I grew up in the 70s: channeling Evel Knievel on my bike, carrying a Star Wars lunch box, and having some rather unfortunate encounters with bell-bottom pants. I’m sure I’m not alone in my recollection of a popular margarine commercial where viewers were admonished not to fool “Mother Nature.” Little did I know, this memorable tagline introduced me to a character who has come to dominate our cultural dialogue: Mother Nature or Mother Earth.
The mythology behind Mother Earth is ancient. One version can be traced back to the goddess Gaia who belonged to the pantheon of the ancient Greeks. She was a primeval fertility goddess who gave birth to a host of Greek deities. It’s sometimes said, anyone can rightly claim Gaia as their mommy.
Gaia is particularly important because she provides the foundation for the dominant ecological theory of our time. The modern environmental movement was birthed by the publication of a pivotal book, Gaia: a New Look at Life on Earth, by James Lovelock in 1979.
The Gaia hypothesis provides an ecological framework for understanding the relationship between the Earth’s biosphere and its physical components (e.g., atmosphere, lithosphere) in order to maintain a hospitable climate for life. It’s helpful to think of adherents to the Gaia hypothesis as existing on a spectrum of beliefs. One end might be characterized as weak or scientific Gaia hypothesis. From this perspective, the Gaia hypothesis is simply the observation that Earth sustains conditions that are “just right” for life to persist. In other words, the planet seems finely tuned for the existence of the life-forms it contains (see Jeff Zweerink’s article).
In its more radical form, the Gaia hypothesis describes the Earth as a single organism in which the organic and inorganic components of the planet coevolved to form a self-regulating system. In a phrase, “life maintains conditions suitable for its own survival.” 1 This more extreme version personifies the Earth as carrying out successive changes on its own behalf.
Dr. Zweerink summarized some of the key events in Earth’s history where changes in temperature coincided with the planet’s ability to accommodate new lifeforms. For example, even though the luminosity of the sun increased by 30 percent since life appeared almost four billion years ago, life has persisted. Why? Proponents of the more radical version of the Gaia hypothesis interpret such data as being the outcome of Earth’s (Mother Nature’s) intent; the planet has reacted to maintain temperatures at levels suitable for life. From a creation perspective, however, such “coincidences” were divinely orchestrated by the Creator.
Scientifically speaking, the Gaia hypothesis offers a helpful framework for understanding the fine-tuning between the Earth’s climate and the biosphere. This observation is somewhat analogous to the anthropic principle. In and of itself, these models don’t have religious content; they offer organizational contexts for interpreting data. But they also hint at purpose behind such data, namely that the universe and the Earth have been finely tuned for conscious life. The key question then becomes, who is orchestrating this purpose: a Creator or the Earth itself?
Although the premise of that old margarine ad puzzled me, its implications weren’t lost on my mother. I remember her quipping one night, “There is no such person as Mother Nature. God is our Creator.”