Thursday, 14 July 2011

Gaia, by James Lovelock - A student's book review

I read this book over a week ago now but have been putting off writing a review as I was not, and still am not, 100% sure what excatly to say - but I am going to give it go!
This book puts forward the idea that the Earth functions as if it was a living organism and is entirely based on the Gaia hypothesis. The Gaia hypothesis suggests that the physical and chemical condition of the surface of the Earth, of the atmosphere, and of the oceans has been and is actively made fit and comfortable by the presence of life itself. This is in contrast to the conventional wisdom which held that life adapted to the planetary conditions as it and they evolved their seperate ways - this describes the original Gaia hypothesis which is now acknowledged to have been wrong. It also includes the belief that life does not regulate or make the Earth comfortable for itself. Lovelock believes that regulation, at a state fit for life, is a property of the whole evolving system of life, air, ocean, and rocks and that, since it has a mathematical basis in the model Daisyworld and makes testable predictions, can be known as the Gaian Theory. The Gaia theory is not contrary to Darwin's discovery of evolution by the process of natural selection but instead is a development of it and this book is, essentially, the account of a journey through space and time in search of evidence to support Lovelock's interesting view - one that I have to admit have never given much thought to - of our planet and all the organisms that inhabit it.

The book is constantly asking questions - all of which are extremely thought provoking - but one of the first is what is life? When I first read it, I thought what an odd question to ask, but try defining it......... I spent ages trying to do so but got absolutely no where!

To put you out of your misery, the definition given in the book is "A common state of matter found at the Earth's surface and throughout its oceans. It is composed of intricate combinations of the common elements hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorous with  many other elements in trace quantities. Most forms of life can instantly be recognized without prior experience and are frequently edible. The state of life, however, has so far resisted all attempts at a formal physical definition. " So, did you get anywhere close to that? 

Anyway, the book investigates knowledge of various feedback systems to try and prove that the Earth, as a living organism, responds to changes in conditions - some of which are as a result of our existance like pollution - to maintain a state of constancy. There are numerous examples of this and, of course, a few links to the future and climate change.  

Overall, I would suggest that any Geography student reads this book. I must mention though that is was written a while ago and so there are some scientific mistakes which, in the new added preface the author does address and explains why he chose not to correct them. Despite it being intended for the non-scientists it does include quite a bit of science (although, on reflection, not in much challenging detail) - especially Chemistry. It covers a wide range of topics related to Geography but be warned, you need to read this with an open mind and it will make you think an awful lot!

I am sorry that this is such a bad book review but this book presented so many new and intriguing ideas that I am still trying to process. So, all I can really say is read it and then let me know what you think!!!

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