on September 27, 2007
If I were to write a history of the Holocene Period at some time in the distant future, I would likely focus on Dorion Sagan's book, Notes from the Holocene, as a critical turning point in humanity's relationship with its environment. It is not so much that Sagan presents any new ideas; rather it is in his organization of many recent and old ideas into a cohesive epistemological system at a critical time in history when such a cohesive system is needed to understand and address pressing planetary issues such a global warming, pollution, peak oil, and population growth.
The epistemological shift advocated in Notes from the Holocene concerns our concept of life and its relation to our planet Earth. Is this third planet from the sun simply a rock upon which life maintains a foot hold in the universe, or has the thermodynamically complex self organizing, self maintaining, and self reproductive systems known as life so infiltrated this planet over the past 3.9 billion years that the planet itself exhibits these same characteristics; self organizing, through the ongoing recycling of material by tectonic processes; self maintaining through the distributive processes of weather and oceanic circulation systems; and self reproductive in its facilitation of a species that has evolved a predilection for exploring and colonizing other planets beyond this one?
The proposition of a living planet, where the constituents consists of the multitudes of species that we've organized into five taxonomic kingdoms function in conjunction with physical processes endemic to this particular planet, such as crustal plates moving along convection currents that are the result of heat given off by internal radioactive decay, air movement resulting from planetary spin, and temperature fluxes due to changing positions relative to the sun, will inevitably elicits accusations of anthropomorphizing ; undertaking a subjective as opposed to an objective inquiry. Sagan confronts these accusations head on presenting this idea of a super organism, variously called Gaia, Biosphere, Noosphere, and Life, as a system in complete conformity with the second law of thermaldynamics.
A living system, whether a bacterium, plant, person, or a planet, cannot be describe through the simple iteration of its basic components (modern Cartesian science), but must be understood through its behavior; the ongoing dynamic relationships between the components. Understanding things according to their parts requires that the individual components be isolated out of context and evaluated according to the linear effects they might have on other components. Through this process of reductionism, modernist science conflates the fundamental components of cognitions; the entity as it actually is, a dynamic system or subsystem of some greater system, and our conceptual abstraction of it, thus resulting in the fallacy of misplaced concreteness (Whitehead 1978; Rescher 2000). This fallacy is akin to conflating the referent and the interpretent in semiotics as argued by Pierce (Wiener 1958).
Vladimir Vernadskii, the father of biogeochemistry, proposed in the early twentieth century five criteria by which a living system can be defined.
1. First, a living process is energetic, obtaining and using energy from its environment.
2. Second, a living process is concentrative, accumulating selective elements.
3. Third, a living process is destructive, changing the nature of elements within its domain.
4. Forth, a living process is medium-forming, transforming and organizing its local environment, and
5. Fifth, a living process is transportation moving elements within, as well as into and out of, its domain, without reliance on gravity (Vernadskii, 1998).
All of these processes are evident in the various Earth system process presented by Sagan under the loosely constructed chapters of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire, the four primary elements in classical Greek thought; the fifth and essential element, ether, being the emergent property unique to this planet, life. Life is presented, not a result of vitalism or divine action, but as an emergent property of a thermally dynamic system dissipating large amounts of energy for its self organization and self maintenance.
Sagan's blend of scientific and philosophical theory with science-fiction provides an interesting point-counter point between actual and possible futures with the science-fiction offering Kiplingesque vignettes to describe how the future might unfold given the driving imperatives of a planetary scale organism. Sagan, a confessed illusionist, also uses various science-fiction plots as distractions; a literary sleight-of-hand to distract the reader while building his arguments. Together, these two uses of the fictional help make the physics and scientific theory accessible and comprehendible to a wide audience.
From my vantage point in the distant future, I might point to one essential ingredient conspicuously missing from this treatment of dynamic self organizing systems; gravity, that force that on the cosmic scale flows up-hill against thermodynamics bringing things together, and on the local/global scale provide the dynamic perturbations required for self maintenance and that force systems into self organizing adaptive changes that result in new emergent properties.
The lack of integration of gravity's role in this planetary organism in no way diminishes the value of this book. It is informative and thought provoking, and offers a badly needed way of thinking productive to our future efforts to keep this living system we call home, and to maintaining our role as one of its constituent members. As such, Notes from the Holocene takes its place next to other cherished classics such as Edwin Abbot's Flatland,Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers' Order out of Chaos, and Doug Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe.
Abbott, E. A. 1984. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. Signet Classic. New York: New American Library.
Adams, D. 1979. A Hitch Hikers' Guide to the Universe. New York: Harmony Books.
Prigogine, I. and I. Stengers. 1984. Order out of Chaos: Man's new dialogue with nature., New York: Bantam Books.
Rescher, N. 2000. Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Vernadskii, V. I. 1998. The Biosphere. American Scientist, 33. New York: Copernicus; Springer-Verlag.
Whitehead, A. N. 1978. Process and reality. New York: The Free Press.
Wiener, P. P. (Editor), 1958. Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), New York: Dover Publications.