As valid and elegant as some of the elements of the Gaia hypothesis are – its intricate simplicity is fascinating – there are several points which leave me feeling very averse to James Lovelock himself. I accept that it was written at a time where writers and scientists were allowed to be shamelessly sexist and narrow-minded, but in the subsequent revisions of the text, I would have expected some kind of change. Despite emphasis on the female ‘Gaia’, Lovelock clarifies early on that even this pronoun is to be taken in the same way as that of a ship, i.e. that it is an unimportant idiosyncrasy. Lovelock’s continual male-centric writing is subtle but still abrasive – perhaps it is just me, and I am hypersensitive. I have never taken to Lovelock or many of his ideas, which probably pits me against him from the outset; the fact remains, however, that his masculine perspective annoys me. This feeds into the cocksure way he presents everything, as if there is a smug little grin on his face the whole time – it’s the same whenever I see him speak – as if he thinks there is no way he could be wrong. To be fair, there is an acceptance that there could be other ways of doing things, but it seems limited. His background also influences his politics somewhat – the number of references to warfare and ‘just’ war reveal a pro-war sensibility. I am always loathe to support or agree with anyone who believes there can ever be such a thing as a ‘just’ war; in Lovelock’s case it seems to stem from an early twentieth century upbringing and employment in a politically conservative industry. This American Liberal Republicanism appears to underlie the book, with Lovelock seemingly reluctant to accept any other perspectives other than his own. In discussing the “recent heresies of humanism and Marxism”, and “Anarchists” who would seek to destroy technology via “destructive action rather than constructive thought”, his conservative nature becomes abundantly clear. I find it difficult to reconcile the image of a scientist who believes in the ‘magic’ of nature, and this apparently blinkered individual. The notion of a self-regulatory at unconsciously intelligent system has become less radical in current science, as long as the distinction between conscious and Godlike regulation and pseudo-intelligent feedback loops, cycles and processes is made, it is now more accepted. It is one of those theories that have to be read if you are interested in environmental science or any related discipline, and I’m glad I finally did, even if it only serves as ammunition. I found the bulk of the ideas to be interesting, well-founded and thought-provoking, and mainly presented in a lucid and convincing manner. As ever, it was nuances that really irritated me, so on the whole it is worth a read.
This was the 2009 reprint of the latest edition of “Gaia: a new look at life on Earth” by James Lovelock, Oxford University Press, 2000.