Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth

By James Lovelock | Go to book overview

4 Cybernetics

The American mathematician Norbert Wiener first gave common use to the word 'cybernetics' (from the Greek word for 'steersman', 'kubernetes'), to describe that branch of study which is concerned with self-regulating systems of communication and control in living organisms and machines. The derivation seems apt, since the primary function of many cybernetic systems is to steer an optimum course through changing conditions towards a predetermined goal.

We know from long experience that stable objects are those with broad bases and with most of their mass centred low, yet we seldom marvel at our own remarkable ability to stand upright, supported only by our jointed legs and narrow feet. To stay erect even when pushed, or when the surface beneath us moves, as on a ship or a bus; to be able to walk or run over rough ground without falling; to keep cool when it is hot or vice versa, are examples of cybernetic processes and of properties exclusive to living things and to highly automated machines.

We stand upright--after a little practice--on a ship that rolls because we possess an array of sensory nerve cells buried in our muscles, skin, and joints. The function of these sensors is to provide a constant flow of information to the brain about the movements and location in space of the various parts of our bodies, as well as the environmental forces currently acting on them. We also have a pair of balance organs associated with our ears which work like spiritlevels, each having a bubble moving in a fluid medium to record any change in the position of the head; and we have our eyes to scan the horizon and tell us how we stand in relation to it. All this flow of information is processed by the brain, usually at an unconscious level, and is immediately compared with our consciously intended

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Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Gaia - A New Look at Life on Earth i
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • 1 - Introductory 1
  • 2 - In the Beginning 12
  • 3 - The Recognition of Gaia 30
  • 4 - Cybernetics 44
  • 5 - The Contemporary Atmosphere 59
  • 6 - The Sea 78
  • 7 - Gaia and Man: The Problem of Pollution 100
  • 8 - Living Within Gaia 115
  • 9 - Epilogue 133
  • Definitions and Explanations of Terms 143
  • Further Reading 147
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