The Gaia principle
Bruno Latour explains
June 7th, 2002
Via The Guardian: "This seems to add a political edge to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which explains how Life acts to maintain habitable conditions for itself. You have long been a champion of this theory…
Lovelock locked us in! While Galileo used a telescope to reveal that the Earth is part of an infinite universe, Lovelock used his electron capture detector to reveal that the Earth is completely different from any other planet because it has life. He and [Lynn] Margulis spotted Gaia. Lovelock from space, taking the question as globally as possible; Margulis from bacteria, taking the question from the other end, both realising that Life, capital L, has managed to engineer its own conditions of existence. For me that is the greatest discovery of this period, though it is still not very much accepted by mainstream science. This may be because we do not yet have the tools to receive it.
Why do you think scientists are still wary?
That such an important concept is still so marginal in the history of science is extraordinary. I have done everything I can to make it accepted. But scientists are reflexively cautious. The cosmological shift from Aristotle to Galileo is the same as that from Galileo to Gaia. With Galileo, our understanding moved outwards to an infinite universe. Grasping that took a century and a half and faced resistance. Gaia is not just one more concept. It is not just about physics and energy. It is Life.
Your work has often challenged the objective, God’s-eye view of science. You argue convincingly that humanity cannot be so detached. But the political right have twisted this approach to undermine all expert knowledge on the climate and nature crises. Any regrets?
A critique of how science is produced is very different from the post-truth argument that there are alternative truths that you can choose from. Post-truth is a defensive posture. If you have to defend yourself against climate change, economic change, coronavirus change, then you grab at any alternative. If those alternatives are fed to you by thousands of fake news farms in Siberia, they are hard to resist, especially if they look vaguely empirical. If you have enough of them and they are contradictory enough, they allow you to stick to your old beliefs. But this should not be confused with rational scepticism.
Has the Covid-19 crisis affected our belief in science?
The virus has revealed the number of things you need to know to decide what is factual and what’s not. The public are learning a great deal about the difficulty of statistics, about experiment, about epidemiology. In everyday life, people are talking about degrees of confidence and margin of error. I think that’s good. If you want people to have some grasp of science, you must show how it is produced."