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The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? (Science Essentials) Book Club Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0691130750
ISBN-10: 0691130752
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Author and Earth Sciences professor Ward (of the Univ. of Wash.) has authored numerous books for non-specialists (Under a Green Sky, Rare Earth); this latest is a critical response to James Lovelock's Gaia concept, which argues that homeostatic physical and chemical interactions work to maintain Earth's habitability. Ward argues, passionately, that the opposite is true-that living organisms decrease Earth's habitability, hastening its end by perhaps a billion years. His conclusion, more political than scientific, is that humans must engineer the environment to sustain life. Ward provides examples of the food chain in failure, which results in an imbalanced environment and, ultimately, mass extinctions. Unfortunately, Ward's arguments (and some of his facts) are flawed; many examples focus on short periods of time, ignoring "first causes" that usually include a natural but temporally and/or geologically distant event (massive volcanic eruptions, ocean impacts, etc.). Moreover, ecological balance was indeed restored over the course of thousands or millions of years, as new organisms evolve to fill the ecological niche left by extinct species. Ward's criticisms have merit, but his Medea hypothesis is only valid on an evolutionarily insignificant scale; the reality is probably some combination of the Gaia and Medea approaches. Unfortunately, Ward doesn't help his case with misanthropic sentiment and occasionally garbled syntax.
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Review


One of the 2009 New York Times Magazine's 9th Annual Featured Books in Ideas


"Ward holds the Gaia Hypothesis, and the thinking behind it, responsible for encouraging a set of fairy-tale assumptions about the earth, and he'd like his new book, due out this spring, to help puncture them. He hopes not only to shake the philosophical underpinnings of environmentalism, but to reshape our understanding of our relationship with nature, and of life's ultimate sustainability on this planet and beyond."--Drake Bennett, Boston Globe



"Author and Earth Sciences professor Ward has authored numerous books for non-specialists; this latest is a critical response to James Lovelock's Gaia concept, which argues that homeostatic physical and chemical interactions work to maintain Earth's habitability. Ward argue, passionately, that the opposite is true--that living organisms decrease Earth's habitability, hastening its end by perhaps a billion years."--PublishersWeekly.com



"When avid science readers browse the shelves for new titles, the books that grab their attention are best described by a single adjective: thought-provoking. And no scientist/author is more provocative in his approach and innovative in his thinking than University of Washington astrobiologist Peter Ward . . . . [R]eaders looking for solace will not find it in Ward's latest effort, The Medea Hypothesis. This time Ward goes after motherhood itself--or at least the central idea of the Gaia ('good mother') hypothesis that has evolved to describe the relationship between life and the planet as a whole."--Fred Bortz, Seattle Times



"Reading the book will widen your field of vision about life on earth, which is still there after about 4 billion years."--Dr. Hein van Bohemen, Ecological Engineering



"The point of The Medea Hypothesis is that life, rather than helping to regulate the Earth 'System' by negative feedbacks, does all it can to consume the resources available--sowing the seeds of its own extinction."--Dr. Henry Gee, BBC Focus Magazine



"[Ward] makes his points succinctly and supports them well."--Rebecca Wigood, Vancouver Sun



"[The Medea Hypothesis] is an interesting intellectual exercise on the history of life."--Choice



"Ward . . . adopts the tone of a planetary mortician gruesomely interested in his subject's decease. Ward is an expert on mass extinctions, and the subject seems to have infected his general outlook. He does not come across a happy camper."--Roger Gathman, Austin American-Statesman



"The Medea Hypothesis is a valuable and well-needed challenge to the hegemony of Gaian thought, and this is a very clearly presented and thought provoking book. . . . Ward's book is a crucial step in opening this debate and I would certainly recommend reading it, but with a critical eye open for chinks in the argument."--Lewis Dartnell, Astrobiology Society of Britain

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Product Details

  • Series: Science Essentials
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Book Club edition (April 20, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691130752
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691130750
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,160,931 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

36 of 41 people found the following review helpful By S. Kaphan on June 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Peter Ward attempts to debunk the Gaia Hypothesis by countering it with one of his own: the Medea Hypothesis. According to Ward's interpretation, the Gaia Hypothesis essentially says that life makes the Earth more habitable for life. Ward's Medea Hypothesis says that life makes the Earth less habitable for life. Having read the book, I don't think his hypothesis is any more compelling than [his version of] the Gaia Hypothesis. There are many examples historically where life of one sort or another has altered the environment in such a way as to make survival either easier or harder for other life forms. One example of both is the evolution of photosynthesis, which is what put oxygen into the atmosphere. Oxygen was deadly to some species, but then, it allowed the evolution of others, including higher animals. It seems unnecessary to posit that life is universally Gaian or Medean, in Ward's senses of the terms. Either theory runs the risk of associating intentionality with processes that can be explained without resorting to that. While naive dependency on the truth of the Gaia Hypothesis may lead some to a complacent attitude about the biosphere's ability to alter itself to adapt successfully to changing circumstances, replacing that theory with one that depends on the same type of thinking but is instead dystopian doesn't seem any better.

One of the most important threads in the book depends on the discovery that as the Sun increases its energy output over the next half billion years or more, more carbon will be removed from the atmosphere than released into it, to the point that eventually photosynthetic plants will not be able to survive. Yet this science is not well explained in the book, leaving the reader to wonder how well established it really is.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A. Astolfi on August 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Ok I am a big fan of Peter Ward, and I read everything of his. But this book is very different than the others that are decorating the paleontology section of my bookshelf. Most of his books are Saganesque - they celebrate science and I always feel like I'm on an adventure in the life of the mind when I read his stuff.

This book is a polemic, much more so even than Rare Earth was. It is a direct attack on a certain modern myth - the Gaea hypothesis - that has been embraced by the international environmental movement. Evaluating this book therefore transcends simple science appreciation, and enters a very different realm - the world of power politics. While I don't think Peter Ward knows a tremendous amount about that world, certainly he is aware of his myth making role - hence the playful title.

Bobby Seale once told me that the functional definition of power was "the ability to define reality in such a way as to make it act in desired manner". If you accept this political truth, than it is more important to evaluate whether the Gaea hypothesis affects reality in a way you want, than it is to address its accuracy.

And this makes the topic very tricky.

Ward handles it with real skill however - and while this is a somewhat less accessible work than some others it is a lot of fun to read. It started a three day argument with my girlfriend that had us both scouring the internet for information to bolster our arguments. I recommend it - but it requires work on the part of us non-paleontologists...and it ain't pretty
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By T. W. Fugate on September 25, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is an excellent piece of work by a brilliant climate scientist. The book covers a lot of material in a short format. It shows how life on earth evolved and way that life has impacted the biosphere that supports it. Unspoken but implied throughout is the way the intelligent life, i.e. human beings, have impacted the biosphere in ways that may lead to our imminent demise. This is essential reading along with Craig Dilworth's Too Smart For Our Own Good in my opinion for any thinking person who wants to understand the evolutionary trap that humanity has fallen into.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By George Tuton on May 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Overall I believe the reader will find this book enlightening in terms of the evolutionary, geophysical, and solar systems interactions on the life of planet Earth. Peter Ward is not always understandable for the general public, but generally one will get the gist of his and others' Medean Hypothesis. Not a pretty sight when applied to ourselves as the current Medean Actor. The Medean Hypothesis has political implications, and has already stirred "heated" debate among politicians. Global Warming, anyone?
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Dick_Burkhart on February 1, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This polemic brings to the fore some provocative counterpoints to Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis. However I got the feeling that I was looking at a hurried view of two sides of the same coin, not a new Paradigm.

The Medean point of view says that most mass extinctions were caused by the excesses of life itself, think "ecological overshoot and collapse" on a global scale. The Gaian point of view looks at the broad sweep of evolution on earth and says that earlier life forms helped create the conditions for subsequent life forms to thrive.

The most striking graph in the book shows a 500 million year decline in carbon dioxide to the present. This is when solar output has been increasing, so a greenhouse earth would be frying if high levels of CO2 had persisted. But when modern plant life took hold, increased weathering of continental rocks took more and more CO2 out of the atmosphere. This made the planet habitable for the likes of us - oops - this is the Gaia Hypothesis!

So to get to the Medea Hypothesis, Ward just extrapolates the decline of CO2 to the point where the higher plants cannot survive, ignoring a billion years of Gaia. Nor does Ward indicate just how speculative this extrapolation is, as predictions in hot fields of research are frequently overturned or modified. For example, will feedback mechanisms kick in to reverse the decline in carbon dioxide, which certainly happened during each previous snowball earth or ice age?

And if Ward is right about the expected death of higher life forms, he has missed out on an intriguing possibility. Maybe instead of burning most of the earth's accessible fossil fuels over the course of two or three centuries, humanity should extract them at a very slow rate and burn them over hundreds of millions of years.
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