Humans should treat other organisms in a manner that does not harm Gaia

 

Stu Crawford

 

Human impact on the environment is immense[1].  This impact has resulted in a massive reduction in biodiversity (Wilson, 1992) and productivity (Crosson, 1994) of the planet, which has increased the predicted effect of inevitable catastrophic events (Lawton, 1997).  Humans may be able to deal with slow degradation of their resources, but not with these inevitable massive changes that will result from the reduction of the stability of the planets ecosystems and likely lead to human extinction.  Despite knowledge of this humans do nothing to alter their behaviors, and humanityís destructive tendencies are on the increase[2].

This lack of environmental concern indicates that environmental conservation may not have been adaptive in the evolutionary history of humans and that it may be unrealistic to expect ecologically minded behaviours in humans.  However, humans have evolved innate mechanisms that allow for moral behaviour (Lumsden and Wilson, 1981).  Entities accepted as moral objects by a human are treated in a seemingly altruistic manner by that individual.  It may be more biologically feasible for humans to accept the environment as a moral object than to act to preserve it for their own survival.  Many nature-worshiping cultures have existed in the past and some still exist, providing evidence that accepting the environment as a moral object may be a feasible conservation measure.

Gaia views the entire biosphere as one living entity (Lovelock, 1979).  Gaia is not living in the traditional sense of the word (Maynard-Smith and Szathmary, 1998), as it probably has never died or replicated itself, and thus has not evolved through natural selection.  But Gaia is a complex, interconnected, self-regulating, and self-perpetuating entity that is capable of adapting to new situations.  The living organisms within Gaia regulate the abiotic factors of Gaia, maintaining them in ranges where life is possible.  This necessary self-regulation happens as a coincidental emergent property of the complexity of Gaia, but supports viewing Gaia as a living entity.

Life on earth consists of germ line replicators (GLR)[3] that have evolved sequences that result in mechanisms (often producing a self-replicating organism in conjunction with other GLRs) that allow for the GLR to be successfully replicated and have continued existence through time.  Interference with these mechanisms for replication can prevent continued existence and result in the extinction of that GLR.  Harm to a GLR will be defined as any such interference.

Interactions of many organisms (GLR vehicles) of different species in their abiotic environment results in an interconnected set of entities without any set boundaries -- an ecosystem.  The GLR depends on many factors that are external to the organism it may produce for its replication.  An emergent property of the many mechanisms for replication evolved by the many GLRs in an ecosystem is that the ecosystem regulates biotic and abiotic conditions so that the GLRs can replicate.

Disruptions of ecosystem functions can harm the GLRs in that ecosystem and significant harm to GLRs in an ecosystem reduces the stability of that ecosystem[4].   The reduction in stability of the ecosystem increases the probability of complete disruption of ecosystem function where the ecosystem no longer maintains conditions such that the GLRs of that ecosystem can survive.  At this point the ecosystem has ceased to exist.  As both ecosystems and GLRs have mechanisms that allow for their continued representation through time, which was the criteria for determining harm to a GLR, harm to an ecosystem should be defined to be anything that interferes with its continued existence.

The continued existence of an ecosystem depends on external factors.  It is an emergent property of the interaction of ecosystems in Gaia that Gaia maintains conditions such that the ecosystems can continue to exist.  The diversity of ecosystems in Gaia results in a stable Gaia the same way that diversity of GLRs in an ecosystem results in a stable ecosystem.  Gaia came into existence about 3.8 billion years ago (Kerr, 1999) and has existed ever since, but the stability of Gaia has been challenged[5].  Gaia survived being hit with a meteorite at the K-T boundary (Alvarez et al, 1980) that vaporized the oceans and created a long enduring nuclear winter.  Gaia could cope with this drastic change in its environment because of its diverse and adaptable systems.

Gaia has yet to die (cease to exist) but any of its constituent parts can die.  If an ecosystem ceases to exist that area can be re-colonized and a new ecosystem started, but Gaia cannot be re-colonized.  The probability of Gaiaís death appears to be small but non-zero, and the consequences Gaiaís death huge.  Any harm to any of the constituent ecosystems of Gaia reduces the stability of Gaia and increases the probability that Gaia could cease to exist.  Harm to Gaia will be defined to be anything that interferes with this stability of Gaia as that could lead to Gaiaís death.  Although any given harm to Gaia may be infinitesimally small, because Gaia is irreplaceable[6] this harm should be considered significant.

When presented with a choice, humans should always act in the manner that incurs the least harm to Gaia, which will generally mean preserving life and maximizing that lifeís potential so as not to harm any ecosystem.  But because of the nature of Gaia some organisms must die before they senesce and not all organisms will receive the maximum amount of resources that they can utilize.  When there is a choice where human actions will determine which organisms will die and which will receive the resources, the action that harms Gaia the least should be taken.  Certain human actions, such as torturing an animal to death instead of humanely killing it, will not directly harm Gaia but are still wrong because they will condition humans to act in other ways that will harm Gaia.

 

 

References cited

 

Alvarez, L. W., W. Alvarez, F. Asaro, and H. V. Michel.  1980.  Extraterrestrial cause for Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction.  Science, 208 : 1095 ñ 1108.

 

Crosson, P.  1994.  Degradation of Resources as a Threat to Sustainable Agriculture.  Paper presented at the first World Congress of Professionals in Agronomy, Santiago, Chile, September 5-8, 1994.

 

Dawkins, R.  1990.  The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene.  Oxford University Press, Oxford.

 

Kerr, R. A.  1999.  Early life thrived despite earthly travails.  Science, 284 : 2111 ñ 2113.

 

Lawton, J.  1997.  The science and non-science of conservation biology.  Oikos, 79 : 3 ñ 5.

 

Lovelock, J. E.  1979.  Gaia:  A new look at life on earth.  Oxford University Press, Oxford.

 

Lumsden, C. J., and E. O. Wilson.  1981.  Genes, Mind, and Culture : The Coevolutionary Process.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

 

Maynard-Smith, J., and E. Szathmary.  1998.  The Major Transitions in Evolution.  Oxford University Press, Oxford.

 

Naeem, S., and L. Shibin.  1997.  Biodiversity enhances ecosystem reliability.  Nature, 390 : 507 ñ 509.

 

Tilman, D., D. Wedin, and J. Knops.  1996.  Productivity and sustainability influenced by biodiversity in grassland ecosystems.  Nature, 379 : 718 ñ 720.

 

Vitousek, P. M., H. A. Mooney, J Lubchenco, and J. M. Melillo.  1997.  Human domination of earthís ecosystems.  Science, 277 : 494 ñ 499.

 

Wilson, E. O.  1992.  The Diversity of Life.  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,

Cambridge, Mass.

 

World Resources Institute.  1998-1999 World Resources:  A guide to the global environment.

 

 



[1] One half of the land surface is dominated by human activity, humans have increased atmospheric CO2 concentration 40%, humans fix more nitrogen than natural sources do, and humans co-opt about 40% of the planets net primary activity (Vitousek et al, 1997). 

[2] Materialism, energy use, and CO2 production continue to rise and show no signs of stopping (World Resources Institute, 1999).

[3] A germ line replicator is a little piece of DNA or RNA that gets replicated over time and is subject to evolution by natural selection (Dawkins, 1990).  This is the basic unit of life.

[4] A reduction in the biodiversity of an ecosystem decreases the stability of that ecosystem (Tilman et al, 1996; Naeem and Shibin, 1997).

[5] According to fossil record there has been five mass extinctions in the history of Gaia, wiping out up to 50% of the life on earth (Wilson, 1992).

[6] According to contemporary theories of the origin of life, chemical evolution requires a reducing atmosphere (Maynard-Smith and Szathmary, 1998).  The oxygen in the earthís atmosphere today would prevent a reoccurrence of life.