Daisy Hildyard on the Ancient Origins of James Lovelock, Progenitor of Gaia Theory
“Lovelock’s origin can be traced back thirteen billion years, and more, to an event that lasted for a fraction of a moment.”
James Lovelock was born in Hertfordshire in 1919 and he died in Dorset in 2022, of complications relating to a fall. To fit his biography between these dates would be perfectly rational but it wouldn’t feel quite right—for Lovelock, rationality, as a means of explaining life, was always somehow incomplete. Conventional thinking, he used to say, merely gropes toward an understanding of the universe’s weird ways. “One has only to think of one’s own life to see how absurd it is to think everything can be explained as a simple linear process,” he wrote in Novacene, his final book.
Lovelock’s origin can be traced back thirteen billion years, and more, to an event that lasted for a fraction of a moment. He described how the epochs and eras of our planet and its solar system grow longer and longer as we run through tens of thousands, then millions, then billions, then tens of billions of years, until we arrive at the Big Bang, when suddenly, the timescales become impossibly small.
This early age of the cosmos began 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang, and ended at 10-36 seconds. During that infinitesimal epoch, changes in particle, energy, and force set in motion the sequence of events that created the conditions for our world and everything in it—plants, hamsters, engines, bacteria, microwave ovens, seabirds, and James Lovelock himself—to come into being.
Time passed at different paces after that. Space expanded and flooded with material and emptiness. Retrospective readings of the cosmic microwave background indicate periods of synthesis and separation, creation and destruction, heating and cooling. Structures and stars formed. And then, some 4.5 billion years ago, our planet appeared.
Lovelock’s earliest ancestors were unicellular organisms. They came into being four billion years ago, emergent productions of an early ocean rich with organic chemicals. These ancestors were small and simple lifeforms, not unlike bacteria. They changed shape, hunted and consumed one another, for several billion years, until the time, two billion or so years ago, when one bacterium, consumed by another, survived inside the body of its predator. The two living organisms formed a eukaryotic cell—a novel lifeform that, created as it was out of two different beings, carried a potential for interesting complexity.
This strange cell would travel, over time, through long sequences of mutations and recombinations, to create all the forms and families of animal and plant life, which have cascaded from it to exist today. Organs and rootlets, pore, limb, beak, bud, scale can all be traced back to this one hybrid microbe. Lovelock’s person—limbs and brain, heart, lungs, untamed eyebrows—was one of its many successors.
Plant life emerged in the oceans. Lovelock described the evolutionary leap made by early algae, cyanobacteria, as a crucial turning point for life. These small blue-green cells, photosynthesizing for the first time, took the sunlight that spilled onto Earth and made it into usable energy.
Complex marine species, then land animals, came into being. Evidence of early human life dates back two million years. With the hominids, Lovelock’s flesh-and-blood ancestors, also came the ancestors of his inventions: the first tools. Humans developed technologies through hunting or work or art or play. The species evolved; our tools evolved too. The human body was transformed: people grew taller, the skull changed shape, eyesight sharpened. Language developed. Nomads settled and settlements became cities, civilizations, empires. Time moved down through its eons and millennia into the unit of human society, the century. History as we know it began to pass.
In the year 1712 Thomas Newcomen made the first successful demonstration of his atmospheric engine at Tipton, in the Midlands of England. This was an invention whose significance James Lovelock would cite frequently in his writings and conversations throughout his own working life. For Lovelock, the creation and reproduction of an engine that had the power to harness energy for industrial application was a critical moment for human being. This moment was, for Lovelock, the beginning of the Anthropocene, the period during which human industry, consumption, and emissions have left an indelible mark on the Earth.This moment was, for Lovelock, the beginning of the Anthropocene, the period during which human industry, consumption, and emissions have left an indelible mark on the Earth.
James Lovelock was born to Nell and Tom on July 26, 1919. He carried a memory, perhaps from his second year of life, of lying in sunshine in a garden, “experiencing a sense of great comfort, and somehow recognizing that this was life.” His parents were Quakers. He described his mother as a feminist and suffragist, and spoke of how his father fostered his early love of science.
It’s ordinary enough to notice how, as life passes, time seems to speed up. Chronology alone is too regular to be sufficient—that isn’t how real time works. We all know that the seconds drag as the decades skip past. This is something that Lovelock observed in the cosmos, within and outside himself: he contrasted the incremental evolution of organic bodies with the quick development of machines. He decided that speed itself was increasing at increasing speed and he made it sound alarming. “The seabird, with its graceful flight, took more than 50 million years to evolve from its lizard ancestor. Compare this with the evolution of today’s airliners from the string-bag biplanes that flew a mere 100 years ago. Such intelligent, intentional selection appears to be a million times faster than natural selection.”
Lovelock’s professional career began with a degree in chemistry. He had started his undergraduate studies late; his family couldn’t initially afford the cost of university. After graduating with a doctorate in 1948, he worked for the British National Institute of Medical Research, where he explored the pathways of viruses and found new ways to heal wounds.
He also made advances in cryogenics: his team froze and then reanimated living hamsters. Lovelock, raised by Quakers to do no harm, recoiled from the painful heating techniques that were used to bring the small creatures back to life, “typical,” he said, of the “old-fashioned science” of the time. He created a machine for his hamsters: a warming device that worked from the small body’s moist center out toward the skin. His invention used radio frequency heating—radiation in the microwave frequency range. An incipient microwave oven.
In 1942 Lovelock married Helen Hyslop. The couple named their children John, Jane, Christine, and Andrew. Lovelock’s children have described him as a wonderful father—passionate, funny, mischievous, and curious.
Lovelock’s inventions have afterlives and descendants of their own. His gas chromatography devices helped to raise and shape the environmental awareness of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. With tremendous sensitivity, they have revealed, to human sciences, the presence of intangible atmospheric pollutants and particles— they detect things that humans cannot otherwise detect, looking directly into our blind spots. It’s a practical thing, demonstrating mechanically a philosophical point that Lovelock proposed many times: that the environment exceeds the human ability to perceive and understand it. He didn’t take pride in his inventions, “it’s just fun when you do them.”
In the early sixties Lovelock moved to the U.S. to collaborate with NASA. NASA needed Lovelock as an engineer. It was during his time there, working practically on the development of space-worthy devices—they needed to be hardy and small— that he was struck by an entirely new idea.
He was reflecting on the Earth’s biosphere and how its systems move and work when he experienced his insight and it came in a flash. He had been thinking of the possibility of life on Mars and this threw him back to the conditions of life on Earth. He saw something there. Dynamic and synergistic interactions between organic and inorganic matter were happening all around, across this planet and its atmosphere. The biosphere was and is regulating itself, producing the conditions that were, and are, necessary to sustain life. He was environed by it and he was also one of its many component parts. Later, he named this idea the Gaia hypothesis.The biosphere was and is regulating itself, producing the conditions that were, and are, necessary to sustain life.
In 1964 Lovelock returned to England and left the academy, using his savings to establish a small personal laboratory in Devon. His daughter Christine has described this move, away from a salary, pension, funding, equipment, and professional stability, as one that took great courage. Lovelock worked intensively and all the time, covering his bills by inventing and writing. He wrote detailed research papers, books, patents. He experimented with radioactive matter and developed new machines.
He introduced Gaia to the scientific establishment, then to a general readership, and he took part in conferences, correspondence, and research to debate, demonstrate, and establish the specifics of her meshed relationships. Ocean temperatures, phytoplankton, and cloud albedo. Salt, basalt, water. Plant roots, bacteria, carbon. Body, breath, atmosphere.
During the postwar years and through the Cold War, global military powers set off several massive controlled nuclear explosions. These blasts left radioactive residues that will remain in the Earth’s crust for many tens of thousands of years, perhaps until the end of the known world. They also left their mark on the bodies of all the people who were alive at the time, including Lovelock. The body pulls time into itself—history is inside biography. Lovelock emphatically endorsed nuclear energy, in spite or because of the fact that he understood the magnitude of nuclear power. In the late 2010s, he deemed the effects of these mid-century tests “so huge that even today, nearly sixty years later, the resulting radioactivity of our bodies is useful to forensic scientists in establishing times of death.”
Helen died in 1989. Lovelock’s late work considers the passage of evolution through humans to mechanical forms of intelligence, vastly quicker and more complex than our own. This period of evolution was set in motion with the first tools and passed on through engines and technologies whose complexity and rate of motion increase as their size dwindles, machines that are running now, and whose descendants will run on and on, into the deep future.
He believed that artificial intelligence would extend far beyond the reach of human science—and he was comfortable with that. Perhaps it was because he had always been modest about the limits of what he knew. Only think about a person you love— your friend or your wife—and you’ll see how much science can’t get at.“ We know that our friends and lovers are whole persons. It may seem sensible at various times to consider their livers, skin and blood to understand their special function, or for purposes of medicine, but the person we know is much more than the mere sum of these parts.”
He gave the impression, in later life, of enjoying mischief and contrarianism: pronuclear, at times apparently contented with a grim fate for the most of the people alive on the planet. He was defiant and impish; there was a sense that he was taking relish in all the things to be discovered and the arguments still to be had.
In 1991 he was married again, to Sandra Orchard. Sandy and James moved to Dorset, to a four-roomed cottage overlooking gentle green hills and the sea. Lovelock in those days was still thinking of and for the future. He never disengaged or went nostalgic. He aligned his personal physical being, age advancing year by year, with the mass of the aging planet, whose time passes more slowly, changes counted in eons, and he spoke in favor of a “sustainable retreat”: a slowdown or withdrawal from rapacious, endless acceleration.
In one late radio interview Lovelock talked about being old. The recording is sensitive; you can hear him draw breath between sentences and there are skylarks singing in the background. He had been apprehensive about reaching a hundred, he said, but the experience of daily life in age was so much better than anticipated: “It’s been a period of considerable happiness.” He looked over to Sandy, who was sitting across the room. “It’s been a period of great happiness, not less.” He commended this insight to others who are “in the same queue,” which is everybody.
From Daisy Hildyard’s introduction to Ever Gaia, by James Lovelock and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Used with permission of the publisher, ISOLARII. Copyright 2023 by Daisy Hildyard.