Excerpt: The Gaia Hypothesis

September 20, 2013
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An excerpt from the Introduction to

The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet by
Michael Ruse

To fill out the picture, the 1960s was the decade when this uneasy face-off between the established power of the older generation, backed by and enthusiastic about science and technology, and the rebellious doubt of the younger generation regarding the course of the nation and its authorities’ enthusiasms led more and more people to explore new ways of making sense of existence, new dimensions of thought and action. Matters are rarely as simple and straightforward as the surface suggests. Overnight, the advent of birth-control pills changed sexual attitudes and behaviors as women were suddenly freed form the fear of unwanted pregnancy. Yet obviously, in its way, “the pill” was a triumph of the very technology that was being berated. One work that became standard reading for every teenager, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (fifteen thousand copies were sold in the United States in 1960 and more than half a million in 1962) is deeply rooted in the venerable doctrine of original sin. There was continuity and there was change. We see this very clearly in questions to do with ultimate meaning and practice. In the West, America has always been distinctive in its deeply religious foundation and nature. But the tensions of the times, whether they were rooted in the Cold War between the United States and Russia or int he rejection of the status quo and the search for a new order of things, led to explorations, developments, and innovations in unanticipated directions. On the right, reflecting the move of many Americans (particularly in the South) from traditional political bases to those offering comfort and protection against radical social changes, there was the rise of so-called Young Earth Creationism, which argued for a literal interpretation of the Bible—six thousand years since the beginning of the universe, six literal days of creation, a universal deluge shortly thereafter. Published in 1961, Genesis Flood, by biblical scholar John C. Whitcomb and hydraulic engineer Henry M. Morris, was the defining text. Its dispensational framework screamed the tensions of the times. The Flood was the end of the first period of Earth history, and Armageddon (with its images of nuclear warfare) will be the last. Are you ready? The Lord will come like a “thief in the night.” Forget attempts to create paradise here on Earth and prepare for end times. On the left, also thinking in segments of time and history, many proclaimed our entry into the astrologically determined “Age of Aquarius.” There was the obsession with Eastern religions, perhaps best reflected in popular culture by the friendship of the Beatles with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, deviser of Transcendental Meditation. But just as some went geographically outward to find their new metaphysics, some went historically backward to find their new metaphysics. There was a fascination with ancient mysteries and movements, with more basic, more Earth-centered creeds, often (fitting in with the spirit of the times) less patriarchal and more female-sensitive and also less technological and more organic or ecologically friendly. Completing the circle, the bible of all on this side of things was Silent Spring, published in 1962 by the powerful science writer Rachel Carson. She showed how a frenzied reliance on technology and science had led to the destruction of the environment—that our home was tainted and spoiled, unfit for us and our children, and crying for healing, for new, warmer ways of thinking and acting.

The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet tells a story that comes out of the 1960s, a story that reflects all of the beliefs and enthusiasms and tensions of that decade. It is a story that carries the themes through to the present, showing how the various ideas developed, changed, and matured, and sometimes withered. There are different lines, but they are not isolated, because they twist back and forth and entwine in some ways before diverging again. It is a story primarily but not exclusively about America. Britain in particular has a major contribution to make. That is no surprise. For all of the jokes about two countries separated by a common language, there is much cultural overlap, and that was true back then. The British adored Kennedy and the group around him, who represented such a break from the staid 1950s—the old war hero Dwight Eisenhower in the United States and the equally old Harold Macmillan in the United Kingdom. Similar social changes were happening. The number of university places doubled, thanks to the founding of new institutions in places like Sussex and Warwick. The Beatles, of course, were British, and for all the old country is less intoxicated by religion than the new, some of the most influential movements had strong British links.

Although this is a story that comes out of the 1960s, it is not a story that began in the 1960s. Any evolutionist will tell you that the secret to the present is to be found in the past, and this holds as much in the realm of ideas as in the realm of organisms. In succeeding chapters, we dig back into the distant past. The exploration is fascinating in its own right, but always it is a story with an eye to future events and developments. The aim is not at all to show that we are wiser than those who went before, but to show that is only in the context that full understanding can emerge. The final chapters of analysis, when we return to the present era, will furnish the proof.

Read more about The Gaia Hypothesis here.

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