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The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? (Science Essentials) [Hardcover]

Peter Ward
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Book Description

20 April 2009 Science Essentials

In The Medea Hypothesis, renowned paleontologist Peter Ward proposes a revolutionary and provocative vision of life's relationship with the Earth's biosphere--one that has frightening implications for our future, yet also offers hope. Using the latest discoveries from the geological record, he argues that life might be its own worst enemy. This stands in stark contrast to James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis--the idea that life sustains habitable conditions on Earth. In answer to Gaia, which draws on the idea of the "good mother" who nurtures life, Ward invokes Medea, the mythical mother who killed her own children. Could life by its very nature threaten its own existence?

According to the Medea hypothesis, it does. Ward demonstrates that all but one of the mass extinctions that have struck Earth were caused by life itself. He looks at our planet's history in a new way, revealing an Earth that is witnessing an alarming decline of diversity and biomass--a decline brought on by life's own "biocidal" tendencies. And the Medea hypothesis applies not just to our planet--its dire prognosis extends to all potential life in the universe. Yet life on Earth doesn't have to be lethal. Ward shows why, but warns that our time is running out.

Breathtaking in scope, The Medea Hypothesis is certain to arouse fierce debate and radically transform our worldview. It serves as an urgent challenge to all of us to think in new ways if we hope to save ourselves from ourselves.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (20 April 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691130752
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691130750
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 16.3 x 2.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 613,249 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"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."--Drake Bennett, Boston Globe

"Author and Earth Sciences professor Ward has authored numerous books for non-specialists; this latest is a critical response to James Lovelock's Gaia concept, which argues that homeostatic physical and chemical interactions work to maintain Earth's habitability. Ward argue, passionately, that the opposite is true--that living organisms decrease Earth's habitability, hastening its end by perhaps a billion years."

"The point of The Medea Hypothesis is that life, rather than helping to regulate the Earth 'System' by negative feedbacks, does all it can to consume the resources available--sowing the seeds of its own extinction."--Dr. Henry Gee, BBC Focus Magazine

"When avid science readers browse the shelves for new titles, the books that grab their attention are best described by a single adjective: thought-provoking. And no scientist/author is more provocative in his approach and innovative in his thinking than University of Washington astrobiologist Peter Ward . . . . [R]eaders looking for solace will not find it in Ward's latest effort, The Medea Hypothesis. This time Ward goes after motherhood itself--or at least the central idea of the Gaia ('good mother') hypothesis that has evolved to describe the relationship between life and the planet as a whole."--Fred Bortz, Seattle Times

"[Ward] makes his points succinctly and supports them well."--Rebecca Wigood, Vancouver Sun

"[The Medea Hypothesis] is an interesting intellectual exercise on the history of life."--Choice

"Reading the book will widen your field of vision about life on earth, which is still there after about 4 billion years."--Dr. Hein van Bohemen, Ecological Engineering

"Ward . . . adopts the tone of a planetary mortician gruesomely interested in his subject's decease. Ward is an expert on mass extinctions, and the subject seems to have infected his general outlook. He does not come across a happy camper."--Roger Gathman, Austin American-Statesman

"The Medea Hypothesis is a valuable and well-needed challenge to the hegemony of Gaian thought, and this is a very clearly presented and thought provoking book. . . . Ward's book is a crucial step in opening this debate and I would certainly recommend reading it, but with a critical eye open for chinks in the argument."--Lewis Dartnell, Astrobiology Society of Britain

From the Inside Flap

"A provocative look at the history of our living planet. Ward offers a distinct perspective and argues strongly that the only intelligent choice is to manage ourselves and the environment. The Medea Hypothesis will cause anyone who cares about the environment to think differently."--Thomas E. Lovejoy, president of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment

"This book casts the environmental debate in a completely new and important light. Ward demolishes the comfortable illusion that nature will take care of us if we just let it. To survive in the long term, the Earth needs a management team--we humans have to take up the job."--Chris McKay, NASA Ames Research Center

"The Medea Hypothesis is provocative, extremely well-written, and very convincing."--Simon A. Levin, Princeton University

"For those comforted by the notion of a benevolent Gaia working to sustain life on the planet, Ward's Medea is a nightmare, one that has recurred many times in Earth's history and is coming again soon, unless we take action to combat the self-annihilating tendency of the biosphere."--Lee R. Kump, coauthor of Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming

"Serious and well written, The Medea Hypothesis is sure to generate controversy among the experts. I read it over a weekend and could hardly put it aside until I finished it."--Francisco J. Ayala, University of California, Irvine

"This is an important and significant contribution to the fields of geobiology and astrobiology because it offers a startling new interpretation of the nature of Darwinian evolution. Ward's conclusion is both troubling and provocative: life may be its own worst enemy. Like James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, Ward's Medea hypothesis is likely to be debated for the next thirty years."--Joseph L. Kirschvink, California Institute of Technology

"A provocative rethinking of the coevolution of life and its environment. Peter Ward mounts a sustained critique of optimizing/homeostatic Gaia, providing a lucid set of examples of significant positive feedbacks arising from life. This book will have a strong heuristic impact on future research."--David Schwartzman, author of Life, Temperature, and the Earth

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life is the agent of its own destruction 20 Oct 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The Gaia hypothesis first proposed by James Lovelock (or Gaia theory as he and his supporters now call it, claiming that it is able to satisfy predictive tests) is fairly well known these days. Life is supposedly maintaining the biosphere in homeostasis, stabilising atmospheric composition, temperature, ocean chemistry and so forth thus maintaining conditions suitable for life; humans however are working against and destabilising the system.

Peter Ward is a palaeontologist who here proposes the opposite, that life by its actions works to its own detriment, even to the extent of its own mass destruction. He calls it the Medea hypothesis, after the legendary figure who killed her own children.

He begins in the first two chapters by considering the definition of life and the definition of evolutionary success. If Darwinian evolution is one of the defining qualities of life, it seems almost a logical conclusion that competition will cause life to work against itself.

The third chapter, "Two hypotheses on the nature of life on earth", introduces the Gaia hypothesis, and then the Medea hypothesis. He contends that whilst his Medea hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis, the Gaia model can be shown to be incorrect in many ways.

Chapter four, "Medean feedbacks and global processes" seeks to demonstrate that many of the supposedly negative feedbacks of Gaia which work to keep the biosphere in homeostasis are in fact the opposite, positive feedbacks. So for example temperature increase causes changes which result in yet further temperature increase, a runaway effect.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but of varying quality 25 Jan 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I am so sure if I agree fully with the other reviews although I am honestly a big fan of Peter Ward having read few of his other books . I was really keen on reading and finishing this book but it came out as mixed feelings for me.

The start and end of the book are pretty good, well written and clear but somehow, I lost it in the middle part. I am not sure if the author really keep focus on the subject in some chapters. I felt lost a couple of time despite putting some real effort to follow. I think with a little bit more editing and re-reading, the book would have come out much better.

A couple of photos to illustrate all of this would have been a welcome addition as well.

Nevertheless, this does not really affect my liking of P. Ward work but perhaps this is a book slightly less in quality compared to the others.
Highly recommend "Rare Earth" which has been critically acclaimed.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A revolutionary hypothesis (in Italian) 25 July 2009
Una visione rivoluzionaria e provocativa delle relazioni della vita con la biosfera terrestre. In contrasto con la visione dell'ipotesi di Gaia di James Lovelock (l'idea che la vita sostiene e mantiene condizioni di abitabilità sulla Terra) l'ipotesi di Medea (la madre della mitologia greca che uccise i propri figli) di Peter Ward sostiene che la vita ha tendenze biocide e causerà la scomparsa della vita sulla Terra nel futuro cosí come è già avvenuto nel passato... "Solo la capacità di modificare il futuro ci salverà..." sarà l'uomo che dovrà modificare le condizioni ambientali per evitare la scomparsa della vita, e dell'uomo, in un futuro i cui effetti "Medea" già sono rilevabili... Un'ipotesi che aprirà un acceso dibattito, scientifico e metodologico, sulle modalità di conservazione della natura...
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interessante! 24 Nov 2009
Mi è piaciuto.
L'ho trovato scritto con estremo rigore scientifico.
Mi ha aiutato a riflettere su questo delicato tema e ad approfondire le mie conoscenze dell'argomento.
Soprattutto mi ha aperto un modo di giudicare diverso dal solito.
Spero che il testo possa essere presto pubblicato anche in lingua italiana in maniera che possa essere diffuso anche nel mio Paese con maggiore facilità.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 2.7 out of 5 stars  15 reviews
30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Gaia vs. Medea: is either necessary? 30 Jun 2009
By S. Kaphan - Published on
Peter Ward attempts to debunk the Gaia Hypothesis by countering it with one of his own: the Medea Hypothesis. According to Ward's interpretation, the Gaia Hypothesis essentially says that life makes the Earth more habitable for life. Ward's Medea Hypothesis says that life makes the Earth less habitable for life. Having read the book, I don't think his hypothesis is any more compelling than [his version of] the Gaia Hypothesis. There are many examples historically where life of one sort or another has altered the environment in such a way as to make survival either easier or harder for other life forms. One example of both is the evolution of photosynthesis, which is what put oxygen into the atmosphere. Oxygen was deadly to some species, but then, it allowed the evolution of others, including higher animals. It seems unnecessary to posit that life is universally Gaian or Medean, in Ward's senses of the terms. Either theory runs the risk of associating intentionality with processes that can be explained without resorting to that. While naive dependency on the truth of the Gaia Hypothesis may lead some to a complacent attitude about the biosphere's ability to alter itself to adapt successfully to changing circumstances, replacing that theory with one that depends on the same type of thinking but is instead dystopian doesn't seem any better.

One of the most important threads in the book depends on the discovery that as the Sun increases its energy output over the next half billion years or more, more carbon will be removed from the atmosphere than released into it, to the point that eventually photosynthetic plants will not be able to survive. Yet this science is not well explained in the book, leaving the reader to wonder how well established it really is. This is Ward's main example of life being Medean, and life on Earth being in its senescence, having only half a billion years or so left. Since this is a physical effect caused by the Sun, I don't know why it says anything about life's inherent tendencies at all, but nonetheless, I wonder how much is really known for sure about how the atmosphere will develop as the Sun's output increases. And how do we know, really, what life-forms might possibly evolve that could take advantage of such changed conditions and thrive in them? Half a billion years is a long time.

I think it is also a little short-sighted to assume that over the next half billion years, should the human race survive even a small fraction of that, that we will not master biological engineering, nanotechnology, etc., to the point that we may have a large hand in designing our own evolutionary successors, who may be able to survive in environments that current life forms would be unable to live in. Much of this may happen in the next century or two let alone hundreds of millions, or even thousands, of years.

As other reviewers have also noted, the book is badly in need of an editor, or at least a proof-reader! Also, this is the first book I recall seeing where the same graphs are repeated as many as three times.

Nevertheless, it was mostly fun to read and definitely a worthwhile subject to think about.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dark, difficult and somewhat depressing 10 Aug 2009
By A. Astolfi - Published on
Ok I am a big fan of Peter Ward, and I read everything of his. But this book is very different than the others that are decorating the paleontology section of my bookshelf. Most of his books are Saganesque - they celebrate science and I always feel like I'm on an adventure in the life of the mind when I read his stuff.

This book is a polemic, much more so even than Rare Earth was. It is a direct attack on a certain modern myth - the Gaea hypothesis - that has been embraced by the international environmental movement. Evaluating this book therefore transcends simple science appreciation, and enters a very different realm - the world of power politics. While I don't think Peter Ward knows a tremendous amount about that world, certainly he is aware of his myth making role - hence the playful title.

Bobby Seale once told me that the functional definition of power was "the ability to define reality in such a way as to make it act in desired manner". If you accept this political truth, than it is more important to evaluate whether the Gaea hypothesis affects reality in a way you want, than it is to address its accuracy.

And this makes the topic very tricky.

Ward handles it with real skill however - and while this is a somewhat less accessible work than some others it is a lot of fun to read. It started a three day argument with my girlfriend that had us both scouring the internet for information to bolster our arguments. I recommend it - but it requires work on the part of us non-paleontologists...and it ain't pretty
59 of 74 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Dark Book for Eggheads About Biocide 30 April 2009
By G. Charles Steiner - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The subtitle for "The Medea Hypothesis" is "Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?" Peter Ward's answer is yes. Medea, the trophy wife of Jason the Greek Argonaut, who murdered her own children in order to revenge herself on her cheating husband, is indeed the operating paradigm for planet Earth, not Gaia the loving Earth goddess.

The main thrust of the book is to falsify the Gaia Hypothesis posed by James Lovelock that life makes conditions better for itself and that life is self-regulating. The first eight chapters are wholly devoted to the falsification of this benevolent idea. Using the very latest research on mass extinctions in particular, Peter Ward's attempts to falsify the Gaia Hypothesis are satisfying and would, I think, put a dour smile on the lips of Schopenhauer were he alive today and if Ayn Rand were alive today, she would have to weep. (Rand's concept of a benevolent universe wouldn't be rationally supportable through the science Peter Ward uncovers here.) Only one of the six mass extinctions on this planet was due to an extraterrestrial cause (asteroid). Planet earth poisons and/or deadens itself periodically through high and low temperatures. Life contains within it its own ability to destroy itself; life, indeed, is in conflict with itself and is self-destructive, and life includes man himself or herself. Peter Ward demonstrates quite clearly, for example, how life increases to the point where it uses up all resources, whether phytoplankton or humanity. (Ronald Wright in "A Short History of Progress" thematizes this self-same idea historically.)

Chapter 9, only two pages long, summarizes Peter Ward's four chief points on the matter.

Chapters 10 and 11, the last two chapters of this short book, wax both philosophic environmentally and futuristic technologically. Both are weak offerings in that Peter Ward is no philosopher at all and with regard to the future, he cannot posit any engineering solution to life on this planet as we know it. We're simply and hopelessly stuck, science-fiction notions about colonizing space notwithstanding.

I was interested to learn how the author might understand the following conflict: science shows carbon dioxide will decrease in the long run, across the next billion years (and there are graphs in the book to illustrate this fact) and yet global warming (an increase in carbon dioxide) will destroy the planet as we know it. Peter Ward, however, doesn't concern himself with any scientific proofs about global warming. He merely asserts that global warming is a fact and those who aren't convinced of it are either intellectually deficient or politically biased. He never addresses the dichotomy between these two scientific positions, positions he himself poses within the book.

In terms of style, structure and language for this book, it requires a dictionary first of all and then some patience. The talented layperson has a fighting chance of understanding this text with the help of a good dictionary for vocabulary, but a biologist or an earth science professor will definitely have an even easier time of it altogether. It's helpful (but not wholly necessary) if you know, for example, what is a C3 docot from a C4 monocot in terms of vegetation. It's definitely worthwhile to grab that dictionary and look up what are eukaryotes and prokaryotes as well, not to mention such scientific terms as eutrophication, adiabatic, anoxic, albedo, biomass, and hypocapnia.

The sentences one encounters in this book are also full of parenthenticals, most of which appear in the middle of the sentence, interrupting the main thought with nearly irrelevant details, parentheticals that could have been added instead at the very end of the sentence in order to keep cognitive integration focused and steady. When I read on page 78, Chapter 5, that the bacteria in the Canfield ocean "could care less" about nitrogen, knowing the phrase ought to be "couldn't care less" and laughing at the fact that this scientist was suddenly and inexplicably anthropomorphizing bacteria, I knew I clearly wasn't in the hands of a master of nonfiction prose.

My sense of order for this book is that it wasn't written in a steady, logical development or logical progression, nor was it even written with an overall design or plan in mind, but consisted in a (somewhat repetitive) series of efforts, essays, perhaps, and/or technical "pushes" in certain directions in order to do away with various levels of the Gaia Hypothesis. On the whole, I thought this disappointing book needed to be rewritten and edited in which case it probably would have been published only as a pamphlet or a long magazine article.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant synopsis 26 Sep 2013
By T. W. Fugate - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is an excellent piece of work by a brilliant climate scientist. The book covers a lot of material in a short format. It shows how life on earth evolved and way that life has impacted the biosphere that supports it. Unspoken but implied throughout is the way the intelligent life, i.e. human beings, have impacted the biosphere in ways that may lead to our imminent demise. This is essential reading along with Craig Dilworth's Too Smart For Our Own Good in my opinion for any thinking person who wants to understand the evolutionary trap that humanity has fallen into.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars MEDEA VIS-A-VIS GAIA 26 May 2011
By George Tuton - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Overall I believe the reader will find this book enlightening in terms of the evolutionary, geophysical, and solar systems interactions on the life of planet Earth. Peter Ward is not always understandable for the general public, but generally one will get the gist of his and others' Medean Hypothesis. Not a pretty sight when applied to ourselves as the current Medean Actor. The Medean Hypothesis has political implications, and has already stirred "heated" debate among politicians. Global Warming, anyone?
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