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Customer Review

39 of 44 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Gaia vs. Medea: is either necessary?, June 29, 2009
This review is from: The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? (Science Essentials) (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. This is Ward's main example of life being Medean, and life on Earth being in its senescence, having only half a billion years or so left. Since this is a physical effect caused by the Sun, I don't know why it says anything about life's inherent tendencies at all, but nonetheless, I wonder how much is really known for sure about how the atmosphere will develop as the Sun's output increases. And how do we know, really, what life-forms might possibly evolve that could take advantage of such changed conditions and thrive in them? Half a billion years is a long time.

I think it is also a little short-sighted to assume that over the next half billion years, should the human race survive even a small fraction of that, that we will not master biological engineering, nanotechnology, etc., to the point that we may have a large hand in designing our own evolutionary successors, who may be able to survive in environments that current life forms would be unable to live in. Much of this may happen in the next century or two let alone hundreds of millions, or even thousands, of years.

As other reviewers have also noted, the book is badly in need of an editor, or at least a proof-reader! Also, this is the first book I recall seeing where the same graphs are repeated as many as three times.

Nevertheless, it was mostly fun to read and definitely a worthwhile subject to think about.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 3, 2011, 7:35:41 AM PDT
Yaniv Tubul says:
Great review in a nice intelligent way
Thank you!
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