Gaia's Gift: Earth, Ourselves, and God after Copernicus

Gaia's Gift: Earth, Ourselves, and God after Copernicus

Gaia's Gift: Earth, Ourselves, and God after Copernicus

Gaia's Gift: Earth, Ourselves, and God after Copernicus

Synopsis

Gaia's Gift , the second of Anne Primavesi's explorations of human relationships with the earth, asks that we complete the ideological revolution set in motion by Copernicus and Darwin concerning human importancene. They challenged the notion of our God-given centrality within the universe and within earth's evolutionary history. Yet as our continuing exploitation of earth's resources and species demonstrates, we remain wedded to the theological assumption that these are there for our sole use and benefit. Now James Lovelock's scientific understanding of the existential reality of Gaia's gift of life again raises the question of our proper place within the universe. It turns us decisively towards an understanding of ourselves as dependent on, rather than in control of, the whole earth community.

Excerpt

When a telegraph cable was to be laid for the first time between Great Britain and the United States, it was immensely important to know the exact nature of the bottom of the sea so as to guard against the costly cable being frayed or cut. So in 1857 the Admiralty commissioned a survey of the seabed over the whole line of the cable. Thomas Huxley had specimens from the survey sent to him for analysis, and found that almost the whole of the central plain beneath the North Atlantic, from Valentia on the west coast of Ireland to Trinity Bay in Newfoundland, was covered by a fine chalky mud that, when brought to the surface, dried into a greyish-white substance. If you are so inclined, you can write with it on a blackboard, as he did in his 1868 lecture, On a Piece of Chalk. Huxley said that when he examined a section of this substance under the microscope, he saw congreg-ated together innumerable minute chambered skeletal bodies, beautifully constructed of calcium carbonate in a variety of coccolith forms and on average not larger than a hundredth of an inch across.

Similar skeletons, he remarked, were being formed in the sea even as he spoke, as they are now. They form around subvisible living organisms and when these die the skeletons rain down thousands of feet (part of the phenomenon called ‘marine snow’) to become part of the deep sea mud on the ocean floor. Over a very long period of time this deposit builds up until, over an even longer period, it is upheaved into coastal landscapes - a process that once formed the white cliffs of Dover.

In contrast to Huxley’s research into the formation of deep sea mud, his great friend, Charles Darwin, devoted the last years of his life to studying the superficial layer of earth that we call top soil. He discovered during the course of his studies that worms created the earth: that is, this layer of organic material mixed with disintegrated rock in which plants grow. The results of the earthworms’ labour startled him sufficiently for him to ask how human work compares with that done through their agency. He felt that we needed ‘to shuffle the traditional hierarchies’: not so much by . . .

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