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On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth [Hardcover]

Toby Tyrrell

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Book Description

21 July 2013

One of the enduring questions about our planet is how it has remained continuously habitable over vast stretches of geological time despite the fact that its atmosphere and climate are potentially unstable. James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis posits that life itself has intervened in the regulation of the planetary environment in order to keep it stable and favorable for life. First proposed in the 1970s, Lovelock's hypothesis remains highly controversial and continues to provoke fierce debate. On Gaia undertakes the first in-depth investigation of the arguments put forward by Lovelock and others--and concludes that the evidence doesn't stack up in support of Gaia.

Toby Tyrrell draws on the latest findings in fields as diverse as climate science, oceanography, atmospheric science, geology, ecology, and evolutionary biology. He takes readers to obscure corners of the natural world, from southern Africa where ancient rocks reveal that icebergs were once present near the equator, to mimics of cleaner fish on Indonesian reefs, to blind fish deep in Mexican caves. Tyrrell weaves these and many other intriguing observations into a comprehensive analysis of the major assertions and lines of argument underpinning Gaia, and finds that it is not a credible picture of how life and Earth interact.

On Gaia reflects on the scientific evidence indicating that life and environment mutually affect each other, and proposes that feedbacks on Earth do not provide robust protection against the environment becoming uninhabitable--or against poor stewardship by us.

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"Tyrrell's story is very informative and the reader will learn many fascinating stories of an organism's adaptation to an environment (rather than an environment conforming to an organism's need)."--Jonathan DuHamel, Arizona Daily Independent

"A systematic, dispassionate, retrospective examination of Gaia. . . . Tyrrell makes it very clear where he stands on Gaia, but the path of his journey is well reasoned--not a diatribe."--William Schlesinger, Nature Climate Change

"It is timely to present a systematic review of how Gaia theory looks in the light of . . . new information. Not too well is Toby Tyrrell's conclusion in this clear summary of the evidence to date. . . . Persuasive."--Jon Turney, Times Higher Education

"In On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth, Dr. Toby Tyrrell, for the first time, conducts a lengthy analysis of the scientific data for and against the Gaia Hypothesis. He concludes that the Gaia Hypothesis does not have enough scientific data to support it. He write eloquently, clearly, and succinctly describing how the Gaia Hypothesis lacks sufficient scientific evidence. . . . A fair and reflective analysis."--Gabriel Thoumi, MongaBay.com

"Tyrrell examines alternative arguments about the long-term characteristics of the Earth, considering geological and coevolutionary effects. He provides a detailed examination of how and why the environment cannot be affected by natural selection and how diverse physical factors affect living things. . . . Overall, a useful examination of the changing nature of Earth and the biologic/physical factors that affect the planet's organisms."--Choice

"His theory is not as grandiose as Gaia, but it is far more compelling. The conclusion is worth reading by itself if you are pushed for time, but for those who really want a good insight into Gaia in the context of natural systems, I would recommend reading the whole book."--Gillian Gibson, Environmentalist

"If you've had your curiosity piqued by the Gaia Hypothesis before, you'll appreciate this well-organized and comprehensive assessment of it. Tyrrell doesn't have an axe to grind, and his discussion is fair and focused on the evidence. If you want to grapple with Gaia, this book is a good way to do it."--Scott K. Johnson, ArsTechnica

"One third of this well argued book consists of end notes, many of which are as readable as the main text. By questioning the arguments for and against the Gaia hypothesis, Tyrrell has done a great service to enriching the ongoing discourse on making our planet hospitable for all life forms, now and in the future."--Sudhirendar Sharma, Cover Drive

"On Gaia is a rewarding read for the knowledgeable reader. The book is an easy read and accessible to a broad audience. Unlike some science books intended for popular audiences, the book is sophisticated enough to keep the interest of graduate students."--GeoQ

"It is . . . Valuable for a variety of reasons: as a good natural history brief; as a good introduction to modern ecology (the one that considers the biota as a whole); and as a cautious reflection on what makes a theory gain or lose respectability. Therefore, it will be useful at different academic levels, from teaching at secondary school (it is an excellent starting point for serious debate) to highly specialized climate scientists."-- Chemical Engineer

From the Inside Flap

"A handful of scientists have become crusaders for the Gaia hypothesis, while the rest have dismissed it without a second thought. Toby Tyrrell, on the other hand, is one of the very few scientists to have considered the evidence at length and in detail. In summarizing nearly forty years of arguments for and against the Gaia hypothesis, he has done a great service for anyone who is curious about Gaia, or about this fascinating planet that we all call home."--James Kirchner, University of California, Berkeley

"Toby Tyrrell unravels the various formulations of Gaia and explains how recent scientific developments bring the hypothesis into question. His criticisms are insightful, profound, and convincing, but fair. On Gaia is wonderfully informative and a pleasure to read."--Francisco J. Ayala, author of Am I a Monkey?: Six Big Questions about Evolution

"At last, a beautifully written and clear-eyed analysis of the interplay of life and the Earth system. On Gaia provides the understanding for moving forward in the quest for sustainability, and is essential reading if our planet is to remain habitable for humanity."--Thomas E. Lovejoy, George Mason University

"On Gaia makes a wonderful addition to the literature. It is scholarly, well-written, and well-reasoned."--Simon A. Levin, Princeton University

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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tyrrell's views are anthropocentric and informed by the 70-year old Modern Synthesis 9 April 2014
By James D. MacAllister - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
For starters, Toby Tyrrell's book misstates Gaia Theory. Consequently, much with which he finds fault are "straw men", older statements of the hypothesis that were revised by Lovelock and Margulis in response to legitimate criticism. Secondly, Tyrrell's arguments are informed by the reductionist rules and assumptions of the 70-year old Modern Synthesis (neodarwinism) that have been replaced by the New Symbiotic Biology. The New Symbiotic Biology (e.g., the Human Microbiome) is based in the research and ideas of Lynn Margulis, Lovelock's principle collaborator on Gaia Theory. Modern molecular- and microbiology have shown that nearly all of the tenets of the Modern Synthesis have been broken. This requires a radical shift in evolutionary thinking that Tyrrell is missing. Tyrrell states that "nitrogen starvation", the death of organisms as the result of fixed nitrogen shortages, "is one of the strongest arguments against the Gaian idea that the biosphere is kept comfortable for the benefit of the life inhabiting it." Tyrrell points to the abundant nitrogen in the atmosphere that could be fixed (converted to ammonium, the form used by organisms) and concludes that if the biosphere were organized for the benefit of the biota, bacteria would fix enough nitrogen for all life. There are two critical flaws in Tyrrell's logic. The first is the anthropocentric notion that death is bad. The second flaw is that if enough nitrogen were fixed, organisms would not die. Natural selection is a necessary part of the Earth system. The Earth cannot support the prodigious reproduction of even a single species of organism, much less the offspring of the estimated 30 million species that inhabit the biosphere. If nitrogen starvation did not eliminate these organisms, they would perish from one of the other controls on biotic potential: the lack of other matter, energy, water, gas, space, or the density of other competing organisms. Tyrrell does not seem to appreciate that up to 80% of biologic ammonium is produced by cyanobacteria using nitrogenase, a substance that is easily destroyed by oxygen. Cyanobacteria are the photosynthesizing organisms responsible for the oxygen in our atmosphere. The majority of cells in filaments of cyanobacteria are aerobic and cannot fix nitrogen. A cyanobacterium must become a heterocyst, a cell that is impervious to oxygen, to fix nitrogen. In converting to a heterocyst, the cyanobacterium loses its ability to reproduce and becomes mortal. Fixing more nitrogen simply shifts death from the organisms that need to consume fixed nitrogen to those that supply fixed nitrogen. The Gaian system regulates Earth, but it does so within the physical limits of the environment. For an Earth Systems scientist, Tyrrell's arguments are out-dated, uninformed, anthropocentric and lack systems thinking. Lynn Margulis always welcomed serious criticism of Gaia, but this book does not rise to that level.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tyrrell provides a tour de force investigation 21 July 2013
By Wryheat - Published on Amazon.com
Tyrrell has taken on a big job in a critical examination of the three Gaia assertions and the two alternate hypotheses. The book is a tour de force that presents physical and philosophical evidence for and against the Gaia hypothesis, which, Tyrrell points out, has some similarities with Intelligent Design. Fortunately, the book is written in plain language and each of the 10 chapters has introductory paragraphs dealing with what the chapter will cover and a concluding section providing a summary. Many of the endnotes referenced within the chapters are interesting stories in themselves and provide amplifying evidence for the main points.

Tyrrell ultimately concludes that "Gaia is a fascinating but a flawed hypothesis. It is not a correct characterization of planetary maintenance and life's role therein. Some of Lovelock's claims...are seen to be dubious when probed more deeply. Some of the key lines of argument advanced in support of Gaia are insecure, or else give support in equal measure to other hypotheses as well as to Gaia. There is nothing that can be explained only by Gaia."

How he gets to his conclusions is a fascinating story illustrated by many interesting examples. The book is well-written and easy to read. Some of his perceptions may give you a different perspective on things. I particularly like a sentence in Chapter Two: "Nature is a mixture of apparent cruelty and kindness, of economy and waste, of competition and cooperation." (That's so Dickensian: It was the best of times....) That sets the tone of Tyrrell's critical analysis. Tyrrell's story is very informative and the reader will learn many fascinating things along the way.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gaia: is there scientific evidence for this intriguing, inspiring, infuriating hypothesis? 1 Mar 2014
By Kevin Orrman-Rossiter - Published on Amazon.com
Just on 30 years ago I came across an intriguing book, the then relatively unknown Gaia: A new look at life on Earth (OUP 1979) by an 'independent scientist', J.E. Lovelock. My earliest impression of it may seem surprising to many people now. I was infuriated. I was infuriated not by Lovelock's hypothesis per se, but by what I impugned was his underlying purpose behind proposing this model.

Gaia was presented by Lovelock as a fifteen year quest to substantiate the model:

"in which the Earth's living matter, air, oceans, and land surfaces form a complex which can be seen as a single organism and which has the capacity to keep our planet a fit place for life."

That was an intriguing hypothesis. The infuriating part I found was the implication that thanks to Gaia our fears of pollution-extermination may be unfounded. In particular I found the logic of chapter 7 (Gaia and Man: the problem of pollution) to be pernicious. On the untested assumption that Gaia did exist, and in the form suggested by Lovelock, he proposed the idea "there is indeed ample evidence that pollution is as natural to Gaia as is breathing to ourselves and most other animals." The philosopher in me took umbrage at his glib jibes at the various current environmental perspectives - chiding them for their naive perspectives.

It took at least another careful read of Gaia before I appreciated Lovelock's perspective, which his follow-on books left the reader in no doubt. Gaia: a new look at life on Earth was followed by The Ages of Gaia in 1988 (both books were revised for 2nd editions in 1995), Lovelock's autobiography Homage to Gaia: the life of an independent scientist (OUP, 2000) was followed by the more strident The Revenge of Gaia (Allen Lane, 2006) and The Vanishing Face of Gaia: a final warning (Allen Lane, 2009). There was still the unanswered question - does Gaia exist?

The reaction to the question of Gaia's existence is one of the the great legacies of Lovelock's book. Lovelock's eloquence and novelty of hypothesis inspired many responses and continues to provoke fierce debate. It has taken some time for a concise critical scientific analysis, in a form accessible to the interested educated reader, of the major assertions and arguments underpinning the Gaia hypothesis to be written. Toby Tyrrell, Professor of Earth Systems Science at the University of Southampton has managed to deliver this.

In On Gaia: a critical investigation of the relationship between life and Earth (Princeton University press, 2013), Tyrell asks and answers the question: "Does the Gaia hypothesis hold up in court?"

Tyrrell gets down to business in a succinct manner. He distills the Gaia hypothesis to three main facts, or classes of facts that Lovelock has advanced in support of the hypothesis. They are:

The environment is very well suited to the organisms that inhabit it
The Earth's atmosphere is a biological construct whose composition is far from expectations of (abiotic) chemical equilibrium, and
The earth has been a stable environment over time, despite external forcings.

Tyrell reminds us that the Gaia hypothesis is not the only one that looks at the relationship between life and environment on Earth. So in his book he takes these three facts and examines the evidence for them in the light of two other competing hypotheses; the Geological and the Coevolutionary.

The Geological hypothesis was the dominant paradigm among geologists and other scientists at the time Gaia was written. According to this way of thinking life has been a passenger on Earth, helplessly buffeted around by a mixture of geological forces and astronomical processes. Life adapts to this environment but does not itself affect it.

The Coevolutionary hypothesis assumes that there is two way traffic: not only does the nature of the environment shape the nature of life, life also acts as a force that shapes the planetary environment. There is one obvious, although too easily missed, difference between the coevolution of life and climate and of two life forms; such as the interactions between predators and prey and between hosts and parasites for example. There is no equivalent cumulative evolutionary process that builds better-adapted oceans or atmospheres over time. This means that this hypothesis makes no claims about the wider outcomes of the interaction. The Gaia hypothesis suggest that the outcome of the interaction has stabilized the planet and kept it favorable for life; Coevolution is neutral about such claims.

Having carefully framed the questions, and presented some viable alternatives, Tyrell then very eloquently and elegantly (in that scientific sense) looks at the evidence for which hopythesis fits the facts best.

In doing this he takes us on quite an adventure. We look at extremophiles and life over the glacial and interglacial eons, because as Lovelock states "the most important property of Gaia is the tendency to optimize conditions for all terrestrial life". In other chapters by examining, over time, deep sea plankton nitrogen and phosphorus ratios, and atmospheric oxygen and methane levels Tyrrell convincingly demonstrates that the earth's atmosphere is a biological construct. Having established that life has the power to shape the Earth he then examines what are the environmental alterations are produced.

By carefully examining two evolutionary innovations that have most obviously shaken the world: (i) the evolution of oxygen-yielding photosynthesis, and (ii) the colonization of land by the first forests, we find that life has always changed to exploit and closely fit it, as it must because of evolution. Finally by examining the rocks, glaciation levels, seawater chemistry and the ups and downs of greenhouse gases for the past 500 million years Tyrell concludes that Gaia has not helped to keep the Earths environment stable - because the research shows that the environment has not been stable.

The final chapter is a masterful example of clear thinking. Tyrrell revisits the road travelled, weaves the strands together and draws his conclusion that Gaia is a fascinating but flawed hypothesis. Tyrrell does not stop there he proposes new "intriguing research topics" that have arisen as a consequence of evaluating the Gaia hypothesis. As well he reminds us why this evaluation is important: planetary management requires solid understanding, Gaia imbues undue optimism, and the need for an unbiased worldview.

On Gaia: a critical investigation of the relationship between life and Earth (Princeton University Press, 2013), is a great contribution to an important scientific, and human debate. Toby Tyrrell demonstrates both a fine grasp of science, and science communication. An intelligent reader will find this book rewarding, for both these reasons.
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