Several years ago, the maverick British scientist, James Lovelock,
suggested that the earth's ecosystem, which he called "Gaia," is
"alive" -- "alive" in the sense that it is a self-regulating
organism, which alters its physical environment (most notably the
temperature and chemistry of the atmosphere) to sustain the myriad
species which constitute its "life." Literal-minded scientific
critics have insisted that a depiction of the global ecosystem,
"Gaia," as a "live organism," is an exercise in rhetorical overkill,
even Lovelock has since toned down and qualified that analogy.
Even so, with some qualification, I would go further than
Lovelock: I would suggest that Gaia is not only "alive," but that she
is a conscious moral agent -- that Gaia has a mind and a
This pronouncement will surely amaze my students and colleagues,
who have come to expect from me the sort of cautious critical
nit-picking and semantic precision that drives decent folk to feed
hemlock to philosophers. Yet here, I seem to be talking like some
sort of romantic, pan-psychic nut.
Now for my qualification: we, homo sapiens, are that
"mind and conscience" of Gaia. To the best of our knowledge, we are
the only earthly species with reflective moral intelligence.
Accordingly, if our species were to disappear, Gaia would literally
"lose her mind," perchance to regain it should another species evolve
with like capacities. Of course, Gaia, for virtually all of her
two-billion year life, has been "mindless," without our moral and
intellectual capacities; in fact that very intelligence, or better,
"technological cleverness," now constitutes a threat to Gaia's
health, rivaled only by rare, extra-terrestrial asteroid
"Big deal!," complains the critic. "You start with an
apparently outrageous claim that the planet has a mind, then retreat
to truism that the planet contains an intelligent species. Your
theory has died, not of a thousand cuts, but of a single
qualification. So what's your point?"
Simply this: my "retreat" is not to a truism. If we are, in fact,
the only species with self-reflective moral intelligence, we are not,
in addition, a thing apart from Gaia -- not enclosed like a giraffe
in a zoo, or encased under glass like a rock specimen in a museum.
Our species' relationship to the planetary ecosystem which created
and sustains it, is more analogous to the relationship of our brain
to our body. To regard our intellect and culture as our exclusive
species property, and not, at least metaphorically, as an "organ" of
the planetary organism, is to commit what Alfred North Whitehead
called, "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness." With the insights of
ecological science at hand, we are no more entitled to see ourselves
as autonomous "tenants" of this planet, than the post-Copernican
scholar was entitled to see himself at the center of the
In sum, my essential thesis comes to this: just as it is
impossible to construct a coherent morality from the perspective of
the individual person, so too is it impossible to devise a
sustainable environmental ethic from the point of view of our
personal species. Ultimately, we must see our thought and moral
agency as functioning within the larger context of the life-system of
the planet. We must understand, and acknowledge, that our
interdependent connections with the natural sources and sustenance of
our lives are so strong and complete, that the person-society-planet
boundaries are shadowy and permeable. If we realize this, we will
view ourselves not as autonomous planetary "tenants" but as
integrally functioning components of the planetary life system --
Gaia. And, with the dissolution of the person-planet boundary,
our mind is recognized as the mind of the planet, and our moral
agency the conscience of the planet.
If I am to sustain this hypothesis, then I must defend the
The concepts of life and health are
significantly, if not precisely, applicable to the global
Morality is essentially systemic: a coherent ethic can not be
constructed from the point of view of the individual agent.
Our minds are not contained within our skin. They extend out
to mix with the world of our experience, of our education, the
persons of our community, and if we are ecologically aware, to the
natural sources and sustenance of our organisms.
Our personal needs and fulfillments -- the requisites for a
desirable life -- are inextricably grounded in the natural
conditions that selected our species. In other words, we are, in a
profound and fundamental sense, natural beings.
This, in order, will be the remaining task of this paper.
I begin my reply with the warning of Thomas Hobbes: "Words are
wise men's counters; they are the money of fools." Or, in simpler
words, we should use our language to convey and expand our thoughts,
not to confine them. To call Gaia "alive" in the strict biological
sense, is less than a literal truth. But this stretch of language may
well convey much more truth than falsehood. For while the planetary
ecosystem is in the grey area, the "penumbra," of the concept of
life, some characteristics of life apply, and some do not.
Does Gaia have a cellular structure? No. Unless, in a
metaphorical sense, we call the individual organisms the "cells"
of Gaia's body.
Does Gaia reproduce its own kind? Again, not literally so. Not
unless and until we eventually "terraform" other planets.
Is Gaia a self-regulating homeostatic system? Yes. But that
criterion is too broad, for so too is a desert lake, like the
Great Salt Lake, which has only evaporation as its outlet. When
the rainfall is abundant, the lake enlarges to increase
evaporation; and when it is dry, the lake contracts to "conserve"
its water. But the Lake, though self-regulating, is in no sense
Gaia, however, shares with its component live organisms, these
It regulates and even alters its physical environment to make
that environment conducive to its survival. As Lovelock and
Margulis have pointed out, two billion years ago, the solar energy
output was 40% less than it is now. And yet, the planetary
temperature has remained well within the bounds of two-digit
Celsius degrees, necessary to sustain life. Moreover, though
dissolved salts have constantly been carried into the oceans, then
left behind by evaporation, the salinity of the oceans has
remained constant at the favorable 3% for most of the epoch of
life -- and for reasons that are not fully understood even today.
In short, when the physics and chemistry of the planet have tended
toward conditions hostile to life, Gaia has successfully countered
Most importantly, perhaps, like a living organism, Gaia is a
complex system of interdependent and mutually sustaining parts, in
dynamic equilibrium. When moderately disturbed, the system tends
to recover its previous state. When profoundly disturbed, it moves
to a new equilibrium.
And if we can, to this degree, attribute "life" to the global
ecosystem, then the clinical-normative assessment of life, "health,"
is close at hand. In other words, if the concepts of "health" and
"disease" are meaningfully applied to ourselves and to our fellow
living organisms, then, if the attributes of life apply to Gaia, so
too will the concept of health apply to the life community. We will,
in a literal sense, be in a position to diagnose Gaia's
state of health, and perhaps prescribe remedies.
So just what do we mean by "health." While this question opens the
door to a library of opinion in the field of medical ethics, I
believe that we can list a few essential, if interrelated, elements
of health. They would include: (a) viability -- the
likelihood of remaining alive under normal conditions; (b) robust
functioning -- the availability of numerous and redundant
defenses against disease and injury; (c) adaptability to
changing conditions in the external environment; and
(d) harmonious integration of component parts,
functioning to support the whole system.
Do all these conditions describe what we ordinarily call a
"healthy organism." Do they describe as well the conditions of
flourishing ecosystems? If so, I rest my case.
During the first half of the 20th century, moral philosophers
focused their attention on the individual person -- his or her
feelings, volitions, satisfactions and preferences. For the most
part, we have moved beyond, though, alas, this moral atomism remains
alive and well in those most robust concepts of applied economics,
"the free market," and "cost-benefit analysis," which continue to
captivate legislators and public policy-makers.
In contrast to these trends, the most interesting and productive
schools of contemporary moral philosophy, hold that morality can be
adequately be understood only in the context of a community. The
social and behavioral sciences, allied with game theory, have
demonstrated that attempts to comprehend morality from the point of
view of the individual, are as futile as efforts to hear the sound of
one hand clapping.
The relocation of the moral point of view from the individual to
the community of like beings was, I contend, crucial to the
advancement of moral philosophy. But while it was a step in the right
direction, yet another step is required: the step "up" to the point
of view of the planetary life-system itself. But first, let's justify
the initial step. If we are to see ourselves as the conscience of
Gaia, we must first defend the notion that morality is fundamentally
systemic and communal.
In the most general sense, morality might be regarded as a system
of rules, the general obedience to which requires us to give up
something in order to gain more. In the language of contemporary game
theory, morality is a plus-sum game.
Conversely, immorality consists in acting as if one is
sufficiently different from all others to make himself an exception
to these rules, and thus entitled to take more at the expense of
others. Persistent opportunity to do just that, mixed with a
insufficient conscience or will to forbear, might be called, with
just a bit of exaggeration, "the root of all evil."
The clear implication which follows is that self-seeking and
self-serving behavior is, at best, amoral, and if done at the expense
of others, immoral. But even more significantly, due to the systemic
nature of morality, self-serving behavior can also be self-defeating
-- a circumstance which has come to be called "the paradox of
A soldier who elects to serve as an altruist in a squad of
altruists, each willing to sacrifice his life for his buddies,
will be much more likely to survive combat than an egoist serving
in a squad of egoists.
The "Tragedy of the Commons:" "Utility-maximizing individuals"
(so admired by the economists) "rationally" exploiting a common
resource will eventually bring ruin to all, including themselves.
The solution? "Mutual coercion mutually agreed upon:" -- i.e.,
rule of law.
Consider two marriages: In the first, two individuals marry
with the determination to gain the most personal satisfaction from
the relationship. In the second, two lovers are consumed by the
desire to promote the happiness of the other, with little concern
for their own happiness. I leave it to you to guess which will be
The point is reiterated by numerous game-theory simulations
such as "prisoner's dilemma" and "tit-for-tat" strategy, which
have clear application to ordinary social conditions.
In sum, when contemplated from the point of view of the social
system, we find that there are selfish reasons for being unselfish.
This "moral paradox" serves to erase the sharp line that is
traditionally drawn between "selfish" and "unselfish" behavior -- a
line which, I submit, has distorted much of our moral thinking.
This account is incomplete, however, if it does not include, along
with the "game theory" defense of morality, "the ethics of love" --
what I have elsewhere called, "the need for self-transcendent
concern." (1) If you ask a
parent, "Why should you love your children? What's in it for you?"
The irrelevance, even the impudence, of the query is self-evident.
Anyone who would deign to reduce love to self-interest, deserves not
an explanation but our pity. There is no need to explain color to a
fully sighted person; it is impossible to do so to a blind person.
Similarly, there is not need to define "love" to a lover. He or she
knows. And to a confirmed cynic or egoist who does not understand
love, it is useless to attempt an explanation.
Shortly, I will suggest that a similar argument might apply to an
appreciation of nature. (2)
But if nature, and the life within it, is to be an authentic
object of love, then some fundamental connections and harmonies must
exist between ourselves and the nature which selected us and which
sustains us. This, as we shall see, is another basic premise of my
ARE THE BOUNDARIES OF MY MIND?
Where do our personal lives begin, and where do they end? Our
personal selves do not "belong" to the brain. Instead, our minds
extend along the neural pathways to all the brain's receptors: our
eyes, ears, hands and skin. Moreover, our minds do not end at our
skin. Instead, they go beyond along verbal pathways, and now
electronic, and eventually fiber-optic, pathways.
Where is the boundary of my mind, if not my brain case? Because of
my mind, I have a concept of Gaia, yet that concept has no simple
location in my brain. The source of that concept is the unbounded
reservoir of culture, myth, science, routed to my awareness through
the conduit of James Lovelock's brilliant and inspired language.
Because I desire to share these ideas with you, my brain activates my
vocal chords, and our common atmosphere conveys these words to you,
in a language acquired in our common society. And as I sat at my
computer preparing this paper, my mind extended to, and through, my
finger tips, to the keyboard and on to the screen. That same computer
contains data files which I previously entered, and then put to good
use, as I composed these words. And through that computer, during the
same week, I sent a letter to a friend in Moscow, received a reply,
and responded, all within the space of three days.
So I ask again: where does my mind begin, and where does it end?
Surely it is not contained in the three pounds of "wetware" within my
brain case. In Whiteheadian terms, the concept of Gaia now before my
mind, is the focal point in a field -- a convergence at this instant
of a myriad of lines of causation from countless sources, extending
far out in space and back in time, and crossing no sharp ontological
boundaries. The traditional gap between the knower and the known, the
mind and its object is, by this account, blurred.
If, on the one hand, we are "natural creatures" in the full sense
and implication of that concept, and if, furthermore, our minds are
by no means confined to our immediate physical locations, does it not
also follow that our minds and moral agency, in some important sense,
"belong" to the planetary ecosystem? And if we are not, then where,
pray tell, is the boundary which confines mind and conscience to our
species, and leaves nature both mindless and amoral?
-- AND HUMAN FULFILLMENT.
The received myth of "the encapsulated human mind" is supported, in
turn, by the view that "human nature" is infinitely variable -- a
view which has dominated the behavioral and social sciences
throughout much of our century. First the cultural anthropologists
reported the astonishing diversity of human cultural beliefs and
practices, and then the behavioristic psychologists proclaimed that
"human nature" was a sum of organic responses to external stimuli
(largely of cultural origin). By this account, mind, reduced
to "behavior," returned to the confines of the skull, and
conscience was abolished from the scientific vocabulary.
From the assumption of the "infinite plasticity" of homo
sapiens, it followed that there was virtually nothing that a
human being might not be taught either to value or abhor, and thus
that there was no reason why we should not surround ourselves with a
totally "artificial" environment. The point is made with stark
clarity by Martin Krieger, in his infamous essay, "What's Wrong With
What is considered a natural environment depends on the
particular culture and society defining it... but this ... says
nothing about the applicability of such a definition to other
What's wrong with plastic trees? My guess is that there is very
little wrong with them.... [T]he way in which we
experience nature is conditioned by our society...
If so, then we can either take nature or leave it. And given the
human emergencies before us, perhaps we'd better just leave it. After
all, writes Clare Gunn,
The only reason anything is done on this earth is for
people. Did the rivers, winds, animals, rocks or dust ever
consider my wishes or needs? Surely we do all our acts in an
earthly environment, but I have never heard a tree, valley,
mountain or flower thank me for preserving it.
So argue the "artificialists." How are we to answer them? How are
we to reconnect the artificial with the natural?
We begin, I suggest, with a simple appeal to common sense. Most of
us today, and surely all ethnologists, psychologists and other
scientists engaged in this debate, grant that homo sapiens
is a species which evolved on this planet along with all other life
forms. The point of contention is that the "artificialists" further
claim that we have evolved to a condition of virtually total
adaptability and thus autonomy from our natural origins. Like the
maturing organism, they contend, we're grown-ups now, in no further
need of the natural circumstances which nourished us. And since
nature is mindless, there is no "ingratitude" in pushing it aside as
we make our own way. So goes the conventional wisdom.
In rebuttal, we ask that the "artificialists" reconsider the
common ground of our agreement: evolution. This "nature"
which they would so casually cast aside, is the milieu which selected
us and our component genes, for virtually the entire 2 million year
life of our species. (We are, after all, removed from our
hunter-gatherer origins by, at most, ten thousand years). Over 98% of
our genes are identical to those of our nearest cousins, the
Chimpanzees. Can we then so casually absent ourselves from the milieu
which selected and sustains our biotic essence? Is our need for, even
our love of, nature merely a cultural accident which, as Prof.
Krieger would argue, we can just as easily re-educate ourselves to do
Hugh Iltis, a University of Wisconsin Botanist, disagrees. "Like
the need for love," he writes, "the need for nature, the need for its
diversity and beauty, has a genetic basis." He continues:
... the best environment is one in which the human animal
can have maximum contact with the type of natural environment in
which it evolved and for which it is genetically programmed
without sacrificing the major advantages of civilization... Every
basic adaptation of the human body, be it the ear, the eye, the
brain, yes, even our psyche, demands for proper functioning access
to an environment similar, at least, to the one in which these
structures evolved through natural selection over the past 100
million years. (5)
E. O. Wilson, who has give this theory the name of "Biophilia,"
The brain evolved into its present form over a period of
about two million years, from the time of Homo Habilis to
the late stone age of Homo sapiens, during which people
existed in hunter-gatherer bands in intimate contact with the
natural environment. Snakes mattered. The smell of water, the hum
of a bee, the directional bend of a plant stalk mattered. The
naturalist's trance was adaptive: the glimpse of one small animal
hidden in the grass could make the difference between eating and
going hungry in the evening. And a sweet sense of horror, the
shivery fascination with monsters and creeping forms that so
delights us today even in the sterile hearts of the cities, could
see you through to the next morning... Although the evidence is
far from all in, the brain appears to have kept its old
capacities, its channeled quickness. We stay alert and alive in
the vanished forests of the world.
And so, if the biophilia hypothesis is correct, then another
avenue from human mind to planetary mind, is through our genes. For
if our "human nature" has been selected for us by Gaia, then "human
interest" and Gaian interest merge. It is in our interest to preserve
the global ecosystem, not simply because it is "useful" to us, but
because, in a deeper sense, it is us. If we are wise enough,
at last, to realize the congruence of personal and planetary
interest, and if we act accordingly, then we will fulfill our role as
the mind and conscience of the planet.
FUTILE STRUGGLE OF THE SELFISH KIDNEY
The "category error" involved in locating morality and human
interest on the level of human community, might be illustrated by a
fanciful thought experiment: suppose our bodily organs were conscious
and deliberative. One might imagine a "selfish kidney" saying, "look,
why should I care about the heart and lungs? I've got my own
problems?" To which the heart would respond, "well, if that's the way
you feel, I'll just do my thing without your assistance." Needless to
say, you wouldn't want to be carrying a life insurance policy on that
Now suppose, instead, that only the kidneys were conscious. Would
that make any difference in it's "selfish" attitude toward the heart
and lungs? Clearly, it's "selfishness" would be equally
self-defeating. The problem, in both cases, is that the kidney would
wrongly conceive its "individuality." In the context of the
integrated whole that is the body, a "kidney-centered" morality
simply makes no sense. It is self-defeating.
The Zen philosopher, Alan Watts, put the matter this way: one
might think of the stomach as the brain's way of feeding the brain.
Or one might think of the brain as the stomach's way of finding food.
But, of course, once you have descended "below" the level of the
integrated organism, there is no "way" that makes any sense. The
brain and the stomach evolved together in the integrated system that
is the body. This much we all can understand. Their "interests" can
only derive from the interest of the organism of which they are
But in the industrial world, our understanding appears to have
stopped at the level of the individual human organism. Thus we fail
to appreciate that our species has evolved as a functioning "organ"
of the planetary organism. Still worse, it now appears that this
organ has mutated into malignancy, threatening the very world which
is its body.
It is time now to summarize our argument. Social Ethics is
relational. Morality cannot be articulated from the perspective of
the individual and defended simply by aggregating the interests of
separate selves. Environmental ethics is also relational, but it can
succeed only if it moves one step beyond social ethics. Like egoism,
anthropocentrism ultimately fails, by placing responsibility at the
wrong level of abstraction. Introduce "selfishness," even
"enlightened self-interest" among the body's organs, and the body
will die. The subject matter, the relevant frame of reference of each
organ, is the health of the total organism. A wise person seeks to
maintain the health of his or her body, not as "another possession"
or adjunct to one's personality, but as integral to that personality.
And to maintain that health, we do not look to the "separate
interests" of our component organs. We look to the integrated
functioning of the system.
Analogously, if we take seriously the "ecological point of view,"
and see energy, nutrients, niches and species (including ours) as
functioning parts of the global system, then, from this point of
view, anthropocentrism becomes as coherent and sensible as
"kidney-centrism." Accordingly, if we take seriously the notion that
we are the mind and conscience of Gaia, and we accept the corollary
that "the world is our body," such dichotomies as "ecology vs.
economy," "man against nature," and "wilderness vs. resource values"
makes as much sense as "liver vs. stomach," "heart vs. lungs."
Admittedly, this is hardly an original conclusion. Aldo Leopold
wrote of the necessity to "think like a mountain." And the phrases
"global thinking," "planetary perspective," and the like have become
clichés. And that is just the problem which I wish to address. I
suggest that we've not really comprehended the import of Leopold's
concept of "the land community," and of the native American notion
that "we belong to the Earth." And small wonder. A full appreciation
of this notion requires a radical realignment of our fundamental
world-view, unprecedented since Copernicus demoted our planet from
the center of the universe to a remote suburb of an ordinary galaxy.
What we face, then, is nothing less than a challenge to see our
world, and our place in it, with new eyes. And that is no small
order. My task is to breathe new life into a dead metaphor and a worn
cliché -- sufficient life to propel us all into a new perceptual and
moral paradigm, that we have heretofore only hinted at, and surely
have never really taken seriously.
If we are, in fact, the mind and conscience of Gaia, this mind and
conscience have overridden an unconscious, non-moral, but
well-functioning operating program of over two billion years
duration. Like children, endowed too soon with wealth and power, we
have acted with exuberant irresponsibility. We are like a gang of
teen-agers on a joy-ride, behind the wheel of a vehicle we cannot
control, and heading toward a precipice. And since we can't stop the
world in order to get off, our only acceptable option is to gain
control, and soon.
If we fail, then Gaia's experiment in intellect and moral agency
will, at length, have proven a failure, and she will revert to her
previous successful, albeit mindless, condition.
For make no mistake: despite the Earth-First! rhetoric, there is
no need to save the planet. If homo sapiens goes over the
edge, Earth will abide, albeit with a much diminished and simplified
ecosystem (at least for the next few million years).
In short, Gaia doesn't particularly need us. But I have at least
enough human chauvinism in me to suggest that without us -- without
our art, music, poetry, literature, science and philosophy, and
without our love -- our planet will be a poorer place.
Copyright 1994 by Ernest Partridge