Gaia Hypothesis and Daisy Term Paper

Pages: 10 (3120 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Astronomy

SAMPLE EXCERPT:

[. . .] While the black and white daisies do cooperate, the level of cooperation involved is implicit; there is no "committee" of organisms that decide how hard to work for the good of all. Each organism, by doing what it does best (exploit the environment to perpetuate its own survival) works for the greater good quite by accident.

Of course, the problem with any computer model is that it is based on rules. If Daisy World is programmed to behave according to rules that are not based in reality, then the simulation offers no actual evidence to support the hypothesis. Rules can be contrived that, run in a simulation, pretend to show whatever we want; GIGO -- garbage in, garbage out.

What Daisy World does show is that the Gaia hypothesis is at least a plausible explanation for the conditions we observe on Earth over time; it represents a system that maintains stability even given variance in multiple variables. What prevents runaway entropy is a set of very simple rules that are neither implausible alone nor implausible in how they interact. Their simplicity is what makes them plausible.

Perhaps the true value of Daisy World is that it shows that a natural system of self-regulation can evolve on a planet-wide scale without necessarily demanding purposeful intervention by an outside intelligence, thus obviating critics' objections that the Gaia hypothesis is teleological.

The very complexity of Earth's environment makes any investigation of the Gaia hypothesis a daunting task. If the feedback loops exist that are predicted by the hypothesis, they may be very subtle and involve mechanisms not easily observed. If the amount of cloud cover on Earth depends on the interactions of three kinds of microbes, and these are in turn influenced by the amount of cloud cover overhead, how would we go about discovering this? We might never discover the relationship among those species of microbes and the cloud cover.

Not only this, but if Lovelock is right, it follows that we can expect a great deal of redundancy in the feedback systems as well, so any such systems we discern may not be the only systems working to produce the observed effect. There may even be nested systems; smaller loops imbedded within larger ones (Lenton, p. 440).

"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" as the saying goes, so not finding key feedback loops does not mean that the hypothesis is untrue. Demonstrating that some suspected loops were false would not constitute evidence against the hypothesis. Proponents could always say that evidence supporting it has just not been discovered...yet. This is perhaps the biggest problem with the hypothesis; its cunning ability to defy refutation.

While the hypothesis does have that philosophical problem, proponents do not need to fall back upon the "absence of evidence" argument to defend their position. The inventory of possible Gaian feedback loops continues to grow (Lenton, pp. 445-446, Barlow, p. 1, van de Koppel and Rietkert p. 118).

Further, it could be argued that a powerful piece of evidence in favor of the Gaia hypothesis is the fact that, only on Earth do we find life squirming away everywhere we look. From the tops of mountains to the bottoms of oceans, from Antarctic glaciers to rocks from deep within Earth's crust (Wackett, p. 430), there seem to be virtually no environments that have not been exploited by living things, even if only microbial life.

If the Gaia hypothesis is right, we should expect such exploitation as a natural and inevitable consequence. Life makes the environment more habitable for itself, so the environment is home to more and more life.

Conversely, discovering a planet inhabited by only one form of very ancient (in geologic terms) life could be a potent argument against the verity of the hypothesis. If the Gaia hypothesis is correct, then wherever life exists it ultimately facilitates the development of new species. If some form of microbial life exists on Mars, for instance, is ubiquitous there, yet does not alter its environment (Mars' atmosphere is almost completely inert), then the Gaia principle cannot be a universal one. In that case, if it operates at all, it does so only on Earth.

It may be possible to more or less reconcile the hypothesis' proponents and opponents. Lovelock and others who generally support the hypothesis take what can be called a holistic approach to understanding the problem of terrestrial life, while Dawkins and others who generally object to the hypothesis take a reductionist approach. Dawkins believes that the individual gene is supreme and drives natural selection, whereas Lovelock believes, essentially, that all genes matter because they all belong to the complicated integrated system that is Gaia. Since Gaia is like a living thing, it evolves as the myriad species that comprise it evolve.

These two apparently disparate positions may simply be opposite sides of the coin, in which case, both Dawkins and Lovelock are correct.

Dawkins rightly identifies the gene as the driver of natural selection; without mutations at the gene-level all members of a species are equally fit for their environment and none has a selective advantage over any other. Even the mutation itself may be an unexploited one that does not give the organism a selective advantage until some new stress is introduced to the environment. The ability of insect pests to resist formerly potent pesticides is proof of this.

The mutation that made some miniscule fraction of the population of insects more tolerant of pesticides was latent in the population all along, and gave the individuals possessing it no selective advantage over those who did not. Only when the pesticide was introduced did the mutated gene give a selective advantage to those possessing it. Subsequently, those who lacked the gene were selected for extinction.

This same process has also worked to make disease organisms more resistant to the antibiotics and other medicines used to kill them. The gene did not evolve in response to the new stress, but was latent in the species gene pool since its introduction through a random mutation at some point in the past.

Repeated enough times, the process can yield an organism that is so different from its ancestor that it constitutes an entirely different species. Starting from a common hypothetical ancestor, all life can be accounted for as the mutations accumulated over time to a basic set of genes. The genetic complexity of modern living things as well as their diversity is explainable this way.

How does this help reconcile Dawkins and Lovelock? Genetic mutations alter the organism at its most fundamental level. The organism alters its environment (say by converting carbon dioxide to oxygen) and some fraction of the population possesses just the right mutation to exploit the new condition, perhaps occupying a new environmental niche.

Now there are two genetically distinct groups where there was formerly only one. Eventually there are hundreds of millions of genetically distinct groups, each influencing the environment in subtle ways and each responding to accumulated environmental changes according to its own accumulated genetic mutations.

Indeed, since free oxygen is a powerful corrupter of genes (hence antioxidant dietary supplements), a plausible argument could be made that the abundance of free oxygen in Earth's atmosphere has actually had some role to play in the rate of genetic mutation, especially in the remote past. If true, it would bridge the gap between Dawkins and Lovelock; early life produced free atmospheric oxygen and this, in turn, may have accelerated the rate of genetic mutation leading to greater biological diversity. Great diversity is one of the hallmarks of the Gaia hypothesis.

Conclusion.

The Gaia hypothesis may or may not be fiction. The evidence that could definitively prove one case or the other has not yet materialized. In general, however, there does seem to be enough accumulated evidence to demonstrate the hypothesis' plausibility. Objections to the Gaia hypothesis tend to be philosophical rather than specific, though admittedly the way the hypothesis is formulated makes its refutation even with hard data problematic. I have suggested a way in which a disinterested third party could see how the disparate points-of-view put forth by the hypothesis' proponents and opponents may not be as disparate as, at first blush, they seem. Whether those same proponents and opponents would agree remains to be seen.

Lovelock may be right in the same way Newton was right; in principle if not in particular. Newton correctly recognized that gravity was a force of nature but it was up to Einstein and others to pin down exactly what was happening.

Perhaps, the Gaia hypothesis itself needs a few more genetic mutations before it is sufficiently evolved for survival in the scientific environment, or, as per Lovelock, perhaps it will change that environment sufficiently that no further mutations are necessary.

References

1. Barlow, Connie, and Volk, Tyler. "Gaia and Evolutionary Biology." Bioscience 42.9 (1992): 686-693.

2. Fairbairn, Brett. "History from the ecological perspective:… [END OF PREVIEW]

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