In his book “I Am a Strange Loop”, Douglas Hofstadter argues that complex feedback loops in the brain are the origin of consciousness and the illusion of self. That illusion is absent or muted in lower life forms. In consequence, it is ethically neutral to swat a mosquito, which is a half step above an automated circuit board. On the other hand, a cow’s “soul” is large enough that perhaps it doesn’t belong on the family grill. Yet higher in the hierarchy of souls are dogs, which Hofstadter believes recognize themselves in the feedback loop of a mirror, for instance, suggesting awareness of a self. You throw a stick. Bowser retrieves it. You then pet & praise Bowser. That interaction loops among multiple levels of Bowser’s mental architecture, enriching his sense of doghood and helping his ego to coalesce. Higher than Bowser are most retarded persons. Higher yet are children. Hofstadter doesn’t seem abashed that the class at the pinnacle includes him. I imagine him in the Donner Party recommending the feeble-minded for hors d’oeuvres, followed by a full meal of ordinary man, leaving a handful of well-fed university professors picking their teeth and awaiting the rescue party from the coast.

Although Hofstadter seems too narrowly focused on biological forms, the accretion of Self through feedback mechanisms feels true to me. Equally complex and evolutionary feedback loops exist in the macro environment of Gaia, or earth.

This excerpt from Andrew’s Sunday morning email (which arrives, without fail, no matter where in the world he may be on any given weekend) got me thinking about all sorts of things, like how easy it is to promote a view of the world that keeps you and your friends at the center of things. That has parlor game potential.

More significant are the implications suggested by this excerpt in relation to the Gaia/not Gaia controversy that just keeps simmering in the scientific plenary discussion that might be titled simply, So How Does This Planet Work Anyway? One of the ongoing questions constantly being battled over is fundamentally primal: What role do we humans play in the ongoing survival of the earth? Are we the disrupters of natural processes or the only ones who can preserve a viable future here?

The Gaia theory (accredited to scientist James Lovelock) is an ecological view that describes all the components of earth as part of a complex interactive and integrated system. By responding to feedback loops, the earth self-regulates and achieves a state of preferred homeostasis.

First promulgated in the 1970s, the theory has garnered its fair share of detractors. One well known naysayer is Peter Ward, author of the recent book, The Medea Hypothesis.

An excellent overview of this controversy is provided in an article written by Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe:

The story of life on earth, in Ward’s reckoning, is a long series of suicide attempts. Four of the five major mass extinctions since the rise of animals, Ward says, were caused not by meteor impacts or volcanic eruptions, but by bacteria, and twice, he argues, the planet was transformed into a nearly total ball of ice thanks to the voracious appetites of plants. In other words, it’s not just human beings, with our chemical spills, nuclear arsenals, and tailpipe emissions, who are a menace. The main threat to life is life itself.

“Life is toxic,” Ward says. “It’s life that’s causing all the damn problems.”

Ward, a paleontologist at the University of Washington and a scholar of the earth’s great extinctions, calls his model the Medea Hypothesis, after the mythological Greek sorceress who killed her own children. The name makes clear Ward’s ambition: To challenge and eventually replace the Gaia Hypothesis, the well-known 1970s scientific model that posits that every living thing on earth is part of a gargantuan, self-regulating super-organism.

Ward holds the Gaia Hypothesis, and the thinking behind it, responsible for encouraging a set of fairy-tale assumptions about the earth, and he’d like his new book, due out this spring, to help puncture them. He hopes not only to shake the philosophical underpinnings of environmentalism, but to reshape our understanding of our relationship with nature, and of life’s ultimate sustainability on this planet and beyond…

While the Gaia Hypothesis may be the most explicit version, the idea of a self-regulating, counterpoised planet has been central to the thinking of conservationists and environmentalists, and to the policies they have helped to shape. Removing dams, fighting the encroachment of alien plant and animal species, restoring the Everglades, reintroducing wolves into the American West, all are justified at least partly because they help restore a balance that man has disturbed.

As Ward sees it, however, this is almost exactly backward. Looking at the evidence of past extinctions – written in fossils and in the chemical makeup of deeply buried rock sediments – as well as the workings of today’s oceans, atmosphere, and myriad food chains, he finds evidence of a planet that tends not toward harmony but toward extremes. Although windows of stability are possible, they are simply respites between catastrophic boom-and-bust cycles. He attributes one of the largest extinctions in history to the out-of-control proliferation of plankton feeding on upwellings of nutrients from the ocean floor. Rather than being elegantly brought back to equilibrium, the tiny organisms reproduced until they choked off much of the life in the upper ocean. Exhausting their newfound food supply, they died en masse, and decaying by the trillions used up all the oxygen in the water, killing off everything else.

Bennett points out that both models, Medea and Gaia, are incomplete. And Lovelock and other Giaian thinkers have moderated many of their original beliefs such as the claim that the biosphere is a single organism and that all the feedback loops favor stability.

Most earth scientists are unwilling to choose between Gaia or Medea since at this point it looks like the earth is a bit of both. And on some issues Lovelock and Ward are actually in agreement:

Ironically, Lovelock himself has also, in the last few years, become an advocate for a geoengineering fix for climate change – specifically, an armada of vertical pipes placed in the oceans to bring colder, nutrient-rich water to the surface to absorb more carbon out of the air. But while Lovelock has described his proposal as an “emergency treatment” for a critically ill planet, Ward believes such schemes are going to have to become business as usual if we and our descendants are going to survive.

“The longevity of the biosphere can only be sustained through large-scale geoengineering,” Ward argues. Without our firm hand, he believes, “the earth will go to hell in a handbasket,” just as it has again and again in the past.

Perhaps it is a liability of studying earth science that you end up with a bleak view of the future. Lovelock has described himself as an “optimistic pessimist,” and Ward’s “life is toxic” position is hardly a hopeful stance. Is it possible to have integrity and still take a thoughtful but “opt out” position on all of this? It doesn’t take scientific expertise to get that we are just beginning to understand how these larger complex systems work. And somewhere in this generally dismal view of our future, it might be possible to encounter a nugget or two of unexpected good news.