In 1979, James Lovelock, released the book Gaia: A new look at life on Earth. In it he postulated the idea that the earth is a self regulating system, and that the organisms on it evolved not only for their own survival, but also to ensure the homeostasis of earth as a system that facilitates life.

Lovelock, a renowned scientist and the inventor of the Electron Capture Detector, started formulating the Gaia hypothesis while he was working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. On assignment for NASA Lovelock was working on developing different methods for detecting life on other planets. After studying the geochemical composition of our own atmosphere and comparing it to new data about the atmospheric composition of the planets Mars and Venus, he realized that the presence of life could alter the atmosphere in significant ways. Where the atmosphere of Mars and Venus were both in chemical equilibrium, the earth’s was not. 

Because life on earth is able to impact the earth’s overall climate by changing the chemical composition, Lovelock came to the insight that life might have evolved to keep the earth suitable for life itself. This idea in turn pointed towards an image of earth as a superorganism similar to our body, where individual parts of the body constitutes a living whole. 

If a person’s temperature lowers, they will start shaking to heat up their body temperature. If a person is overheating they will sweat to lower their body temperature. This is called a negative feedback loop, where one effect will counteract the other to maintain homeostasis. In a similar fashion the earth also self regulates. If the temperature on earth rises, Lovelock suggested that life on earth will adapt to counteract this temperature change. It is for example believed that phytoplankton in the ocean will produce dimethyl sulfide as a response to variations in changes in climate.

When Lovelock published his book in the late 70s, it quickly became quite a controversial book.  The hypothesis received a substantial amount of criticism, most notably from evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, who published the book “The Selfish Gene” just a couple of years before, rejected the idea that individual species could coevolve to serve a higher “purpose”. Viewing the hypothesis as teleological (explaining phenomena in terms of purpose rather than the cause by which they arise), most evolutionary biologists saw Gaia at odds with their own field. The idea that species collaborate by some invisible consensus did not fit with their models. In Dawkins book “The Extended Phenotype” he further refutes this stating organism’s are not able to work to a common plan, as foresight and planning would be required. (Richard Dawkins,1982)

In 1983, a year after the criticism in Dawkins book “The Extended Phenotype”, James Lovelock set out to create a simple planetary computer model to show the long-term effect of coupling between life and its environment. Lovelock with the help of his student Andrew Watson modelled a planet that consisted of two varieties of daisies, one black variety and one white. The black daisies would absorb more light and in return heat the planet, while the white daisies would reflect the heat and keep the planet cooler. The hypothetical planet would orbit a star whose radiant energy would slowly decrease or increase. The simulation then tracks the daisy population together with the overall surface temperature while the sun is growing more or less powerful.

As the sun is growing in intensity the black daisies will start thriving, heating the overall temperature of the planet. At a certain point the conditions will become habitable for the white daisies, and the temperature would stabilize on a level that supports both species the best. When the intensity of the sun becomes too high, the black daisies disappear and the whiite daisies take over. 

Lovelock could now demonstrate that feedback mechanisms could evolve from the activities of self-interested organisms, rather than through classic group selection mechanisms. 

The Daisyworld model has attracted considerable interest from the scientific community and has now established itself as a model independent of, but still related to, the Gaia theory. Used widely as both a teaching tool and as a basis for more complex studies of feedback systems, it has also become an important paradigm for the understanding of the role of biotic components when modeling the Earth system.

Upon reading the book, it was clear that it would be difficult to take a general position on Gaia as a scientific theory. The topic is incredibly complex, and some of science’s smartest minds still debate central aspects of the theory. But we can take a position on some of Lovelock’s more subjective interpretations of the consequences of this theory. As Gaia has developed into a scientific theory it has become an ever evolving idea with making new predictions and inspiring a whole new set of investigations on the climate. Throughout its lifetime Lovelock has adapted and developed his own subjective opinions on how we should act in response to the validity of his theory. We find it more relevant to take a position regarding Lovelock’s own opinions that are directly derived from his deep work with the Gaia hypothesis/theory. Many of these opinions were summarized and expressed in the book The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity

Here Lovelock says that he thinks the time is past for sustainable development, and that we have come to a time when development is no longer sustainable. The human species must stop the romantic idea of trying to save the earth.  

Above all, he thinks that we should embrace the ongoing global shift towards urban living. It would, he insists, be far easier and more economic to regulate the climate of cities than our current strategy of attempting to control the temperature of an entire planet.


In an interview with the Guardian this year, reflecting on the pandemic Lovelock states:

“But my fellow humans must learn to live in partnership with the Earth, otherwise the rest of creation will, as part of Gaia, unconsciously move the Earth to a new state in which humans may no longer be welcome. The virus, Covid-19, may well have been one negative feedback. Gaia will try harder next time with something even nastier.” (James Lovelock, 2021)

Lovelock’s opinions ironically sometimes come off as human centric in the sense that his main worries are ensuring humanity’s survival, sometimes discarding our ability to restore nature for nature itself, and not for humans. In an interview with Newsweek in 2015 he states that after retreating to these isolated mega cities, “the regions beyond the cities would then be left to Gaia to regulate for herself.” (James Lovelock, 2015)

This approach could be interpreted as dismissing the power of human driven regeneration of land and natural environments. Projects like “Our Future Coast” by Scape Architects are envisioning the largest-funded restoration effort in history. 

As their project website states:

“We lost that abundance when the Mississippi River lost its connection to our coastal wetlands — but we can get it back with well designed restoration projects that harness the power of the River to build new land the way nature always intended.”


The idea of large scale restoration of natural ecosystems, seems to be contrary to Lovelock’s strategy of sustainable retreat. Even if we agree with many of his ideas, and find the Gaia hypothesis a believable model of the planet, we find it hard to swallow the strategy of abandoning the natural lands in favor of large self regulated mega cities. It seems that Lovelock by analogy of earth as a body sees the human species as a kind of cancer, slowly killing its own host. Even if somehow accurate, we think that there is no one solution to the climate crisis, and that it might be possible to transform this cancer into a restorative and regenerative type of cell for sustaining the larger body of earth.


List of References

  • Lovelock, James. Gaia, A New Look at Life on Earth. England: Oxford University Press, 1979