Gaia has seen it all before

By Whisky, the Black & White Cat

Ian worries himself sick over the state of the planet. He’s convinced that it’s going to die tomorrow, or some time in the next fifty to a hundred years.

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I tell him not to be silly, but he points to Mars as an example – too close for comfort – of a planet that was once alive but is now dead as a doornail. In vain I remind him that Mars shows every sign of having had an archaic encounter with a heavy blunt object: huge volcanoes on one side, a nasty great split on the other. The Martians, whoever or whatever they were, are probably innocent of the crime of planeticide.

Well what about Venus, he says? A really bad case of runaway global warming. Warm enough for melted lead to slosh around like water. Yes, I counter – but was it ever alive? We agree that the evidence for or against hasn’t been collected, and is unlikely ever to be. It’s a lot easier to collect it on Mars, where a probe dropped on the surface has a chance of lasting more than a quarter of an hour. But I have to admit that being bracketed, as we are, by two very dead neighbours who may once have been alive is apt to instil a sense of vulnerability.

But then I recall that Darwin himself quotes a fellow biologist who opined that the Earth looks like an estate that’s been cleared and re-stocked several times. In Darwin’s day, the Scottish lairds (who mostly lived in London) were forever doing that to their estates back home – clearing off the people too! – which is why “Hoots Mon, the Noo!” can be heard all over the world.

I find that thought strangely comforting. It’s a chilly sort of comfort, but in today’s cruel world one has to take comfort from wherever one can find it.

Cats are natural Darwinians – it’s just the way God created us. I’m forever conscious of being the residue of a weeding-out process that’s gone on for the last 4 billion years, at least.

I have a theory that it’s a lot longer than that. James Lovelock argues that the whole biosphere constitutes a single living organism – but isn’t he ignoring the elephant in the room? (…The mammoth / diplodocus / whatever.)

If there is only one single specimen of a given living species – for the sake of argument let’s call it Gaia – then Darwinian evolution is impossible. if Gaia makes an evolutionary false move (like coming out in human beings) then it’s curtains for life on Earth. Kaputt! Fini!

But that hasn’t happened.

Not yet, did I hear Ian say? But why should it happen now if it hasn’t in the last 4 billion years? Ah, says Ian, but human beings are something novel. Nothing like us has ever been seen on Earth before.

But nothing like trilobites had ever been seen on Earth before they came in large numbers.

And went again.

Gaia, I’m quite sure, knows how to deal with human beings, and other rogue organelles of her all-encompassing body. She has plenty of options for her self-preservation: you can see her toying with them already. Humanity being essentially a littoral phenomenon, a sea-level rise of about 30 m should see off the upstart species in short order. Or at least reduce it to manageable numbers.

And if that fails, three’s always war, famine and pestilence.

What? – humanity has discovered how to overcome these traditional scourges? Then why is it sitting on its hands? But maybe when it gets round to doing something about it, humanity will discover, like King Canute, that you can only hold back the sea whilst the tide is going out.

Gaia, I think, will survive a few slates being blown off her roof. Why am I so confident? Because she is not an isolated phenomenon, as human beings like to kid themselves. She herself is the latest product of a weeding-out process that’s been going on for the last 14 billion years – and that’s just the age of the observable universe. Gaia, as a species, has seen it all before. She will solve her present problems, though maybe not in a way humanity would have preferred. But in hindsight her solution will appear deft, optimal and timely – as are all Darwinian solutions.

Every cat knows this. But Ian doesn’t – and it’s uncommon knowledge among human beings in general. It would soon catch on, however, if only they’d progressively shift their perspective from self-centred to human-centred, to Gaia-centred (“geocentric”?), to Copernican, to galactic – and eventually, like me, to universalist. This isn’t starry-eyed mysticism, but elementary geometry.

updated: 22:01 26/11/2015