Monday, February 8, 2010

Earth Evolution: The Janus head of Gaia & Medea

The Gaia hypothesis: named for the Greek Earth goddess Gaea, holds that the Earth as a whole should be regarded as a living organism and that biological processes stabilize the environment. First advanced by British biologist James Lovelock in 1969.
(NASA Thesaurus) The hypothesis that the Earth's atmosphere, biosphere, and its living organisms behave as a single system striving to maintain a stability conducive to the existence of life.

The Medea hypothesis: In The Medea Hypothesis, renowned paleontologist Peter Ward proposes a revolutionary and provocative vision of life's relationship with the Earth's biosphere--Using discoveries from the geological record, he argues that life might be its own worst enemy. This stands in stark contrast to James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis--the idea that life sustains habitable conditions on Earth. In answer to Gaia, which draws on the idea of the "good mother" who nurtures life, Ward invokes Medea, the mythical mother who killed her own children. Could life by its very nature threaten its own existence?

According to the Medea hypothesis, it does. Ward demonstrates that all but one of the mass extinctions that have struck Earth were caused by life itself. He looks at our planet's history in a new way, revealing an Earth that is witnessing an alarming decline of diversity and biomass--a decline brought on by life's own "biocidal" tendencies. (Princeton University Review Press)

"Ideal types are used to simplify a complex reality."

Patricia Crone

"All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of actual life springs every green."


When I consider the Gaia and Medea hypothesis's put forth by Lovelock and Ward I see it as a difference of emphasis and a point of what one highlights versus a right or wrong dichotomy. Life is a dynamic mix of life and death. Awesome and dreadful. Wonderful and horrific. Beauty and agony. Order and chaos. Beyond the dogma. To use an ancient roman god I would use a metaphor of the Janus god. The two faced god interlocked and connected. The two faces of Gaia and Medea are one. The Janus hypothesis.

Janus: Roman god of doorways and archways, after whom the month of January is named. Often depicted as a double-faced head, he was a deity of beginnings. He was one of the principal Roman gods, the custodian of the universe. Janus was usually represented with two bearded heads placed back to back so that he might look in two directions at the same time. Symbolic for entrances or exits-His chief function was as guardian deity of gates and doors.

Entrances and exits. Life and death. Evolution and extinction. The day and night exist in reference to each other. Gaia and Medea do not face in each other in conflict but attached to each other they face their gateways of life and death in unison. Another way to look at it is through the perspective of Cosmic Evolution when one considers the violence of exploding stars and how that brought about a process of new life birthing planets and new stars. Our Sun in our solar system and the Earth itself comes from a supernova. A violent death bringing new life. Medea working with Gaia in a dynamic mix of destruction and creation.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Elemental Drama of Life

Sensitive souls as Becker implied who open themselves up to the grand and gory drama of natural history do not come to comforting dogma but to the stormy seas of contemplation. Man does not live on bread alone but man must eat to live at all. And eating is about taking energy from other organisms. A vicious cycle. By eating plants, herbivores steal these energy-storing molecules to maintain their own life processes. By eating animals, carnivores plunder the molecules that store the energy originally captured by plants. By feeding on dead tissue, decomposers exploit whatever molecules remain in the dead plants, herbivores, and carnivores.

Brain and digestive system compete for limited share of metabolic energy budget.
Our world is a constant re-cycling of energies into different forms. And this constant exchange of energy is not always a pretty picture.

"I always have to think too of a little boy sitting on the banks of a river in west Africa who has a worm boring through his eyeball, turning him blind before he's five years old. And I reply and say, "Well, presumably the God you speak about created the worm as well," and now, I find that baffling to credit a merciful God with that action."

-David Attenborough

"That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Which is more likely, that pain and evil are the result of an all-powerful and good God, or the product of uncaring natural forces? The presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection."

Charles Darwin

"Religious fundamentalists may deny that evolution exists, but in the natural world it is religion that does not exist."

-John Maisey of American Museum of Natural History

"Belief in the supernatural reflects a failure of the imagination."

Edward Abbey

Montaigne believed animals had something to teach humans and along that line I too think that animals past and present have something to teach in terms of theology.
Sir Francis Bacon stated, "A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth man's minds about to religion."
But in the light of modern science( the size and age of the Universe, and the age and evolutionary drama of planet earth) I would like to counter that quote. Now it is a problem of coping with what we have found out in the scope of geological time. A little imagination leads one to religion but when one really thinks and imagines with depth the Universe and Earth's evolutionary drama surely any typical religious concept of god becomes exposed as petty, provincial and limited.

One of the most resourceful and lasting species has been crocodiles and sharks and one thinks of the millions of years of their survival and how much depends on a vicious cycle of consumption. I knew a boy I grew up with who was taken down by a crocodile in front of his father. In a world such as this that existed before the evolution of modern humans one wonders what pleasure the christian god got out of the elemental evolutionary drama. A God who watches the sparrow fall has no problem overseeing this blood sport. His eye is on T-Rex and I know he is watching me? Not so comforting a thought is it.
In the light of geological time the christian god makes no sense. It did not make sense even in the blink of an eye of human written history much less in evolutionary time.
The created gods of the human mind are too small and petty for the grandeur of the stars and universe. Human gods do not even cover the scale of the earth and its history much less the universe.
It used to be said that a little philosophy would lead to atheism but much philosophy would lead to religion. Again in the the light of modern science and natural history I would counter by saying a little knowledge and imagination leads to religion but greater knowledge and greater imagination leads to wonder and skepticism.

"A universe in which everything is known would be static and dull, as boring as the heaven of some weak-minded theologians ."

"A general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the god portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy much less of a universe."

Carl Sagan

"Existence, for all organismic life, is a constant struggle to incorporate whatever other organisms they can fit into their mouths and press down their gullets without choking. Seen in these stark terms, life on this planet is a gory spectacle, a nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh...

Sensitive souls have reacted with shock to the elemental drama of life on this planet, and one of the reasons that Darwin so shocked his cannot go on without the mutual devouring of organisms. If at the end of each person's life he were to be presented with the living spectacle of all that he had organismically incorporated in order to stay alive, he might well feel horrified by the living energy he had ingested.

Each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good."

Ernest Becker

"Voila mes philosophes." (Here are my philosophers)

The French materialist La Mettrie used to say this of his senses...He claimed to have reached this insight during a fever, when he realized that his intellect was entirely subject to his body.
Entelodont, crocodiles, sharks, and T-Rex: Voila mes philosophes.

One must eat, sleep, strive for sex and then die. Anyone with a harsh disease or illness knows the burden of the body. Anyone who has seen death come upon your loved ones and friends knows the power of the body. Anyone who has starved or suffered merciless due to the body...knows. Many people who have full stomachs, healthy bodies or a modest safe society can judge from an arm chair philosophy that life is divine but they fail to use their imagination of other realities besides their own. (See Primo Levi writings) But the body will come and ask for its debt at some time and then they will know the body is a philosophy unto itself. Death comes to us all.
The limits of the body are combined with the free imagination of the human mind. A glorious combination or the human horror? Viktor Frankl stated “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering." Could it be that suppressing reality and creating illusions might be vital to human life with its burden of consciousness?
Humans do not have to be indifferent to the pain and suffering of other living organisms and that is where humanity can use its bigger brains to heal and care for life instead of reveling in solipsistic survival and comfortable inertia. Otherwise this passive nihilism will hatch anew Marquis De Sade's ascent.