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on 25 August 2008
I read this book sometime ago and is impacted me significantly as it has with many others. I enjoyed the explanation of the huge organism (Earth) that is self- regulating. I also enjoyed that Lovelock points out that we humans are part of the environment and belong here. We will produce waste.

Having said that, any system can overload. Thus, we need to be good stewards of our planet.

As the astronauts left the earth in the 1960's and headed towards the moon they looked back at our planet and did not see borders or countries. They saw the earth as a single unit...beautiful and fragile. It rotated on an invisible string in the blackness of night. It affected many of the astronauts profoundly.

The book has already helped many more people see the earth as a single unit. If it can continue to do that, hopefully we will find a way to live more harmoniously with the environment on our planet.

Gaia is a great read and a way of looking at things that is both fascination and enlightening!

The Re-Discovery of Common Sense: A Guide To: The Lost Art of Critical Thinking
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on 22 March 2006
Firstly I will say this, if you are considering buying this book then do so. If nothing else it will make you think and thats always a worthwhile thing in a publication. That being said I have issues with the text.
The data is thought provoking, the hypothesis, that the planet can be modelled by thinking of it in terms of a homeostatic (Self regulating) organism is certainly supported byy the evidence presented and the top-down look at the world makes a refreshing and worthwile change from the 'standard' reductionist approach. Now for the 'but';
Lovelock makes the common, unfortunate and in this book serial mistake (to my mind at least)of confusing effect with intent. For example he cites the chemically unstable composition of the atmosphere, maintained by life, as evidence that Gaia - the world organism - is self regulating for the benefit of life. His argument runs that if this atmospheric balance was not maintained life would die out, therefore Gaia must have lifes best interests at heart and work for the benefit and propagation of life.
This is an all too common confusion accidentaly propagted by many, the underpinning science is engaging, interesting and enlightening but the unfortunate phrasing in terms of the planets intent irritates throughout the book. Just because we can interpret things more easily by considering the planet in terms of an organism does not mean it thinks and feels as a human psyche. Conversly it also doesn't mean it doesn't think like us, it may, but I would prefer this isn't assumed when there is no evidence to support it.
Overall, well worth reading but beware the anthromorphic phrasing. I'm interested to see how his more science orientated book turns out. In the post as I type.
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on 6 November 2007
It didn't have the direct and dramatic impact of Newton's Principia - a book that radically changed the world, nevertheless James Lovelock's book Gaia - a New Look at Life on Earth, did have a more subtle influence on our world - particularly that of science. In a sense the Gaia Hypothesis prefigured - culturally and symbolically - the evolution of pure science from that classical, mechanistic world view inspired by the uncanny genius of Newton, to a less linear, more holistic awareness of the irreducible relationships (`gestalts') that permeate apparently discreet phenomena. Indeed this kind of more `organic' approach is radically renewing the scope of Science.

What this unique book may also prove to have done is act as a pivotal stepping stone in time: a step back into our most atavistic, indigenous roots, a time when we lived in harmony with the Earth - talk to any Inuit, Aborigine, or Sioux elder and they retain that deeply intuitive and spiritual connection; but just as significantly, a step into the future - towards a re-newed awareness of our responsibility and acute vulnerability as part of the Earth's 'living' ecology. Climate change is the moment that latter reality is returned home to us with the harshest and most dangerous of lessons. And in a sense, climate change was the mighty prediction James Lovelock issued with his Gaia Hypothesis.

More recently he's said his hope lies "in that powerful force that takes over our lives when we sense that our tribe or nation is threatened from outside". However, he's also said "I do think it will take a disaster to wake us up''. Let's hope, on that score at least, and for all our sakes, he's wrong.
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James Lovelock has created a powerful and interesting argument in this book that will keep scientists busy for centuries. He notices that there is an ability for the Earth to maintain relatively constant conditions in temperature, atmosphere, salinity and pH of the oceans, and reductions in pollutants that defies the simple observations of what "should" happen. From this, he concludes that there is a complex of physical, chemical and biological interrelationships that work like a living organism, which he defines as the Gaia Hypothesis. For defining that concept and providing some of the measurements to establish its premises, he deserves a 7 star rating.
Unfortunately, the argument is expressed in overlong and convoluted fashion. He deliberately limits himself to a nonscientific explanation in this book. The scientific version of the argument is in The Ages of Gaia. Although the book is not long, it certainly could have been condensed into a longish article for Scientific American or The Atlantic Monthly. My second quibble is that the editor was nowhere in sight in creating the organization of the book. The key point is often buried in the third sentence of the last paragraph in a chapter. The argument in between wanders into all kinds of places where it doesn't need to go. For organization and editing, I give this book a one star rating.
So the average is a 4 star rating. The writing itself is pleasant enough. Don't let the lack of organization and editing put you off, for it is worth your while to read this book. It will remind you of the benefits of the sort of sytems thinking that Peter Senge talks about in The Fifth Discipline.
The other thing you will learn is the weakness of scientific work that fails to develop enough field data and to connect enough with other disciplines. I was struck by the same observations recently while visiting environmental scientists at the Smithsonian Institution. The basics in many of these areas have yet to be measured and evaluated. This book will point countless generations forward in understanding how our plant maintains its environment that permits life to flourish. Clearly, it is a stallbusting effort to replace "stalled" thinking about the history and future of the Earth. I found the key questions (such as why doesn't the ocean become more saline?) to be irresistible. I think you will, too. Enjoy and think!
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on 31 July 2002
The idea that the planet is a self-balancing system is clearly presented for non-scientists. Fully explained, this model is in fact complementary to other enviromental models rather than contradictory. I think that this book usefully fills a gap between economics, biology and physics, and it is a sobering message that if we do not take sufficient care, we could tip the planet into a new equilibrium (but without the human race).
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on 23 May 2010
After hearing James Lovelock discussing his ideas and his central theme; the Gaia hypothesis, so eloquently on the recent BBC4 series; 'Beautiful Minds', I decided to pursue my interest in the idea with the purchase of this book. I was not disappointed.

This text elucidates in a clear and easy to understand manner the central tenets of Lovelock's 'philosophy', namely that the earth and all life upon and within it represents a single, self regulating system. To me, this idea seems remarkably intuitive and almost logical. However, I think that Lovelock does himself no favours and ,indeed, leaves himself open to attack from evolutionary biologists with the choice of language used in this book. To talk of the purpose of substances produced by life forms brings with it connotations of 'Mother Nature' and her maternal ways that offer an easy route for detractors to criticise what is otherwise an excellent and lucid book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 September 2012
Gaia: A new look at life on Earth, by James E. Lovelock, Oxford University Press, 1979, 176 ff

This was the first book on the subject that Lovelock wrote presenting the idea that we need to regard Earth as a holistic, interacting, organic system. It is organic not only in the sense that it is teeming with life. It is organic also in the sense that it is a continually interacting system and, until or unless humankind exerts its disruptive influence, it is also capable of renewal and readjustment of one system if changes, natural or artificial, are produced in another system. Referring to Galileo's struggle with Church hierarchy in his attempt to introduce some rationalism concerning the planetary system into Church dogma, Lovelock comments:
`It is the scientific establishment that now forbids heresy'. `Heresy' here should be taken to mean anything that does not conform to established scientific ideas. Biologist Richard Dawkins is one of those vociferously opposed to any such notion as Gaia.

Lovelock was surprised that scientists regarded his Gaia metaphor as teleological, suggesting the action of some divine purpose, while the theologians asked him to deliver a sermon in a prestigious cathedral in New York! The rest of this short book presents information supporting Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis by considering data from land, sea and air. There is also an interesting chapter on Cybernetics - communication and control in self-regulating systems. Lovelock says that that is precisely what humankind is not doing.

There are some surprising and controversial statements in the book: `ozone depletion cannot be as lethal as it is often made out to be'; `A high level of technology is by no means always energy-dependent'; `the very concept of pollution is anthropocentric and it may be irrelevant in the Gaian context'; `if half of all of the nuclear weapons in the world's arsenals...were used in nuclear war, the effects on most of the human and man-made ecosystems of the world would be small at first would be small at first and would become negligible in thirty years' - I think the Chernobyl disaster would make most of us question that statement.

I think the concept of Earth as an environment with which we constantly interact and which we drastically alter at our peril is an important one - indeed it may well be crucial to our survival as a species.
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on 16 April 2010
This is a book well worth reading. It is intended for the non-scientist although not lacking in the scientific approach. I was at first expecting to see a wishy washy argument given the large amount of bad press this book has received. I found the opposite in fact, the book deals with the possibility that the entire biosphere of the planet is regulated through its living components in order to continue to sustain life within it. This is based on the ideas first developed to study feedback systems in engineering e.g. +ve and -ve feedback. These notions arose in the science of control systems where the input from one sensor can alter the output of a control e.g. a thermostat in an oven.

It takes this idea much further to a planetwide scale. The entire book firstly explains the ideas behind this hypothesis and then spends the remainder of the book considering possible evidence to support it. It ranges over all forms of life from algae, bacteria and other plant and animal life and how it influences the planet through the concentration of gases in the atmosphere for example or how excessive amounts of carbon are "sinked" and so on.

A fascinating book and remarkable especially for its time. In a sense it has defined the time as well and much of his ideas have preoccupied scientists from all walks of life.
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on 25 March 2011
It has to be noted, first of all that this book is now 30 years old. Much has changed since it was written and to that end the author has included a new preface which acknowledges this. He also acknowledges that there are some factual errors within the book but that he would rather the original text be preserved as it was originally written, rather than constantly be revised.

The starting question is this: how could we identify if there is life on another planet? In other words, what are the signatures that distinguish life from non-life? The answer is not that straightforward, though Lovelock, with some acknowledgement given to some other scientists, comes up with a working definition for what characterises that which is living. But what Lovelock then does is to apply these criteria to the whole of planet earth and comes to the startling conclusion that the earth (or at least the biosphere) is a living thing; not just that it contains living things, but rather that it is itself a living entity, which has then been dubbed Gaia, after the greek goddess of the earth.

From here, Lovelock then looks at various aspects of biology and chemistry on earth and seeks evidence for this claim. His central argument is that of homeostasis: that the earth is self-regulating in order to maintain the conditions needed for life.

The book is characterised by two different personalities, so to speak. On the one hand, there is a quite reasonable scientific discourse (mostly focused on chemistry) about the make up and balances within the atmosphere and oceans, while on the other hand there is an impassioned environmental polemic on what mankind has done to harm the planet. While I do disagree, per se, with having these two styles married together, the way it is done seems to take the edge off the level of scientific credulity that Lovelock might have otherwise been afforded. My impression of it was that the scientific overview of feedback systems was immensely interesting, but the overarching Gaia hypothesis was itself unnecessary. Though this book has been hugely influential, particularly within the environmental lobby (rightly, I believe) the weight of scientific evidence (as presented here) for the master narrative is small and yet to be convincing.
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on 20 April 2013
Lovelock's Gaia theory was written in the 1970s, but by now has become one of the most iconic environmental and scientific hypotheses, and for that reason alone, it is worth a read. Almost every debate on global warming, pollution and damage to biodiversity references this idea at some point, and with good reason, as it is an interesting idea that certainly has some valid scientific, as well as intuitive, basis. While a passing knowledge of biology and chemistry is useful for some of the more scientific chapters, it is not necessary in order to understand the ideas, and the text is well written and easy to read. It is a book that everyone could and should read, but that doesn't mean that it is without flaws.

Firstly, there is a difference between a hypothesis and a theory - a hypothesis is a proposed explanation, and only becomes a theory when its' arguments and anticipated effects are backed up by evidence. What this book contains is a hypothesis with some strong scientific evidence in parts, and some heavy speculation in other parts. The argument that the presence of life has maintained a different balance of elements and a different climate to what would occur without the existence of life is well explained and backed up with evidence, as are some specific examples around how certain systems regulate conditions such as the salinity of the ocean. However, in pursuit of the overall idea, I find that Lovelock starts to go a bit far, especially with the idea that life has in some way evolved to benefit the regulation of the planet. There is little evidence presented for this beyond the fact that it backs up his theory, and ideas such as the concept of corals building themselves into coral reefs to create evaporation lagoons with the intention of regulating the salt in the sea seem a bit too far-fetched.

This book should be praised for raising awareness of how inter-related life on earth is, and the indirect effects of our actions, but you may be surprised at some of the opinions on environmental issues in here. For example, Lovelock dismisses the threat to the ozone layer from CFCs as being insignificant (albeit partly due to the over-the-top doom-mongering at the time, rather than the modern worry that it will merely increase the chances of skin cancer).

Overall, it is a must-read, for the interesting ideas and for its' significance in modern thinking about the critical topics of the environment, but be warned that it is more of an expression of an idea than a fully explained thesis (I believe his book, 'The Ages of Gaia' provides a more scientific approach)
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