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GAIA – From Chaos to Cosmos - Elisabet Sahtouris 1989


“ We are wrong to devote our attention to saving or managing nature. Gaia will save herself – with or without us – and hardly needs advice or help in management. To look out for ourselves we would be wise to interfere as little as possible in her ways, and to learn as much as possible of them. Our technology has ravaged nature and continues to do so, but the ravages of technology are based on our unnatural greed, our profit motive. There is no intrinsic reason that we humans cannot develop a benign technology once we agree that our desire to maximize profits is completely at odds with nature's dynamic balance – that greed prevents health and welfare for all. No other creatures take more than they need, and this must be our first lesson......”

Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis: our planet and its creatures constitute a single self-regulating system that is in fact a great living being.

Of the book James Lovelock said....”It is well balanced between advocacy for the planet and advocacy for humans, placing the onus on humans to recognize the lack of maturity involved in believing we can manage the planet, and to learn instead to follow its lead in organizing ourselves. …..... She warns us that our survival depends on our meeting the evolutionary demand to transform competitive exploitation into co-operative synergy.”

P.24 “From a Gaian point of view, we humans are an experiment – a trial species still at odds with ourselves and other species, still not having learned to balance our own dance within that of our whole planet. Unlike most other species, we are not biologically programmed to know what to do; rather, we are an experiment in free choice. This leaves us with enormous potential, powerful egotism and tremendous anxiety – a syndrome that is recognizably adolescent.”

Our concept of “I” makes us believe the “world out there” is ours to do as we please, ignoring the fact that our very existence is absolutely bound up with that of our planet – there is no “world out there”. This mistaken “egotistical” approach leads us towards our adolescent crisis.

We are not the first life form to be “troublesome” to our planet but (as we shall see) many a competitive situation has evolved into a co-operative scheme.

The “mechanistic” view of nature is COMPLETELY WRONG. Every machine, left to its own devices, will eventually by destroyed by its environment. Living organisms, on the other hand, cannot stay the same without changing constantly, and they use their environment to their advantage. Every being is part of some larger being, and , as such, its self-interest must be tempered by the interests of the larger being to which it belongs. In the Gaian system diversity is vital – diversity brings strength whilst uniformity is fragile (don't put all your eggs in one basket!).

Ch.4 Bacteria were the Earth's first “holons” (independent life forms) living within the larger “holon” of the Earth. They invented DNA, obtaining energy through fermentation (bubblers) and eventually learned to photosynthesise in order to collect carbon from the air. This soon produced a deadly profusion of oxygen which killed most of the original bacteria. Some survived using different tricks – many involving working together in large groups. Finally some of these “holons” learned how to burn oxygen to create energy through respiration (breathers). All this took about 2 billion years – and created an oxygen rich atmosphere. The new atmosphere became very beneficial to new life forms because the oxygen was broken down by sunlight into ozone which absorbed harmful ultra-violet rays.

Bacteria learned to exchange DNA which allowed very fast mutations needed to take advantage of changing conditions. This is “sex” and remains a key to evolution today (although cultural “memes” are key to evolution of human civilisations.)

The lesson from this is that Gaia has always been able to find a new equilibrium which supports “life” - but the forms of that “life” may have to radically change. This is the lesson which human civilisation will learn, one way or another, as we greatly increase the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere by using easily accessed fossil fuel.

Ch.5 Some philosophers have seen “life” as simply rock re-arranging itself. From all we now know it seems Gaia is an incredibly complex self-organising living entity – somehow able to control its temperature, flow of nutrients and composition of its atmosphere so that life goes on. If we continue to cling to our present belief that we can “manage” all this whilst we really know so little about it it is unlikely our efforts will kill the planet – more likely they will kill us.

Sahtouris believes that the experience over millions of years of the Earth constantly progressing towards more beauty and complexity is contrary to the second law of thermo-dynamics (increasing entropy). Living systems seem to defy the laws of entropy.

Ch.6 For the first 2 billion years the bacteria evolved by constantly trying thousands of new forms and new co-operations. The ones that worked survived, producing virtually all the proteins and complex organic molecules we see around us today. As easily available food became scarce (about 1.5 billion years ago) some of the “breathers” invaded “bubblers” and some kind of co-operative systems began to work. Later these became even more complex as “photosynthesises” also joined to create single celled organisms 1000 times bigger than bacteria. These larger “cells” could therefore process energy in 3 different ways – giving them great evolutionary advantages. These new large cells pooled their DNA to make a nucleus. All the cells in our bodies have this pattern – the nucleus containing all the key information.

Ch.7 The essentially competitive nature of Darwin's theory of evolution now needs to be modified as we realise that different life forms have often learned to co-operate so they become more resilient as a new unit of life. We humans still have a very limited view of life on Earth; we cannot easily see that it is the billions of bacteria and fungi which remain the most abundant and important features of the Gaian system which supports us.

Ch.8 Nature always found new ways of enabling life forms to survive and multiply in the face of environmental challenges (either caused by their own metabolism or by geological events). The swapping and mixing of DNA through “sex” was a vital development – soon followed by the ability of different organisms to co-operate using chemical signals. This latter made it possible form groups of cells to work together as a larger organism which had greater potential for survival. These larger organisms were programmed to “die” so their resources could be recycled and their progeny become more adapted to new circumstances.

Ch.9 The next steps in the development of life on Earth involved the creation of nerves and then muscles. At all stages the impact of life created new environments which themselves stimulated newer forms of life. Plants and fungi were the first life forms to leave the sea and exploit the land as bacteria created soil with available nutrients. Finally all this led to the age of the reptiles – the dinosaurs which lasted for 160 million years. After the sudden extinction of the highly specialised dinosaurs life soon found ways to recover leading to the dominance of the warm blooded creatures of today. Once again life emerges from disaster even more beautiful and complex than before.

Ch.10 The most significant evolutionary advantages of warm blooded animals was development of larger and larger brains. These brains enabled more sophisticated forms of social behaviour to develop with all the evolutionary advantages this provided. Social skills allowed humans to live together in highly effective communities.

Ch.11 The big brain is a very new and experimental part of nature's evolutionary story. Humans have “consciousness” and have used their intelligence to ruthlessly exploit Earth for greedy short-term gains. Yes, we have survived four ice ages but history shows us how almost every early civilisation perished because of short-term greed. We see exactly the same dynamic around us today as the few big powerful nations exploit the majority of Earth's populations. This is exactly what the evolving bacteria did before evolution showed them that co-operation works better in the long term. Co-operation requires good communication and we may now be seeing the beginnings of this in the new age of social media and the internet. But we still have a long road to run before the mistakes of ruthless exploitation force a change.

Ch.12 The invention of writing gave humans new power to build on the ideas of the past and to share information in new ways. For most of human history our world view has been governed by laws of gods and religions “enforced” by powerful priests. Today such world views have been effectively challenged by a new “scientific” world view. Even so societies are limited by cultures which are difficult to change. Languages are key parts of such cultures because they put constraints on how we see the world. Today dominant technological cultures are killing off (have killed off) non-technological cultures. But every culture which is lost moves us towards a highly fragile mono-culture. Nature's great strength always comes from the evolutionary advantages of variety.

Ch.13 The really big changes in worldview came when settled agricultural societies were conquered by nomadic outsiders who believed in a single male god. This culture sought to “dominate” nature rather than be sustained by its bounty as had previously been the case with the “mother goddess” and the many nature gods of settled societies. In the new world (today's world) men claimed the right to exploit nature (and women). For many centuries before the christian era the great philosophers saw nature as a force always trying to create beauty and order from chaos – with humans being part of nature not separate from it. Gradually the idea that the world was governed by moody and unpredictable nature was replaced by a new belief in a mechanical world – open to control and prediction.

Ch.14 The world was set on a new course when the Romans co-opted and modified the Christ's teachings as a vital way to manage their empire, glorifying the exploitation of nature and the dominance of men over nature and women. Witches were burned and alternative religions attacked in crusading wars. Finally the modern world view emerged after the success of scientific discoveries and the powerful logic of mathematicians such as Descartes – it seemed that the power of science was limitless. Scientific thinking was dominated by a reductionist approach – breaking things down into small comprehensible parts. Science took on the form of a secular priesthood – which very much remains the case today.

Ch.15 Sahtouris points out that over the last 100 years even the scientist have realised (and tried to explain) that nature is not like a machine. Studies of the atom, relativity and the self-organising properties of matter have shown just how “magical” and strange it can be. Nature is forever a self-creating process, somehow making beauty and order out of chaos. But this view has not pushed out the dominant mechanistic philosophy.

Ch.16 The new upstart species – humans – has rapidly colonised the whole planet to the point of over-crowding, using up its resources, polluting its air and water and destroying its wildlife. How has a species with so much hindsight and foresight become so destructive?

We can certainly look at human society as if the world were a living organism – transport systems serving as blood carrying resources while wireless and the internet provide communication like the nervous system. The problem is that the rich powerful countries use “money” (and war) to dominate and exploit the weaker countries – quite the opposite of the co-operation needed to make a healthy working whole. There is also the human mania for wanting a mono-culture not realising the huge importance of encouraging the diversity so vital for evolutionary security. The two competing ideologies of capitalism and communism both have advantages but neither is a good solution on its own. Sahtouris believes that both cultures suffer because they do not give women an equal role to men. Better ways must be found of ensuring global co-operation.

Ch.17 In this chapter Sahtouris makes an optimistic assessment of humanity's opportunities for learning to live more harmoniously within the Gaian system. She sees the human species developing first as an infant content to live with and accept the power, both good and bad, of the mother goddess Earth. Next comes the young teenage stage where the paternalistic male God boost the “I” and the “ego” when humans can dominate and “use” Earth's resources, both animate and inanimate, for their own greedy purposes. In this stage “man” sees himself as being separate from Nature, regarding the Earth as some kind of machine that can be controlled. We are now reaching the climax of this phase.

Sahtouris discusses the age old problem of the responsibilities which come to humans who have “freedom” to chose how and what they do. It seems the big majority of humans find “freedom” very uncomfortable – they prefer to shelter under authority, being told what to do and simply getting on with their lives as comfortably as they can. This is why the human world is moving towards a dangerous mono-culture which ignores the universal laws of nature where variety is the source of resilience. (Contrast this with the same concept of “Anti-fragile” expressed by Nassim Taleb) This section reflects the central philosophy of the self-sufficiency movement where individual choice and responsibility are central concepts but only embraced by a minority.

We can see now that the days of heavy polluting industries are probably over. Electronics and modern technology can become foundations for a less destructive culture – but the competitive dynamic of greed and profit will need to be abandoned.

Sahtouris concludes the chapter with the thought that we must remember that our planet may be better off without us - our destruction may actually promote the health of Gaia.

Ch.18 We should remember that bacteria are the biggest life force on Earth – humans perhaps acting as taxis simply carrying them around. Fungi probably come next in the hierarchy of life – and so it goes on. In fact when we look out at the living world around us we can even imagine this is just the complex dance of rock constantly re-arranging itself. In this context humans can be seen as dangerous upstarts – but we alone have the potential to see a truly world wide picture and we have the freewill to choose how to interact with all this.

In the continuing process of evolution we can see how cultural “memes” are constantly tested and changing. But humans do not find it easy to “engineer” life enhancing development of such memes even though we have used much “safer`' memes in past history. Unfortunately modern science no longer concerns itself with the ethics of what is right or wrong. In fact we seem nervous of “ethics” because of its strong links to “religions”. We prefer to think of a world in Walt Disney terms – without cruel predation and the need for each life form to live of another. We don't even realise that constant recycling is an essential feature of a healthy Gaian world – we largely ignore the need for recycling in our economic processes. In fact we prefer not to think about the terrible cruelty involved in modern intensive farming, the destruction of forests and the trawling of the oceans.

It is time we thought about these things more deeply. In nature everything looks after itself without taking more than it needs and, in doing so, contributes to the welfare of the whole. While humans profess to feel for other creatures their whole economy and lifestyle involves the torture and slaughter of millions. We are still a long way from a deeper understanding of right thinking ecological ethics. The anxiety created by freedom can only be resolved if we discover and new morality – Gaia can provide this if only we show greater wisdom.

Ch.19 Scientist cannot explain how life began or why the universe is so full of self-organising phenomenon. We have the beautiful structure of a huge galaxy on the one hand and the tiny complex beauty of a minute bacteria on the other – both are examples of nature's magical tendency to create order and beauty from chaos. This remains the greatest mystery unexplained by science. As far as humans are concern we should recognise that we are a new and untried species.

There are almost certainly other life forms on other planets. If they looked down on Earth they would see utter madness taking place as we knowingly destroy the life support systems we depend on.

Ch.20 – Epilogue. In the time between starting her book and finishing it, Sahtouris finds the world situation getting much worse. Daily press stories read like science fiction as journalists can report a species attempting suicide quite objectively – as if they were not part of that species. The belief that humans can manage their planet by refining our technology is becoming more entrenched. There are still too many humans with the means to poison, parch or blow up parts of the Earth for profit whilst the rest of us simply refuse to take responsibility for stopping this. Sahtouris believes there would be less dangers if women had a greater role in leadership. Scientists are certainly some kind of “priests” for our present society but they hold a predominantly male perspect which is to dominate and control nature. She believe women do have a greater respect for and love of life – and this is what could heal society in economic, politics and even science.


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