Essays - by Stephen G. Saupe, Ph.D.; Biology Department, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University, Collegeville, MN 56321;;


Take Two Aspirins and Call Me in the Morning

(published in The St. Ben's Independent, p.3,  Tuesday March 20, 1990)

    In his recent Warner Lecture, Dr. Pinky Nelson said that most astronauts are changed by their flight in space; specifically they return with a greater sense of appreciation for the earth and its fragility.  Apparently the spectacular vistas from space highlight the beauty, mystery and "alivedness" of the earth and its occupants. 

    Through photographs, we terrestrial-bound types can vicariously share the experiences of the astronauts and begin to appreciate the source of their awe and wonder.  I suspect that these emotions occur simply because from space, the earth looks alive, something like a cell complete with an atmospheric membrane.  Swirling weather systems are reminiscent of cytoplasmic streaming and the land masses and oceans suggest organelles and other cellular inclusions.  From the shuttle, the earth must seem as vibrantly alive as an amoeba, aardvark or apple.  Perhaps it just takes a special vantage point a hundred miles above the earth to appreciate it.  Considering how remarkable the earth must look from space, it would be more surprising if the astronauts were unaffected by their privileged views of spaceship earth. 

    Although he has never looked through a window of the shuttle, James Lovelock has apparently been able to escape the restrictive tethers of his terrestrial existence and view the earth as if from space.  As a result of his intellectual space travels, Lovelock has published two books [Gaia. 1978. Oxford University Press, NY; The Ages of Gaia. 1988. W. W. Norton, NY] which seem to formalize and describe what I think the astronauts must experience while gazing homeward.

    According to Lovelock, the earth is an immense organism that is "...alive in the sense that it [is] a self-organizing and self-regulating system."  Lovelock has named this organism Gaia, after the Greek Goddess of the earth.  Although Gaia was originally met with disbelief, most biologists now consider this idea to have much merit.  For example, Yale biologist Harold Morowitz says that "biological activity is then a planetary property, an interrelationship of organisms, atmospheres, oceans and continents...The environment and living organisms are bound, inseparable parts of one set of linked planetary processes...[T]he sustained activity of the 'biogeochemical' system is more characteristic of life than are the individual species."

    Biologist and essayist Lewis Thomas also agrees that the Earth is a "coherent system of life, self-regulating, self-changing, a sort of immense organism."  From a Gaian perspective, environmental problems such as pollution take on a much greater significance.  Not only are we releasing toxic chemicals into the environment, but in essence, we are poisoning a living thing.  We are violently assaulting a global organism that we depend on for our existence.

    Fortunately, Gaia is strong and she will survive (with or without us).  But she could get mighty sick; perhaps sick enough that she won't be able to support us any longer.  It's not too late to tend to our ailing patient.  In fact, that's what Earth Day 1990 is all about.  We hope that Earth Day will usher in an era of global medicine and educate an army of planetary physicians to tend to our global patient.  If we don't start practicing planetary medicine soon, we may need to look for a new planet.  But don't blame Gaia, we are creating the diseases for which there may be no cure.

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 © Copyright 01/05/2011 by SG Saupe