Gaia, in “hard” science

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

I honestly don’t go looking for conflicts with my professors. But I’m finding it really rather astonishing that one in the Transformative Studies program at California Institute of Integral Studies pointed me at these two books by Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used To be1 and The Future of the Self.2

Even after a year and a half in the program, I still don’t have a clear idea what Transformative Studies is. Partly, I suspect, that’s because the program itself doesn’t have a clear idea, and certainly it seems some of the thinking has been poorly developed. But one truly good thing about my time in that program has been my exposure to complexity theory. This is the program’s theoretical foundation. We can quibble—or, for that matter, point to more serious matters about how the program has been developed from this base—but the hard cold fact of the matter is that Fritjof Capra makes a powerful and compelling case for this theory.3 You don’t get to just dismiss it out of hand.

So why would this professor point me at books that—as I’ve previously observed4—seem to refer to complexity theory without fully grasping it? This isn’t just a matter of the give and take of ideas—he did this in the same class that introduces complexity theory.

I don’t know. But it suggests that he was more concerned about gaining my sympathy for post-modernism than he was about my understanding of complexity theory. I also have to wonder how he sees Pauline Marie Rosenau’s book, Post-modernism and the Social Sciences.5 Rosenau claims to have intended her book as an even-handed look at post-modernism and its implications for the social sciences. This book was on the pre-reading list (or at least one version of it, anyway) for the program and is in fact a rather devastating critique. But because post-modernists often prefer obscurantism to clarity, I really have very few choices in gaining an understanding of post-modernism.

Anderson, at least, does write with clarity. And as I highlight his fallacies, it is also only fair to point out that sprinkled in his books are also some very apt observations. Those, however, would not include this:

The most recent [noble lie] is the story of Gaia, an ancient Greek myth hoked up anew in the guise of science to make us suitably reverent toward the biosphere. It, too, has a plausible, even in some respects obvious, core — the hypothesis that the biological processes on the earth affect geochemical and climatic conditions and, in effect, maintain the conditions for life. The hypothesis (or theory, as it is now being called) is quite worthy of our attention, and is easily the least important part of what could more accurately be described as the “Gaia phenomenon,” the popular new belief that the earth is a living organism. The Gaia phenomenon rests heavily on myth and metaphor.6

This is a man who either has not read Fritjof Capra or has failed to absorb the content. Nor has he read or absorbed the content of Joanna Macy’s Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory.7 Nor has he read or absorbed the content of Edgar Morin’s On Complexity.8

Capra, Macy, and Morin all explain self-organization, a feature of living organisms in which they find themselves in situations which they adapt to. One of those ways of adaption is to cooperate, to combine, to create something bigger—a larger system. In this way, things that may not themselves be alive become part of a living system. Because this system exhibits emergent properties that cannot be foreseen from the system’s constituents, we are no longer able to abstract the components from the system, or as Morin succinctly puts it, the system is “a whole that cannot be reduced to the sum of its constituent parts.”9

To develop this further, I need to refer back to what I wrote on August 20, 2010:

Macy, I think, does a better job . . . in presenting an ontology of interrelationship that casts a new light on the mind-body relationship not as body producing mind or even the other way around, but as mind and body arising in a mutually dependent relationship. In her view, cause and effect take not a linear form of A causes B, but that of mutual conditioning where A affects B and, crucially, vice versa.

In such a view, mind is not the product of a whole lot of neurons assembled in a brain, but in fact intrinsic to existence. Macy writes that “no intrinsic reason exists for denying subjectivity to animals, plants or even suborganic systems” (p. 150). This also works upwards to “collective forms of consciousness, ‘group heads’ in a family, sect or society” (p. 151).

The reason this makes sense is that self-organization is an essential characteristic for any system, be it that of atoms with particular arrangements of protons, neutrons, electrons, and other subatomic particles; be it that of molecules assembled with particular structures of atoms; be it that of life or of other organizations. All these are structures that arose from and in fact depend upon the dissipation we associate with entropy. And yes, we are to understand thus that order and disorder exist in such a relationship of dependent co-arising, as self-organization channels the disorder into the order we find even on a grander scale with planetary systems and galaxies.10

Now here’s Morin:

To be a subject, doesn’t necessarily mean to be conscious. Neither does it mean to have affect or feelings, even though obviously human subjectivity develops with affect, with feelings. To be “subject” is to put oneself in the center of one’s own world. It is to occupy the space of “I” for oneself.11

Hence, the earth as a living system. Hence, Gaia theory. All grounded in quite “hard” science.

  • 1. Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used To be (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990).
  • 2. Walter Truett Anderson, The Future of the Self: Exploring the Post-Identity Society (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1997).
  • 3. Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (New York: Anchor, 1997).
  • 4. David Benfell, “Post-modernism and the pretense of understanding complexity theory,” December 5, 2010. Original at Publicly available at
  • 5. Rosenau, Pauline Marie, Post-modernism and the Social Sciences (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1992).
  • 6. Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, p. 11.
  • 7. Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems (Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1995).
  • 8. Edgar Morin, On Complexity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).
  • 9. Morin, On Complexity, p. 10.
  • 10. David Benfell, “Complexity Theory and Respect for Trees,” August 20, 2010. Original at Publicly available at
  • 11. Morin, On Complexity, p. 43.

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