Gaia and the earth system

The concept of Gaia was originally developed during the 1960s by James Lovelock. In its current form, the theory suggests that life and the global environment evolve together as a single system, from which emerges the regulation of the Earth’s climate and chemistry in a way that makes the persistence of life on Earth more likely.

Early versions of the Gaia hypotheses were defined in a way that made it very difficult to envisage how they could be compatible with evolution by natural selection. Richard Dawkins was amongst the prominent critics of these early formulations of Gaia. So is such a system possible on a Darwinian planet?

In the late 1990s Dr. David Wilkinson, LJMU’s Reader in Environmental Science, was one of several scientists who turned their attention to this answering this question. A recent article in the prestigious journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, described his early work on this topic as a ‘notable exception’ to the tendency at the time for scientific work on Gaia to ignore evolutionary biology and the problems it raised for Gaia theory.

In a series of publications, dating back to 1999, Dr. Wilkinson, along with several other scientists, has argued that Gaia is compatible with natural selection under certain circumstances. In particular that an organism’s Gaian effects must be by-products of its activities, not adaptations evolved for their Gaian role.

Dr. Wilkinson has also worked to merge a Gaian or Earth Systems approach with more traditional approaches to ecology. These ideas were first put forward in a technical paper in the journal Biological Reviews in 2003 and developed at greater length in a book, Fundamental Processes in Ecology; An Earth Systems Approach, published by Oxford University Press in 2006.

In this deliberately provocative book, aimed primarily at his scientific colleagues, Dr. Wilkinson argues that such a plantetary scale approach is crucial to thinking about the problems of climate change and other human impacts on our planet.

The time appears right for such a rethink of ecological theory as the book has been favourably reviewed in the technical press and was awarded the British Ecological Societies book of the year award at their annual meeting in Glasgow in September 2007.

Page last modified 18 January 2008.

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