What kind of man suggests the world is an organism—and wins scientific acceptance for his idea?by Philip Ball / November 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
James Lovelock shares at least two things with Charles Darwin. One is that as a child he roved in the same Kent countryside near Orpington. The other is that popular conceptions of his scientific ideas often bear only a sketchy correspondence to his actual words. Although Lovelock’s idea that the Earth is a super-organism, which he calls Gaia, has become a keystone of the environmental movement, his relationship with environmentalism is ambivalent and many greens would be shocked by his views. He is unrepentant about naming his hypothesis, at William Golding’s suggestion, after a goddess. But he now encourages the term “geophysiology” in an attempt to shed the theory’s mystical baggage. His talk of the “need to regain our ancient feeling for the Earth as an organism and to revere it again” resonates with grassroots environmentalism, yet Lovelock pulls no punches about “idiot greens, who are mostly innumerate and would freak out if you showed them an atom of chlorine.” His private laboratory in Cornwall displays this dichotomy: outside, the white plaster figure of Gaia; inside, radioactive warning signs.
Both science and its sceptics need men like Lovelock. He does not fit into any camp, provoking scientists to think “outside the box” while imploring greens to learn some facts and figures. Moreover, Lovelock has won scientific respect by being patient, dignified and non-dogmatic in arguing his case, and by being explicit about its provisional nature. If you sense that nevertheless Lovelock suffers little fear that he is wrong, this is scarcely surprising, given his record of overturning entrenched wisdom. His early victories turned on robustly practical science-and it is the rewards from such work which make possible Lovelock’s unusual status as a self-funded scientist.
Like many scientists of his generation, Lovelock regards the creativity of his formative years as fostered by an environment free of both the competitiveness and high financial stakes which characterise much research today. Raised in Brixton, the son of a gas board employee, he completed a chemistry degree in Manchester and then took a job in the 1940s with the Medical Research Council in London, which then boasted figures of world renown, such as Peter Medawar, John Cornforth and Archer Martin.