising system and that got them all mad.
We’re just beginning to realise that the Earth is in a shocking condition. We’re going to hell on a handcart, and going faster and faster
They hated it! [The evolutionary biologist] John Maynard Smith called Gaia ‘an evil religion’. But then I met him and it turned out that he, too, had started life as an engineer and fully understood systems and in no time at all he was brought round.
Another one who was deeply opposed to Gaia was William Hamilton, who was probably the most brilliant biologist we’ve had in the last century. But I got to meet him and, again, he began to see what I was getting at and he came out with the statement on television that the notion of Gaia was Copernican in significance but we badly needed a Newton to explain how it had originated through natural selection. Which was a very wise thing to say.
Biologists have now accepted that there is a self-regulating system like Gaia but they still haven’t the slightest idea how it evolved. And I think it will take a very long time before they do, and even then their understanding will be incomplete, because it’s an emergent system and you can’t analyse emergence in a cause-and-effect way. In a self-regulating closed loop, there is no before and after.
The former Czech president Vaclav Havel applied the notion of Gaia to human society. Do you think a Gaian perspective can contribute to social thinking?
Well, it’s more than that. I think that understanding Gaia has an awful lot to do with our survival now. I think we’re just beginning to realise that we’ve put the Earth in such a shocking condition that if we don’t change our ways very soon we may lose it – or even go extinct. The system has changed vastly over time, but it runs by a set of fairly simple rules. Any species that adversely affects the environment for its progeny – and that is what we are doing – is doomed. Gaia gets rid of the mistakes.
And I’m afraid the changes needed are draconian. It’s not enough to have in mind notions like sustainable development: what we need is sustainable retreat. We should regard ourselves as being at war with Gaia. We need to make our peace with it and retreat from what we’re doing in an orderly manner.
The way to look at it is this: our standard of living, and what we want for the rest of the world, would be possible if the population was only a billion or less. At the current levels, it will lead to disaster.
Soon China will be outputting as much greenhouse gas and so on into the air as America is, and India will shortly follow. We’re going to hell on a handcart, and going faster and faster. And because Gaia is a fedback system, it’s now moving into positive feedback, and that means that any change we make is amplified, not diminished as it should be. We are killing off ecosystems that keep the planet regulated. The whole system has gone out of kilter.
For example, if you make a simple computer model of the Earth and you pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, what happens is that the temperature stays pretty constant, then begins to wobble quite a bit and then suddenly jumps to a new stable state. That jump coincides with the disappearance of the algae from the ocean, and the reason they disappear is quite simple: the surface of the ocean warms in the sunlight, and once it rises above 12ºC the top layer forms a thermocline and nutrients cannot get up from below, and so the ocean becomes a desert. (That’s why when you go to the tropics the water is so clear: it’s a desert. In the Arctic, the water’s like soup – full of life.)
I think we’re coming up to a crunch point soon. In fact, some climatologists are saying – and I believe them – we’ve probably blown it already. It’s very depressing
As the world warms, so that desert extends and extends and when it reaches the poles, there is nowhere further to go: all the algae die and up jumps the temperature. And this is now happening. The loss of fish from the north Atlantic and the Pacific is not just due to overfishing: a lot of it is due to the fact that the algae that feed the small things that then feed the fish are vanishing as the water gets hotter.
So, when we are told that there may be a rise of 1º or 2ºC and we think, ‘That’s not much…’ –
Exactly. It can be catastrophic.
Now, all of this has happened before naturally, 55 million years ago. At the beginning of the Eocene Period, there was a volcanic sill in the north Atlantic that vaporised about as much carbon into the atmosphere as we have put into it over a hundred years or so – about a thousand billion tons. And what followed then was that the temperature rose 8ºC globally and stayed there for 200,000 years before the system managed to pull it back to normal. And that is what we are in course of causing to happen again.
And what was the Earth like in those days?
It was torrid. There were crocodiles, I think, where the Thames is now, and of course the sea level was much higher then.
What can we do about it?
I think we’re coming up to a crunch point soon. In fact, some eminent climatologists are saying – and I believe them – we’ve probably blown it already. It’s very depressing indeed.
Nothing we do [in Britain] is going to make a hill of beans of difference. It’s what America and China and India do that matters, and do you suppose these nations can change their ways? My friend [the environmentalist Sir] Crispin Tickell advises the Chinese government and they are well aware of the dangers. They know, but they say, ‘So great are the aspirations of our people for a better standard of living that if we tried to turn back they would throw us out instantly. There would be a revolution.’
The Americans are very much in denial about global warming. Congress doesn’t think climatology is important. And it wasn’t any different under Bill Clinton – it’s an American thing: they just don’t want to think about this stuff. And when they do get round to thinking about it, their reaction will be: ‘Oh well, we can fix it.’ And they will try. Nasa will send up sunshades to block out some sunlight and cool the Earth down a bit. And that is a possibility.
Is there no way to adjust people’s aspirations?
Well, I used to think that once the world got a nasty surprise that was (hopefully) very expensive but didn’t kill too many people, we would be brought to our senses. But the surprise happened in the summer of 2003, when 30,000 people died in Europe from a heatwave so unprecedented that the odds against it happening other than by global warming were 300,000 to 1. For three months, the temperatures in France and southern Germany and right the way across were 110–120ºF.3‘A Book for All Seasons’, Science, vol 280 no 5365, 8 May 1998
It was a sort of environmental ‘9/11’, wasn’t it, but our response was just to get more air-conditioning.
I don’t think we should assume that our present civilisation has tenure. I’ve a feeling we’re in for another Dark Age, when an awful lot of people will die and there’ll be warlords ruling the rest
I don’t think we should assume that our present civilisation has tenure. Think of us as some latter-day Romans sitting around wondering what’s going to happen – it’s like that. I’ve a feeling we’re in for another Dark Age, when an awful lot of people will die and there’ll be warlords ruling the rest.
We’re entering a period of change as great as [the fall of the Roman Empire] or even greater, and that is what one has to think about. Long before we knew how bad things were, I wrote an article that suggested that we should put all the hard-won facts of our civilisation – the important ones like ‘Diseases are caused by bacteria, not by witchcraft’ – and not just scientific discoveries but philosophical, too – into a book that would be as respected in every home as the family Bible used to be. So much of our knowledge could easily be lost and could take centuries to recover, but if there were enough of these books they would survive whatever crash came, to kickstart a new civilisation that wouldn’t make the same mistakes that we had made.4Or 43–49ºC
Christianity offers us the model of stewardship –
I know, and I’ve always been against that, because I think it’s sheer hubris.
Would you trust the UN to regulate the oxygen in the atmosphere? I wouldn’t. I don’t think we are capable of it. We are essentially tribal animals and our real loyalty is to our tribe more than anything else, and it’s very hard to get our minds round anything bigger. My only hope is that the whole earth can think of itself as a tribe and pull together, as in wartime, and recognise that they’ve got to make a retreat. And that’s asking an awful lot of people.
One thing that may surprise people is your passion for nuclear power. In most people’s minds, it is the arch enemy of the green life.
But why? I think they’re being irrational. There is nothing particularly bad about nuclear energy, and its great virtue is that it doesn’t produce any carbon dioxide. I know that renewables don’t either, but they hardly work at all. Gaia couldn’t give a damn about the radioactivity – in fact, it likes it. I mean, consider Chernobyl.5On 26 April 1986, a combination of faulty design and inadequate training led to nuclear meltdown in one of the reactors at the Chernobyl power station in Ukraine. Some 200,000 people had to be relocated, and a plume of radioactive debris drifted across Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. It was supposed to be such a disaster, but to the wildlife in that region it was the greatest gift ever – it’s driven all the people out.
The people who lived there don’t feel so grateful.
No, of course they don’t. But they’re nowhere near in as much danger as the Greens say they are. You hear it said that Chernobyl has killed anything up to a million people in Europe. That’s something of a lie, of course – they haven’t died yet. They say that they’ll die of cancer some time or other, but no one ever says when. I’ve worked out that even if people were exposed fully to the radiation from Chernobyl (and there is no proof they were), their loss of life would be about 16 hours.
And if you doubt it, think back to 1962. In that year, the Americans and Russians, like two stupid kids, were showing off bigger and bigger hydrogen bombs. They exploded in the atmosphere between 300 and 600 megatons of H-bombs, I think it was. That would constitute quite a sizeable nuclear war. And those explosions were so powerful that all the radioactivity went up into the stratosphere and circled the world and we’ve all breathed it in who were alive then. It was equivalent to between 100 and 300 Chernobyls – and we now live longer than ever.
So, even a nuclear accident would not be that bad?
I would love to have a religious experience. And if I were thoroughly convinced and the evidence was absolutely rock solid, then it might change my attitude
Oh, it’s all lies. Nuclear energy is exceedingly safe. If you applied the same safety regulations to airlines as to nuclear, you’d never get a plane in the air. The Swiss did a study of the number of deaths per gigawatt hour of energy produced since 1945 all round the world and it works out that nuclear is by far the safest. The most dangerous are coal and oil.
A lot of the debate is compromised by vested interests, but you are always described as an independent scientist. What does that mean exactly?
I’ve always earned my own living. It’s something I am rather proud of. Gaia has had no grants or funds from anybody all the time I’ve worked on it. I never had any private means whatever. Quite the reverse – my parents were quite poor and so were my first wife’s parents and I had to support them both, and we had four children. It was by no means easy.
I support myself now by doing dangerous experiments, amongst other things. Health-and-safety regulations have made science almost a joke, but they only come into force if you employ people and because I work alone I’m immune to most of them. I can do experiments that would cost other people almost unbearably large sums of money to do.
Your own background had a strong Quaker influence. Has that helped you to see a bigger picture?
I don’t know. The Quakers were almost a breeding ground for agnostics. I mean, the Sunday school I went to was far more ready to talk about cosmology than any religious topic, and as far as they were concerned God was the still, small voice within – an internal God, if you like, not an external entity running the universe. That was the kind of background I grew up in – which is a very favourable one for scientific thinking. (Did you know that in 1900 more than half of the fellows of the Royal Society were Quakers? Quite extraordinary.)
In the epilogue of your autobiography,6Homage to Gaia: The life of an independent scientist (OUP, 2000) you say that you’ve never had a religious experience, and you say it in a way that suggests you almost wish you had.
Well, I mean, who wouldn’t? Anybody curious – and you’ve got to be curious to be a good scientist. I would love to have a religious experience.
What do you have in mind?
Oh, I don’t know. A manifestation, an appearance of anything from God downwards, telling me what mistakes I was making, what I should do.
So, there could be a God to do the appearing?
Well, if one did, being a scientist I would wonder to what extent it was a phenomenon within my own mind, like a hallucination or something. Or a con. I wouldn’t be fooled by somebody dressed up as God – do you know what I mean? But I would love to have the experience at least. And if I were thoroughly convinced and the evidence was absolutely rock solid, then it might change my attitude.
Are you saying you would have to understand it?
I get so angry with the Greens – they are so wrapped up with affluent, middle-class attitudes about whether we’re going to die five minutes early from cancer
Oh no, no, no, no. You don’t have to understand, but you have to be satisfied that it exists in reality. I have no difficulty believing in the quantum phenomenon of entanglement – it’s practical, it works, no problem at all – but I don’t understand it and it’s doubtful whether anybody ever will.
In 1850, James Clerk Maxwell, probably the greatest physicist of the 19th century, told a meeting of the Royal Society: ‘I have had three sleepless nights trying to analyse the mechanism of [James] Watt’s steam-engine governor. I’ve no doubt it’s a first-class invention and it works, I can see that immediately. But explain it? It’s beyond me.’ That was the first honest statement by a physicist that emergent phenomena are not explicable. But everybody who travelled on a steam engine in those days knew that they worked and had confidence in them. And it’s that kind of criterion I think one would use in assessing whether a manifestation was real or not.
I think the wonderful thing about science is that every proposition is put up for test to nature and if it’s the truth it tends to out in the end. I think religion suffers because it can’t really have that kind of test naturally occurring. Science keeps itself refined. It doesn’t ever get very badly corrupted by bad ideas. In fact, we say in science that the eminence of a scientist is measured by the length of time he holds up progress in his field. I think that religion could do well to adopt the same attitude. I think it may well apply to the [late] Pope, for example.
You are also very critical of humanism, aren’t you?
I don’t like it. I think, again, it’s human hubris. The trouble we are in is because we are much too concerned about human things and not enough about the Earth. I get so angry with the Greens in particular – they are so wrapped up with affluent, white, middle-class attitudes about whether we’re going to die five minutes early from cancer from something or other. The trouble with the Greens is, they’re not really green at all. It’s just another kind of humanism – and they’ve made such awful mistakes.
In 1999, you wrote: ‘We can put our trust, even faith, in Gaia but this is different from the cold certainty of purposeless atheism or an unwavering belief in God’s purpose.’7‘From God to Gaia’, the Guardian, 4 August 1999 What did you mean by ‘faith’?
I didn’t… If they put ‘faith’, they misquoted me. ‘Faith’ is too strong – it means ‘blind belief’ to me.
Gaia has looked after this planet for at least 3.5 billion years – that’s about a quarter of the age of the universe. Again, if theologians want to see that as the hand of God working, I can’t see why they shouldn’t. After all, in their terms the Earth is God’s creation, isn’t it, so why shouldn’t it have been created as the sort of planet that will look after itself?
I’d love to get the message across to the church that the most awful thing we can do is to destroy God’s creation.
This edit was originally published in the June 2005 issue of Third Way.
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|⇑1||Entanglement is involved when two microscopic particles that have once interacted show some correlation in their behaviour even when they have become separated by a very large distance.|
|⇑2||Emergence occurs when complex patterns, structures or behaviours arise from interactions between systems governed by simple rules.|
|⇑3||‘A Book for All Seasons’, Science, vol 280 no 5365, 8 May 1998|
|⇑5||On 26 April 1986, a combination of faulty design and inadequate training led to nuclear meltdown in one of the reactors at the Chernobyl power station in Ukraine. Some 200,000 people had to be relocated, and a plume of radioactive debris drifted across Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.|
|⇑6||Homage to Gaia: The life of an independent scientist (OUP, 2000)|
|⇑7||‘From God to Gaia’, the Guardian, 4 August 1999|
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James Lovelock was born in 1919 and educated at Strand School. He studied chemistry at Manchester University. In 1948, he gained a PhD in medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and in 1959 a DSc in biophysics from London University. He studied at Harvard University’s medical school as a Rockefeller travelling fellow in 1954/5 and did further research at Yale in 1958/9.
In 1941, he began 20 years’ employment with the Medical Research Council, chiefly at the National Institute for Medical Research in London. From 1946 to 1951, he conducted research on the common cold at Harvard Hospital in Salisbury.
In 1961, he moved to Houston to take up a post as professor of chemistry at Baylor University College of Medicine. He also began working with the space engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, designing and building small prototypes for Nasa’s Viking programme throughout the Sixties.
Since 1964, he has practised as an independent scientist, though he has kept one foot in academia as a visiting professor first at Houston University and then, from 1967 to 1990, at Reading and as an honorary visiting fellow of Green College, Oxford since 1994.
He has written some 200 scientific papers, distributed almost equally among topics in medicine, biology, instrument science and geophysiology.
He is a lifelong inventor and has filed more than 50 patents, mostly for detectors for use in chemical analysis. His electron capture detector arguably started the environmental movement by revealing for the first time the ubiquity of pesticide residues and other man-made chemicals, which prompted Rachel Carson to write the seminal book Silent Spring.
He sat on the council of the Marine Biological Association from 1982 to 1986, and was then its president until 1990.
He is the author of Gaia: A new look at life on Earth (1979: 3rd edn 2000), The Great Extinction (1983) and The Greening of Mars (1984), both with Michael Allaby, The Ages of Gaia: A biography of our living Earth (1988: 2nd edn 2000), Gaia: The practical science of planetary medicine (1991) and Homage to Gaia (2000).
He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1974. He was appointed a CBE in 1990 and a Companion of Honour in 2003.
Among other awards, he received the Norbert Gerbier Prize of the World Meteorological Organization in 1988, the first Amsterdam Prize for the Environment from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1990, the Nonino Prize and the Volvo Environment Prize in 1996 and the Blue Planet Prize in 1997. He has honorary doctorates from the Universities of Colorado, East Anglia, East London, Edinburgh, Exeter, Kent and Stockholm and Plymouth Polytechnic (now Plymouth University).
He has two sons and two daughters by his first wife, who died of multiple sclerosis in 1989. He married again in 1991.
Up-to-date as at 1 April 2005