Astronomical studies carried out by Schiaparelli and Lowell at the end of the last century suggested the intriguing possibility that life, perhaps similar to us, might exist on Mars. Subsequent work showed that higher life was very unlikely, but the possibility of primitive life remained. One of the goals of the U.S. space program in the mid-70s was to send a satellite to Mars to explore this possibility. The basic problem was how to test for life on an alien planet and distinguish, with any confidence, results due to biological processes from those due to inorganic physical or chemical processes. One of the individuals working on this problem was James Lovelock. Since any methods devised must also show conclusively that there is life on Earth, Lovelock examined the properties of life here. It is clear that all life, as we usually define the term, takes in raw materials (some form of energy), uses them for metabolism, growth and reproduction and spits out waste products. Waste products must be removed from the local environment and eventually converted back into raw materials or neutralized to prevent a toxic buildup. Life uses water and air to transport nutrients and remove waste products. Life, therefore, keeps the chemical composition of the planet's fluid media different from what it would be if no life were present. Lovelock realized that the way the Earth is now is, to a large part, due to the life which exists and has existed.
Out of this investigation, Lovelock and others proposed what has come to be called the Gaia theory, Gaia being the Greek Earth Goddess. In Lovelock's (1979) words, "Gaia is a complex entity involving the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, oceans and soil; the totality constituting a feedback system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet." While there are disagreements on a number of issues, particularly the idea that Gaia is an entity since this implies that Gaia is alive, the theory has stimulated a wealth of fruitful cross-disciplinary research and discussion. Life (including insects) is now recognized as an important contributor to the evolution of the Earth. In fostering a new appreciation of biologic and abiologic interrelationships, Gaia continues to encourage the sciences and other disciplines to adopt more holistic viewpoints, perhaps even incorporating prescientific world views.
Ron Lyons (volunteer 1990-1999)