Is the inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis really such an outsider?by Philip Ball / April 14, 2014 / Leave a comment
James Lovelock tinkering away in his laboratory at Coombe Mill. © Science Museum
If there’s one thing mavericks share in common, it’s that they contrive or refuse ever to admit that they’re wrong about anything. By this measure, the title of the new exhibition at the Science Museum in London–Unlocking Lovelock: Scientist, Inventor, Maverick–does James Lovelock, the father of the Gaia Hypothesis, a disservice. Cooked up with microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s, the controversial Gaia hypothesis posited that both organic beings and inorganic components of the Earth have evolved together as a single, living self-regulating system.
When I spoke to Lovelock on the eve of the opening of the exhibition on 9th April, he admitted almost merrily that his earlier, dire warnings about the impending collapse of the population, and perhaps of civilization, because of global warming were over the top. Things look grim, he says, but not that grim. This is because we now understand that there are natural processes and systems, such as the immense capacity of the oceans to absorb heat, that might buffer us against the worst-case scenarios of the effects of increasing amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The fact is, Lovelock explained, it is really no big deal for him to admit to a mistake, for who is going to reprimand him, an independent scientist beholden to no one?
But perhaps Lovelock is also so ready to admit to the occasional error—here more of judgement and foresight rather than science—because time has shown him to be right about a good deal else. And he’s no stranger to accusations that he is wrong, which is where that “maverick” label comes from: by some standards, all this label means is that some famous people have disagreed with you. In the early days of the Gaia hypothesis, evolutionary biologists in particular were queuing up to disagree with him, often in such vituperative terms that the arguments were evidently not about science alone. John Maynard Smith, an architect of the neo-Darwinist theory of evolution that married Darwin’s natural selection to modern genetics, denounced Gaia as an “evil religion,” thinking that Lovelock’s talk of “goals” and “purposes”—which seemed unexceptional to him as an engineer—went against the central (and perfectly true, as far as all evidence indicates) tenet of evolution that it has no direction or aim.
So is Lovelock…