I had just bought some future beachfront property in Nevada, counting on the greenhouse effect to melt the ice caps and inundate California, when I heard about the "Gaia" theory. In a nutshell, this theory says that living things on earth change the environment to suit themselves, instead of just adapting. One result of the "Gaia effect," which threatens my get-rich-quick scheme, is that CO2 in the atmosphere has decreased, not increased, over geologic periods of time and will continue to do so--hence no greenhouse effect. Can you tell me more about this theory? --Barry Aldridge, Chicago
Hoo boy. We're talking about one of the major irruptions of New Age mysticism into mainstream science, and let me tell you, you haven't even heard the good part yet. Gaiaism was first propounded by British biochemist J.E. Lovelock in a book called Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979) and later in The Ages of Gaia (1988). Lovelock argues that the planet earth, which he calls Gaia, is a living organism, although not a conscious one. And I don't mean just that rocks have souls. Lovelock thinks all terrestrial life, us included, interacts with the earth to form a single living entity. In other words, Barry, maybe your job on this planet is to be the earth's toenails. I'm the brains, naturally, and I know a couple people who are leading candidates for assho-- well, no need to get graphic. But you know what I mean.
Now, on one level you can say, sure, everybody's everything and we're all one. So what? But Lovelock argues that Gaiaism has practical consequences: the planet, like individual creatures, is self-regulating, perhaps even self-healing. To illustrate this Lovelock uses the concept of a living world full of black daisies and white daisies. If the hypothetical Daisyworld gets too cold, more black daisies grow, absorbing sunlight and warming the planet. If it gets too warm, white ones grow, reflecting sunlight and cooling things off. Lovelock and his supporters are currently trying to find examples of this sort of thing happening on earth, so far with limited success.
Most scientists don't buy Gaiaism, but they take it seriously enough to argue with it. The notion that the earth constitutes an organism in any meaningful sense is particularly troubling, as is the idea that living things can somehow improve their environment, except by accident. Even Lovelock doesn't claim that the earth is automatically going to compensate for environmental insults inflicted by man, as you suggest. In other words, fear not: the waves will be lapping at your Nevada beachfront yet.
JOE NEWMAN UPDATE
The Teeming Millions will recall our discussion a year or two ago of the eccentric inventor Joseph Newman of Mississippi, who claimed he had invented a machine that produced more energy than it consumed--a perpetual motion machine, in other words. The U.S. refused to grant Newman a patent, saying perpetual motion machines were impossible. He sued but lost his case when a scientific analysis revealed that his machine produced far less energy than it consumed.
Now a Straight Dope reader in Mississippi sends word that Joe is in the news again. According to the Mississippi Press, Newman says he was ordered by God to marry both his 30-year-old secretary and her 8-year-old daughter. Newman complied--God presided over the ceremony--and happily notified the world in a 12-page press release. (One copy was sent to the Ayatollah Khomeini.) The only problem--well, maybe not the only problem--is that Newman was already married to a third woman. Authorities promptly removed the eight-year-old from Joe's home, though he says he has not consummated the marriage. Newman, who once ran for president on God's instructions, angrily declared that this shabby treatment was going to get God really PO'ed. "I wouldn't be a bit surprised if this does not result that God will place misery upon the State of Mississippi. . . . I can see the handwriting on the wall and the people of Mississippi had better wake up."
Clearly this is one wild and crazy guy. My previous opinion of the man stands abundantly confirmed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.