Life, Temperature, and the Earth: The Self-Organizing Biosphere

Life, Temperature, and the Earth: The Self-Organizing Biosphere

Life, Temperature, and the Earth: The Self-Organizing Biosphere

Life, Temperature, and the Earth: The Self-Organizing Biosphere


The idea that living things and the atmosphere, oceans, and soils comprise an interactive, self-regulating system--the Gaia concept--was first proposed nearly thirty years ago. Since then researchers have been seeking new connections between life and the global environment. David Schwartzman contributes to that search by examining how the Earth's biosphere regulates itself over geologic time. Emphasizing long-term geologic trends--not the short-term perturbations that have received so much media attention (e.g., the so-called greenhouse effect), the author presents and elucidates his theory of biospheric evolution.

Life, Temperature, and the Earth updates and modifies important aspects of the Gaia hypothesis in light of geochemical, geophysical, mathematical, and paleontological data that were either ignored or unavailable at the time the hypothesis was developed. Schwartzman argues that the Earth's climatic temperature has been biologically regulated amidst the backdrop of variable volcanic outgassing and an evolving sun. The key to this regulation--discussed here in depth--has been the progressive increase in life's promotion of weathering on land over geologic time. The book is the first to take note of strong evidence for much higher temperatures prior to about two billion years ago and their role in constraining the evolution of microbes and delaying the emergence of complex multicellular life.

Schwartzman sets the stage by introducing his theory of biospheric evolution and outlining the development of the Gaia concept during the 1980s and 1990s. He then presents a systematic exposition of the weathering process, discussing the habitability of the Earth over geologic time and the role of such abiotic factors as tectonics and the carbon geodynamic cycle in climatic evolution. The final third of the book turns to a reinterpretation of the surface temperature history of the Earth, positing a much warmer Precambrian Earth surface than conventionally believed and discussing the implications of this fact to evolutionary biology and bioastronomy (the search for life elsewhere in the universe).

Determining the history of climate and investigating the self-organization of the biosphere, Life, Temperature, and the Earth explores the very foundations of environmental science and illuminates the evolution of life itself.


At the age of 12 or 13, I read a J. B. S. Haldane book on the natural sciences, which I discovered in my uncle’s library. Haldane mentioned some of the Russian work on the biological role in weathering (probably Polynov or one of his students). I had forgotten about all this until I became interested in this subject again as an adult. I have not yet found the Haldane volume mentioned, but those early researchers felt, doubdessly influenced by Vernadsky’s thinking on the subject, that weathering was basically a biological phenomenon and would be much slower without life present. Having grown up in an “old left” household in the 1950s in Brooklyn, I discovered the Marxist classics in a hidden space below the family television. Reading Engels’s Dialectics of Nature strongly impressed me. Burning the top of my dresser with chemistry experiments and collecting minerals, insects, and plants occupied my childhood. I probably passed Stephen Jay Gould on my monthly pilgrimage to the mineral hall at the Museum of Natural History (the dinosaur exhibit was on the way). I majored in chemistry at Stuyvesant High School and geochemistry at City College of New York and Brown University, where my graduate research was on excess argon in the Stillwater Complex and degassing models of the Earth. I did a term paper on Vernadsky and biogeochemistry as a senior in Alexander Klots’s (the author of A Field Guide to Butterflies) biology class in the spring of 1964.

This book is an outgrowth of research that I have been pursuing for the past 15 years, since I first felt the powerful heuristic influence of Lovelock’s 1979 book on Gaia. the concept of Gaia strongly resonated with my sense that spheres of nature interacted dialectically in the Engelsian sense, that is, emergent phenomena arise from the interactions of the parts (the whole’s systems and subsystems; for a lucid exposition of a modern dialectics of na-

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