Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, September 2, 2019

Notes on Gaian Theology: Is the Goddess a Superorganism?

One of the avatars of the Goddess. 

The beauty of the Gaian theology is that, unlike for ordinary theology, you don't have to rely only on second-hand reports about the subject of your studies. Gaia exists, and you can perceive Her all around us. Then, the question is: what or who is She? 

As you know, the modern idea of Gaia as a denizen of the Earth's ecosphere was developed in the 1970s by James Lovelock together with Lynn Margulis. Then, it evolved in various versions and it was misunderstood in various ways. For instance, Toby Tyrrell wrote a whole book trying to demonstrate that there is no such a thing as "Gaia." He succeeded only at showing that one can write an entire book on something he doesn't understand at all.

But it is true that some ways of understanding Gaia are untenable in light of what we know about biology. Sometimes we hear of Gaia described as a "superorganism" and sometimes as engaged in optimizing the ecosystem for living beings. That's no good, as explained, for instance in a 2003 text by Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva where they correctly note that, if Gaia is supposed to be a superorganism, then She cannot exist.

But, one moment. Who said that Gaia is a superorganism? Besides, what is a superorganism? The term is sufficiently vague that it can be badly misused and misunderstood. In general, it is intended as any assemblage of biological sub-units that don't individually reproduce but rely on specialized organs for that. An eukaryotic cell is a superorganism, just as an ant colony. And if you, dear reader, are a human being, then you are a superorganism, too. But that doesn't mean Gaia is one. For instance, I have in my hands right now Lovelock's 1988 book "The Ages of Gaia" and I can't find the term "superorganism" anywhere referred to Gaia.

Instead, Lovelock had a very clear idea of what Gaia is and he described that with his "Daisyworld" model, a highly simplified ecosystem consisting of daisies that can be black or white. Note that daisies are not two species, as it is stated very clearly in the book, they are a single species with a certain polymorphism in their pigmentation. The Gaian mechanism in Daisyworld consists in the daisies slight modifying the frequency of one of their alleles -- that is the white pigment allele becomes more frequent -- to cope with a gradual increase in the solar irradiation. They do that to maintain their optimal temperature but that also affects the environment. With more white daisies, the albedo of the planet increases, more sunlight is reflected back into space, and the planet cools down. This is rare in the real ecosystem, but some algae may use this strategy. (image from

The daisyworld model is one of those genial ideas that can be completely misunderstood. And it has been misunderstood: it has been seen as a toy, or as irrelevant to the real world, or simply meaningless. But be careful: you may say it is oversimplified, rough, wrong, whatever you want, but all models are wrong and at the same time all models are useful if you understand their limits. And that's the case of Daisyworld a "level zero" model that opens up for us a completely new vision of how the Earth's ecosystem - Gaia - works. A true stroke of genius on the part of James Lovelock, one of the most brilliant minds of our times.

In any case, for what we are discussing here, the point is that the daisies of Daisyworld are NOT a superorganism. They have nothing of the complex structure of sub-units that make a superorganism. They are just a population of loosely coupled individuals. In this case, they act on the environment by slightly modifying their genome, Lovelock had in mind a time scale of millions of years, so there was plenty of time for the genome to change. But that's not a necessary condition, on a shorter time scale we don't need to touch the genome to kick-start the Gaian mechanism. Here is how Gorshkov and Makarieva describe the concept they call "biotic regulation"
Let us suppose that the living objects capable of environmental control are trees, while the regulated global environmental characteristic is atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. Suppose further that in the course of a major atmospheric disturbance (volcanic eruption, anthropogenic activities) the global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration becomes significantly higher than the biotic optimum. All trees on the tree-covered planet are thus faced with approximately equal unfavourable environmental conditions. Normal trees immediately begin to work on removing the excessive carbon from the atmosphere in order to restore the optimum concentration of carbon dioxide. This can be done, for example, by depositing the excessive atmospheric carbon in organic form in soil and sediments.
A different Gaian mechanism may not involve the biosphere alone but the whole metasystem formed of the linked geosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. It is the case of the geological carbon cycle that seems to have been fundamental in keeping the Earth's temperature approximately constant over a time scale of hundreds of millions of years, as I described in a previous post.

None of these mechanisms imply centralized control, altruism, intelligence, planning, or things like that - no superorganism whatsoever. And here She is: Gaia appearing to us. It is an emergent property of the ecosystem that results from internal feedbacks that tend to keep the system in a homeostatic condition.

Back to theology, now we can answer the question posed at the beginning, who is Gaia? As a collective phenomeno of the ecosystem she looks very much like the demons that Jesus encounters in the country of the Gerasenes (Marl 5:9) when they tell him “My name is Legion; for we are many.” So, is Gaia a demoness? Maybe. In ancient times, the concept of daimon (δαίμων) didn't have the ring of evil that later Christianity attributed to it. A daimon is a force, an aggregation, an egregore of nature, generally benevolent although not all-powerful.

Names have the meaning we want to give them: We can say that Gaia is "just" an ecosystem, that she is not a Goddess at all, in the sense that she is definitely not benevolent and merciful, that she is not to be worshipped (of course not!). But there exists also the concept of "reverence" defined as "a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe." Reverence might be an appropriate attitude towards an enormously powerful creature which (who) can squash humankind into pulp in no time.

And if you don't revere -- worse, if you despise -- the Goddess, woe betide you: the ancient recognized the concept of hubris (ὕβρις) leading to Nemesis (Νέμεσις), the Goddess of vengeance, providing the appropriate retribution to those guilty of overconfidence. Maybe Nemesis is just another name for Gaia, but, eventually, we don't need an angry Goddess to destroy humankind, we seem to be perfectly able to do that ourselves. In the end, it is all in the hands of the Moirai (Μοῖραι) who spin the thread of destiny in their hands.

(h/t Anastassia Makarieva)


  1. Lovelock concept is quite different and is based on his study about find exoplanetary life, he observed how earth is not in the lowest entropy state by life intervention. Gaia concept is based on this observation, good concept wrong name: as scientist he found a point on the life effect on planetary scale, as sociologist he made a mistake giving a godness name to the phenomenon. Using wrong name is good on marketing but superimposed the 2 concepts, the ecosphere and the godhood, creating in the mind of some readers the concept of "ecosphere as god", this peculiar one is on arm reach to us and someone percive we can also harm him directly...... nice feeling for humans to treaten God himself (hurbis at maximum).
    God as described by religious texts is preexixting time and space themselves so outside our sphere of influence, better find a minor one we can harm for our hurbis, stil i suppose there is some missing point in the reasoning about Gaia as concieved, humankind can't destroy an ecosphere! Considering the "Chicxulub impact" event and his consequences we are sure a minor inconvenient, we already had 5 MAYOR extincion events in our known history and byosphere got througt them, changed but evolved, our percieved allmight seems quite punny compared. Is still possible to humankind to take a path that IMPOSE a backstep to our civilization, in real data still seem we are going to follow a logistik bottlenecked grow path.
    Population is going to decrease in a couple of centuryes.
    Tecnology is a race to efficent use of resources (consider efficiency of initial steam engines and a modern steam turbine).
    Humankind will find his place, what we must choose is how much pain we need to understand, alchemist in a past time hoped to "follow the steps of Nature" learning from their ways as the most efficient path.

    1. Athanasius - A typical argument boiling down to "it never happened befor so it can't happen now". What humans have been doing to the planet goes well beyond CO2 and global warming. The potential for bottleneck or full on collapse is enormous and we can not even take care of the couple dozen Nuclear power facilities and the waste yet alone maintaining the 400 + plants through collapse. There is a greater than zero possibility that we can turn the planet into another Venus. Yes humans could do that.

    2. I'm more found about the difference in scale between planetary scale events and temporary fault, as i suggested the "Chicxulub impact" event is the end of dinosaurs domination of the planet with destruction on the ecological links on planetary scale. As you pointed a lot human can do for kill themselves, nuclear waste, poison, war, any other nasty idea....... still lifeform seem can adapt really quickly, recently is been found a strain of fungus that can photosintetize gamma rays in the remaint of Cernobyl ( life in the most basic element is quite more resilient than most people think. Humankind hurbis say that we have power to kill the Gaia goodness, but seem that even this minor godness in the universe is quite more powerfull than humankind.
      Hope to have better explained my point, i'm not worryed about planet life but about humankind own health when i look at ecological matters.....

  2. This is fabulous, Ugo!!

    Lynn Margulis was a mentor of mine and I am an eco-theologian by profession. I'll send you via email a link to my version of Gaian theology, a 2-part video discussion course for secular and religious study groups, titled, "ProFuture Faith: The Prodigal Species Comes Home". Here's the trailer:

  3. I think "biosphere" is a perfectly adequate term to describe the interconnectedness of life on this planet. There is no need to drag any sort of theology or mysticism into the discussion. Just saying...

  4. hi Ugo - Gaia theory says earth is a SUPRAorganism not a superorganism. ( In any case, HUMANS are functioning as an effective superorganism now -and it remains to be seen if there is some emergent human force that disproves Peter Wards Medea hypothesis. And in fact, we arent even really acting as a superorganism - because the definition of a SO is it is self-regulating -but we are slowly dying in our own waste. What we are doing is adhering to maximum power principle (as a species, not as individuals) - so we are optimizing growth (like a superorganism would) but ignore waste (CO2, pollution, plastics and anything else downstream)

    I think Gaia theory is interesting but we are about to be smacked with less esoteric questions. Can Gaia theory be relevant to our predicament is my question to you...

    1. Well, yes, maybe Gaia is BECOMING a superorganism, even though she is not yet one. And, one day, we'll have a Gospel according to Nate!

  5. I have been fortunate to have had wide exposure to the natural world. Skiing, Mountaineering, rock climbing, offshore sailing, spear fishing, and so much more. For the most part the people who I met and shared these experiences were very special people, I mean different from average. My experiences with the average people, the majority, who have not had the benefit of exposure to the natural world has been that most of nature scares the crap out of them and they actively try to avoid it at all cost and would be just fine if is ruined or destroyed.

    I always try and point out that if you treat nature with respect/reverence and make certain you are thoroughly prepared nature will give you the most wondrous experience of a lifetime, something that is not possible any other way.

  6. >He succeeded only at showing that one can write an entire book on something he doesn't understand at all.

    This is why I don't write a book.

  7. Ugo, you do not regulate your temperature by any centralized control, altruism, intelligence, planning, or things like that, therefore, are you an organism?
    Daisyworld regulate temperature because an organism (Lovelock) adjust precisely the Daisies parameters to regulate the temperature. Daisyworld is a great model that demostrates that without natural selection a system could be homeostatic. But do not show that Gaia is not a superorganism.
    Some analogies between you, or a tree and Gaia:
    Homeostasis of temperature, oceanic salinity, pH, ouside of chemical equilibrium... so many parameters that you cannot show any other system that is not an organism with those characteristics. Fortune?
    She protects herself from the outside (ozone layer, for intance). Fortune?
    She has a very strong resilience: after a strong vulcanism or a big meteorite she lost a lot of biodiversity, but after 10 million years the new fauna and flora, do not adapt to the volcanic conditions of millions of years but to the Gaia conditions (the former temperature, pH, salinity, oxigen level...). Fortune?
    She has extraordinary cycling rates: for C, N, and P has better recycling rates that the most complex organism, like you. Only organisms are capable of that (ask an engineer to design a similar outcome for a complex system like a car factory: sci-fi). Fortune?
    Gaia recycle also the water and prevent the loss of water to the space (like in Mars and Venus). Fortune?

    Earth is not an organism, the biosphere is (a thinlayer), with the same general properties like a bacteria, a tree, a termite or a termite moound. Emergence: one plus one is more than two.

    Lovelock, in 1996: "The frist tradition, that sees the Earthe as a living organism. It is the view to wich I subscribe, and I believe it to have a firm scientific basis." pag.. 15-16 frot the book "Gaia in Action" (Edited by Peter Bunyard)
    Or read also the book "Gaia: the practical science of planetary medicine" (2000, reedited in 2005). A Physiology and a medicine without a orgamism?
    Lovelock is a champion of ambivalence. Probably like Vernadsky or even Copernico and Galileo, the ortodoxy... But Lovelock will pass to the history as the genius that wirte that Gaia is an organism.

    A reference in spanish that show that an organic Gaia is a scientific hypothesis:

    1. Carlos, you are saying all the things that make some biologists cringe! But you may well be right, in the end!

  8. Dear Ugo,

    The original Gaia hypothesis was developed no less by Lynn Margulis than by Lovelock. Eventually, Lovelock watered it down to present it in reductionistic terms that would fit better with current conventional science —hence Daisyworld. But Margulis kept truer to the original insight. One of her main books is Simbiotic Planet (1998). The title is explicit enough, and the contents too: “Gaia is just symbiosis as seen from space” (p. 2). ‘Symbiosis’ is amounts here to ‘superorganism’. The point by Gorshkov and Makar'eva that organisms cannot exist “in a single number” is superficial and fallacious. Plato, no less thoughtful than these authors, had no problem in seeing the whole universe as an organism. Whether of an organism we know milions of varieties or just one is irrelevant: it has nothing to do with what makes something an organism, i.e, autopoiesis and cognition. Autopoiesis is obsviously there in Gaia. And there would be no autopoiesis without any sort of cognition. The layer of life on Earth clearly acts as a superorganism —now facing very serious threats.

    1. Thanks Jordi -- you are perfectly right: I had acknowledged the role of Lynn Margulis in an earlier draft of the post, then somehow it had been lost in the editing. Now, I put it back in the text and thanks again for pointing out this mistake of mine. Lynn Margulis was a great woman, not less brilliant than James Lovelock.

      Apart from this, I believe that Gorshkov and Makarieva have a significant point which has to do with the way complex systems are structured. There is a lot we don't understand in this area and the fact that Gaia is not a superorganism doesn't mean she won't become one in the future.

    2. Dear Ugo,

      Thanks, Ugo, If you refer to Gorshkov and Makar'eva saying “Information on proper structure and functioning of living organisms performing biotic regulation is written in molecular memory cells in the genomes of biological species”, that sounds very reductionistic —and outdated. We actually have no idea where “Information on proper structure and functioning” is “written”, but certainly it is not in the genome alone, and the metaphor of it being “written” is ultimately misleading. See for instance Dennis Noble, The Music of Life: “to say that this intelligence is encoded in theb program of the genes is not correct, because… there is no such thing as a program” (2006, p. 19). By the way, Noble is one of the leaders of a very interesting network of postreductionistic biologists:

      If you refer to “the fundamental difference in structure and functioning of the disturbed and undisturbed biota”, I don’t see the point. It is obvious that there is a great difference between a disturbed and an undisturbed superorganism.

      Why is Gaia not yet a superoganism?

    3. I think Gorshkov and Makarieva make a valid point. It is still in need to be completely understood and quantified, but what they say has to do with the organization of the complex systems that form the biota. A population is formed of loosely coupled individuals. An organism (not really different from a superorganism) is formed of strongly coupled individuals. All system are subjected to entropy increase and collapse, but a population can continuously keep its entropy low by removing the individual genomes which deviate too much from the optimal configuration. An organism cannot do that -- better said, it does that in other ways: it reproduces as a whole, then dies. Gaia can't do that, she is not subjected to the kind of competitive selection that keep organisms fit. So, she has to be a population.

      That was the point I was making in the post, but, of course, I understand that there may exist different interpretation and more than just two possibilities. As I said, it is a field still very much to be explored.

    4. Is Pando (aspen tree) an organism? In fact is the problem of the first organism of their level. The Makarieva and Gorshkov logic fails for the first bacteria, the first eukariota (symbiosis of several bacteria), the first pluricellar, etc. (the first bacteria was selected in competition with, that?). Makarieva prejuzges that organisms of the biota are loosely coupled individuals, but it is not true: loosely couple individuals do not recycle C, N and P over 99,5% for instance. Therefore, to disprove that Gaia is not an organism, you need to show two things in quantitative terms: that suborganisms like trees and bacteria are loosely coupled (and ecosystem science, the concept of holobiont and the recycled rates prove otherwise) and that suborganisms do not "work" more for themselves than for the whole (Gaia). But, for instance, if this were the case, then, could you explain why the apoptosis is a general behaviour of unicellulars and more than 2800 million years old? (an organic Gaia could explain that without "epicycles").

      One more thing: about entropy, Benard cells are a system that disipate energy more quickly than before benard cells are formed. Gaia could keep their entropy low acelerating the entropy of the Sun, therefore she is thermodinamically stable, like a tree (that dies not because the entropy but for biological reasons). the thermodinamics of disipative systems show that there is a tendency of complex systems to do superstructures over structures (organisms of organisms, from the bacteria to Gaia). In fact, the organic Gaia hypothesis is supported by Prigogine termodynamics and is the "competitive selection" vision that do not adjust so well to the new thermodynamics.

    5. Carlos,

      How do you know for sure that there was first bacteria at all. May be it was colony imported from outer space that later evolved in the conditions like they were at that moment on this planet . We can not speak about origins of life when it is 3 bil years away. All we can do is to observe the state of the life systems as they are today and draw indirect conclusions which are bound to be unreliable.

      We presume that only organism can be live. But is that so? Perhaps, we need to answer is the planet alive, not is the planet organism. And if we believe Stanislav Lem (in his novel Solaris), even the whole planet can be live. So, the real question is must something be organism to be live? When we speak about life we should keep in mind that life is mystery. May be there is more ways than one to be live.

    6. Carlos, I think you misunderstood what Makarieva and Groshkov say. They say that there exist organisms and populations. Two different things, not to be confused with each other. Organisms reproduce themselves as a whole, populations reproduce themselves one individual at a time. A tree is an organism, an ecosystem is a population. What I argue in my post is that Gaia is not and cannot be an organism. She does not reproduce herself (unless Elon Musk manages to place a child of hers on Mars!)

    7. Our critique of Gaia as a superorganism bases on the premise that no living organism can exist in a single number. This is because living organisms, unlike organized physical systems, do not self-organize in external energy flows (therefore references to Prigogine are not entirely in place here).

      Instead, the order of living organisms is maintained by a process that is unique to living matter – it is the genetically governed competitive interaction of similar, independent entities – individuals in a population. Such individuals can themselves represent internally correlated objects like multicellular bodies.
      The Gaian daisyworld can be mathematically represented as consisting of just two big daisies, one white and one black, which change their relative sizes as the solar constant grows or declines. In this sense white daisies depend on the black ones and vice versa. They cannot compete like the liver cannot compete with the kidneys.

      Thus when these Gaia elements begin to evolve (as we know the biological species all do), there are no mechanisms to prevent the decay of their mutual correlation and thus the decay of the superorganism (=single organism) as a whole and environmental regulation it might perform.

      To emphasize once again the difference between physical and biological organized systems. Take a hurricane as an example of the former.

      Hurricanes arise and self-organize when in the external environment there is enough potential energy. They exist as long as these energy stores are available, deplete them in a burst-like manner and disappear. The next hurricane does not require its predecessor to arise.

      Living objects never arise anew ("self-organize") in whatever external energy flows. They arise as copies of the existing living objects and die (disintegrate) not because the flow of available energy discontinues, but for different reasons. Most importantly, living objects never completely use up the existing energy stores. They are programmed to keep their environment stable.

      Anastassia Makarieva

  9. I would start my comment with the genetic variability, thanks to the mutations that persist in a community although at a low rate (meaning at a low frequency of mutated alleles in the population) coupled with the concept of ecological niche. We know that this is the primary key

    A population (a genetic pool) leaves in a location under a balance given by the conditions (say physical chemistry), resources, competition and predation, which we call the ecological niche. The 4 macro factors determine if the population stay there in a good shape or if the population has to migrate (in case the optimum balance of the 4 macro factors gradually moves in the space, assuming that there are no physical barriers that prevent the move of the genetic pool).

    However, when looking at the same location, the population disappear from the location when the change is so strong in a short timeframe that cause the majority of the individual die in a few generations. The few surviving individuals cannot sustain a population and will die them too due to missing other individuals, but the genetic pool can change and adapt, if the timescale of the change is appropriate versus the generation time - and this is the 2nd key: time

    The niche is a sift through which the genetic pool has to continuously-circularly pass through. The sift change size-shape over time, the genetic pool that passes the sift changes over time too, thanks to the genetic variability. The mutations that persist in a population, although at low frequency, assures that life persist over time - BUT - this process works when the speed of the changes of the 4 macro factors is appropriate versus the generation time, otherwise the genetic pool in that location is lost

    The biospheres is a continuum and in overlapping of endless niches where conditions (physical chemistry) affect life and life affect conditions

    Can we consider life without taking the 4 macro factor in consideration (hence w/out considering the physical chemistry under which life exist)? Absolutely not. Is this Gaia when you look at the planet scale? Is it a super-organism? I tend to stay on the concept of biosphere that embeds the concept of conditions (physical chemistry of a place), resources, competition, predation = life in a continuosly changing environment

    Unfortunately, people do not understand how this process works. Especially, they do not understand the response time (time is a key)

    With broken hearth and sadness I hear people saying that there will be a lot of good in global warming because we will spend less money in heating up homes

    Once, not-knowledge people tent to listen to and to accept the knowledge from people who assured for it, but in our times, troll seems to win. Foolish people listen to troll, while genetic pools die

  10. The whole subject can be reduced to ONE question .
    "WHAT IS MATTER , in any of its forms or size,
    from nano particles to UNIVERSES"



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)