Saturday, July 25, 2009

Gaia is a gambler

In “Paleontology”, one of the essays in The bad demiurge, Emile Cioran writes with his customary relish for the philosophically macabre of a tour of a natural history museum which impressed him with its display of skeletons:

“There is no place that puts the whole fact of the past in your face better. The possibility seems inconceivable or crazy. One has the impression there that the flesh is eclipsed from the beginning, that it could have never existed, that we can exclude the possibility that it was nailed to these bones so solemn, so imbued with themselves. It appears like an imposture, a trick, like a disguise that didn’t cover anything. And wasn’t it just that? And if it still is valueless, how does it succeed in inspiring either repulsion or terror in me? I’ve always felt a predilection for those obsessed by its nullity, and who made a great clamor about it: Baudelaire, Swift, the Buddha… It, so evident, is however an anomaly; the more one considers it, the more one turns away with disgust, and, weighing all these things, one gravitates towards the mineral, one petrifies oneself. Just to support the view of it or the idea, more is required than courage: it is cynicism that one needs. We deceive ourselves about its nature when we call it, with a Father of the Church, nocturnal; that also does it too much honor; it is neither strange nor shadowy, it is perishable to the point of indecency, to the point of madness, it is not only the seat of illnesses but is an illness itself, an incurable nothingness, a fiction degenerated into a calamity.” [My very free translation]

It is too bad Peter Ward seems not to be the type to read philosophers – this would make an excellent epitaph for his book, the Media Hypothesis.

I’m reviewing Ward’s book and another for the Austin Statesman. It is one of those cases in which I have to kick against the pricks, here – the pricks of the newspaper style. For the Medea Hypothesis is one of those rare books that, utterly wrong in itself, suggests, in spite of the the author’s rigorously missed opportunities, a truly interesting theory. The theory, as I was telling my friend, Mr. T. in NYC, of Gaia the Gambler.

Gaia as a theory of the earth as a whole, living system (an insight that now hides itself under several other names – Earth systems science, geophysiology – in order not to bear the cross of New Age enthusiasm) stems from a radical insight. This insight sounds like a truism. For the earth or any planet to be habitable, it has to be made habitable. If, for instance, we humans colonized the moon, we would have to make the moon habitable for us humans. We would have to devise some way of maintaining a breathable atmosphere and a consistently liveable temperature. We would have to protect ourselves from the noxiousness of the Moon’s atmosphere, and other unexpected Lunar features.

Gaia theory began, at first, with this insight and postulated the earth as one unified living system. The earth is not only inhabited, but it has been inhabited by the same kind of life form, one based on DNA, for 3.5 billion years. Uninteruptedly. Thus, the Gaian notion was that during this span of time, living organisms created negative feedbacks to balance the temperature, to reduce the salinity of the oceans, to enclose noxious chemicals, etc.

Building the structure of Gaia on negative feedbacks now seems wrong. Peter Ward’s book is built on the opposite idea, which he calls the medea hypothesis. The hypothesis is that life is suicidal. Ward is an expert in mass extinctions, and he seems, like Kurz in The Heart of Darkness, obsessed with the horror, the horror of paleontology.

He is so obsessed that he doesn’t see that he can’t possibly be right. For one thing, he wrote the book. For another, I read it. Neither of those things would have been possible if a true Medea event had happened on this earth.

He goes wrong in two ways, both of them very, very instructive for replacing the original, one system Gaian model. First, Ward doesn’t seem to understand his own hypothesis. As in bowling, there is a world of difference between a strike and a split. A strike knocks out all nine pins. A true Medea event would have interrupted the line of DNA life. It would have brought it to a close. Looking back, we would have seen that life had to start all over again (forgive the intentionalist language, which posits ‘life’ as an agent. All this means is that the primal soup in which we think the DNA/RNA system was set up would have had to commence all over again, after a true Medea event, in order for us to explain our own existence here.) Second, Ward doesn’t understand the essential principle of the Gaia hypothesis. It is that the planetary measure of the success of an inhabited planet is inhabitability. Ward comes up with a metric for the success of ‘life’ – a very different, and very irrelevant, issue. His two measures are biomass and bio-diversity. Now, to return to my bowling image for a moment, what a missed Medea event is about is not the diminishment of biomass or bio-diversity per se – although these may always accompany it. What it is about is knocking out habitats.

And if one begins to think in terms of habitats, then it becomes clear what is wrong with Gaia theory. It is not that the earth is one system, under a homeostasis created by the bio-sphere. It is, rather, that the earth is one system composed of a modular network of habitats.

Ward, rightly, points out that within a closed system, live forms will use up resources and die as the result of their own wastes. On a perfectly blank planet, one would expect to see life die out for just this reason. So, how does ‘life’ get around this problem?

The answer is in the missed Medean events. Many of them – for instance, the release of oxygen in the atmosphere – had definite biotic drivers. And the changes wrought were such that they extinguished many, many life-forms – perhaps as many as ninety percent during the period of extreme cold called snowball earth. But it isn’t the life forms that count here, it is the habitats. The evolution of the system seems to have been towards the one design that could ‘trick’ the limitations of living on one planet, which would be to create a patchwork of habitations. These habitations are semi-closed to each other insofar as the living forms that have colonized one might well die on another. But at no point do they all die – because they are various enough that planetary ‘switches’ from one dominant regime to another do not switch to a regime that is good for none. This hugely important point cries out, like a ghost, in Ward’s book; he ignores it, intent on knocking down Gaia, a concept and name that obviously irritates the hell out of him.

That there would be a patchwork of habitats makes much more sense of the fact that life, (and as far as we know, any life) is subject to natural selection. This means that there is always some noxious habitat on the edge of a dominant habitat that is being colonized by some life form. If there were no evolution, there’d be no patchwork of habitats; and if there was no patchwork of habitats, there’d be no Gaia.

Although I have not seen this particular model in the literature that I have hastily been reviewing, I predict that Gaia’s future is in understanding the modularity of the living system. This makes Gaia much less a mother, and much more a hedger. Gaia is a gambler.


northanger said...

media hypothesis? anyway, this might support your strike/split hypothesis… (give Ward credit, Gaia hypothesis needed challenging)

Creative Nets in the Precambrian Age

A bacterial spore lands on an area rich in food. Using the nutrients into which it has fallen, it reproduces at a dizzying rate. But eventually the initial food patch which gave it its start runs out. Stricken by famine, the individual bacteria, which by now may number in the millions, do not, like the citizens of Athens during the plague of 430 b.c., die off where they lie. Instead these prokaryotes embark on a joint effort aimed at keeping the colony alive.

The initial progeny of the first spore were sedentary. Being rooted to one spot made sense when that microbit of territory was overflowing with edibles. Now the immobile form these first bacteria assumed is no longer a wise idea. Numerous cells switch gears. Rather than reproducing couch potatoes like themselves, they marshall their remaining resources to produce daughters of an entirely different kind - rambunctious rovers built for movement.

Cioran jump: numomathematics?

Roger Gathmann said...

Hey, I think Ward is a unique case of a man who is all wrong and all right. At the same time he crumbles Gaia and - seemingly behind his own back - restores it. North, who knows, the review I wrote might actually come through with little editing and after I am dead and rotting, people can look back and say, Rom, Rod, Rupert, Gristman or Goatman came up with the answer to the Gaia problem, though having, of course, no Astro-Pathomathomatical knowledge to speak of.
And you'll be proud to say you was my friend! I knew Rupert well!

northanger said...

Bacteria hedge their bets
On nutritional limitation, the bacterium Bacillus subtilis has the capability to enter the irreversible process of sporulation. This developmental process is bistable, and only a subpopulation of cells actually differentiates into endospores. Why a cell decides to sporulate or not to do so is poorly understood. Through the use of time-lapse microscopy, new research follows the growth, division, and differentiation of individual cells to identify elements of cell history and ancestry that could affect this decision process. These analyses show that during microcolony development, B. subtilis uses a bet-hedging strategy whereby some cells sporulate while others use alternative metabolites to continue growth, providing the latter subpopulation with a reproductive advantage.

To Survive Their Harsh Environment, Desert Bees Hedge Their Bets With A Wait-And-Wet Attitude, Cornell Researcher Discovers
And like the desert's floral seeds waiting for their season in the sun, scientists have learned that the desert bees have adopted a patient reproductive strategy. Desert bee larvae patiently lie in wait in the desert soil for a chance to emerge, usually after a year or more. Scientists call this process "diapause," a bet-hedging strategy that results in the survival of the best-rested.

humans may not always be conscious of it, but my idea is that we have similar hedge-betting strategies because the what-is-human hypothesis sucks.

you iz my bud, Rom. i mean Roger.