James Lovelock passed away recently at the age of 103. Find out how his Gaia hypothesis led a generation to a new understanding of the world and our place in it.
James Lovelock was about the age I am now when I first heard about him. In college, I read publications from the Whole Earth Catalog that often mentioned his Gaia hypothesis.
That’s the idea that all of Earth’s living things interconnect in a complex web along with their physical habitats to form a self-regulating ecosphere. The idea earned him the Wollaston Medal from the Geological Society of London and got him elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.
James Lovelock’s ideas were a huge influence on the environmental movement that arose in the wake of the first Earth Day in 1970. In those days, his idea of a self-regulating planet also resonated with the new images from space that showed humanity the full face of the bright blue Earth against the blackness of space for the first time.
Founder of the Gaia Hypothesis Had Humble Beginnings
The founder of the Gaia Hypothesis came from humble beginnings in the U.K. His father grew up illiterate but then took remedial courses at a technical school. Ironically, he later opened a bookshop.
His mother couldn’t afford to attend grammar school and became a factory worker at age 13. She was also quite the activist for women’s rights and social justice.
When the time came for James Lovelock to attend university, he couldn’t afford to go either. So, he got a job with a photographic chemist and went to night school at Birkbeck College.
Early Struggles Made Him More Independent
Looking back, Lovelock thought the early struggles during this gap period were actually quite good for his career. They made him more independent since he wasn’t overly specialized in one academic field or attached to particular institutions.
Lovelock earned a chemistry degree at the University of Manchester and went to work at the Medical Research Council throughout WWII. After the war, he earned his PhD in medicine from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Having earned his first doctorate, he moved to the National Institute for Medical Research in London. He also earned a Doctor of Science in Biophysics from the University of London in 1959.
His “20-Year Apprenticeship” in Medical Research
Over what he called his “20-year apprenticeship,” his institute work led to collaborations with researchers at Harvard, Yale and Baylor in the United States. The self-reliant streak from his youth led him to strike out on his own as an unaffiliated researcher.
Along with his theoretical knowledge, James Lovelock was also a lifelong tinkerer. For example, during his early work with cryogenics, he invented a kind of prototypical microwave oven to thaw out specimens. He even used it to bake potatoes as snacks.
During the 60s space race, NASA commissioned Lovelock to build instruments to analyze the atmospheres of other planets. Scientists still call the technique of of studying a planet’s spectrum to search for life the Lovelock Test.
Compared Atmospheres of Earth and Mars
As part of his NASA research, he compared the stable, C02-rich atmosphere of Mars with Earth’s diverse and ever-changing air patterns. That’s when the idea of our world as a self-regulating biological system suggested itself to him.
James Lovelock and University of Boston biologist Lynn Margulis co-authored a 1974 paper in the journal Tellus. In it, they proposed that “early after life began, it acquired control of the planetary environment, and that this homeostasis by and for the biosphere has persisted ever since.”
They got the term “Gaia hypothesis” from Lovelock’s friend, novelist and Nobel laureate William Golding. They thought the traditional Greek name for Mother Earth was apt, given that many geological terms used the prefix “gea,” an alternative spelling for Gaia.
Promoted Gaia Hypothesis for Another Four Decades
By the time James Lovelock’s bestselling book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth hit the stands in 1979, he’d already reached the age where most people plan their retirement. Instead, he continued to promote his Gaia hypothesis for another four decades.
He wasn’t always thrilled with the response his Gaia concept drew. It attracted a lot of people from the New Age fringe, including misguided people who thought it meant that Gaia would protect us from our own environmental damage. His cantankerous response was that “the best thing for Gaia might be to get rid of us.”
Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould also challenged the Gaia hypothesis on the grounds that evolution isn’t enough to explain elaborate global processes. In response, Lovelock collaborated with British marine and atmospheric scientist Andrew Watson to build an application they called Daisyworld in 1983.
Collaborated with Watson on Daisyworld Application
The program simulates a planet with two species, white daisies and black daisies. Its imaginary sun has a regular cycle of rising and falling radiant energy.
On a planet with no daisies, the temperature follows the solar cycles. However, on the planet with daisies, the changing solar conditions favour either the white or the black daisies.
As a result, the amount of sunshine the planet reflects changes with the daisies’ shades. This shift stabilizes the planet’s temperature.
Recent Findings Tend to Support Gaia Hypothesis
Recent findings tend to support the Gaia hypothesis. Ecosystems seem to stabilize salt levels in the ocean as well as oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
James Lovelock’s profound understanding of atmospheric science made him a tireless campaigner against the climate crisis. Even so, he was still too much of a maverick to fully embrace environmentalist ideologies.
For example, he advocated nuclear power over other sustainable technologies like wind and solar because he didn’t consider the latter projects feasible. He also opposed what he thought of as the “green religion.”
“The Green Religion is Taking Over”
“It just so happens that the green religion is now taking over from the Christian religion,” Lovelock told the Toronto Sun’s Lorrie Goldstein. “You can’t win people ’round by saying they are guilty for putting (carbon dioxide) in the air.”
Comments like these led climate deniers to embrace him in his later years. Even so, Lovelock also rejected them and remained his cantankerous, maverick self to the end.
We owe a great deal to James Lovelock and his Gaia hypothesis. It’s part of the emerging new story about the nature of our planet and our place in it.
Basic Premise No Longer Controversial
His basic premise that humanity is part of a global web of life and not the master of our world is no longer controversial. The Gaia hypothesis is part of a new planetary consciousness that’s ending destructive activities like carbon emissions, habitat destruction, pollution and introducing invasive species.
His first wife, Helen Hyslop, died in 1989 after 47 years of marriage. He then married Sandy Orchard in 1991. Richard Branson invited him to take a ride on the Virgin Galactic space plane when he turned 100, but Lovelock’s doctor thought it was a bad idea.
“For Those Who Wonder About the Earth”
James Lovelock passed away on July 26, 2022 in Abbotsbury, Dorset, England. He was 103.
He once wrote, “The Gaia hypothesis is for those who like to walk or simply stand and stare, to wonder about the Earth and the life it bears, and to speculate about the consequences of our own presence here.“
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
In Memoriam: James Lovelock (1919-2022)
Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the gaia hypothesis
Lightning Strikes Vital to Origin of Life
Lifeless Matter Needs Destruction to Evolve
Human-Wildlife Conflict Aggravated by Climate Crisis