10.13.2014

Bruno Latour is talking about Gaia



// A few weeks ago I saw Bruno Latour give a talk called "Gaia Intrudes" at Columbia. I've struggled with the term "Gaia" since I came across Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis while studying complex systems a few years ago. On the one hand, Lovelock is obviously correct that we can and should treat the (surface of the) Earth and its inhabitants as an interconnected system, whose parts (both living and nonliving) all influence each other. On the other hand, the term "Gaia" has a New Agey, pseudosciencey flavor (even if Lovelock's discussion doesn't) that makes me hesitant to use the term in my public discussions of complexity theory, and immediately skeptical when I see others use it. Since my skepticism seems to align with the consensus position in the sciences, I've never bothered to resolve my ambivalence about the term.

And to be completely honest, while I admired Latour's work (he's mentioned in my profile!),  going into this talk I was also a little skeptical of _his_ use of the term. I've been thinking pretty seriously about the theoretical tools required for understanding the relationship between an organism, its functional components, and its environment, what  and I have been calling "the individuation problem". As far as I can tell, not even the sciences are thinking about this problem systematically across the many domains and scales where it arises. That same week I had written a critique of Tegmark's recent proposal for a physical theory of consciousness; my core critique centered on his failure to distinguish the problems of integration and individuation. So to hear that Latour was approaching the discussion using the vocabulary of Gaia made me apprehensive, if not outright disappointed. I was worried that he would just muddy the waters of an already fantastically difficult discussion, and that it would make my interest in actor network theory all the more obscure and profane to the communities of scientists I wanted to be talking to. 

But my skepticism was entirely misplaced. Latour knows exactly what he's doing, and he's thinking about these issues in precisely the right way. This talk is fantastic. Watch it. It is one of the best treatments of the individuation problem I've come across. Latour dismantles the mereological presumptions that underlie both our sciences and our politics, and explains why our deep conceptual confusion over the relationship between parts of a system (organs and organisms, organisms and environments) lie at the root of our biggest social challenges today (climate change, digital politics). 

Latour starts by noting that etymologically, "gaia" and "geo" are different forms of the same word: γῆ, the Greek word for "earth". We have no problem talking about geology or geography or geopolitics, but if you ask geo-* scientists if they study gaialogy (or gaiagraphy or gaiapolitics) they have the exact same skepticism and hesitance I felt coming into the talk. 

Latour traces this skepticism to both a scientific and a political/theological worry about holism: the term "gaia" evokes an image of Nature as a kind of goddess-being that sits over and above its inhabitants. On the other hand, "geo" functions to refer to the more-or-less stable background on which some activity takes place, and therefore doesn't implicate any holism."Geo" isn't a god-figure orchestrating our politics; geopolitics describes the politics that takes place on the global stage, but the stage is not itself an actor in the politics. So "geo" is compatible with reductionist science, and "gaia" is not. 

From the scientific perspective, this image of Gaia as holistic-Nature-entity flies in the face of the strict reductionism that is characteristic of the sciences: we cannot talk about the whole except by way of describing the mechanical operation of its parts, so at best the use of "Gaia" adds nothing to our existing scientific theories. At worst, "Gaia" sneaks in a kind of natural theology: that nature is somehow being "steered" from above. Both suggestions are anathema to scientific methodology. 

Moreover, there is a long tradition in political theology of appealing to a Nature-entity in a providential way: Nature does not steer blindly, but aims at it's own preferred optima as a self-correcting, self-regulating system. Politically this image of nature is used in both positive and negative ways: on the one hand, Latour talks of climate activists appealing to "what nature wants" or "what is best for nature". On the other, we are deeply skeptical of any such holistic aim; thus, we talk about the "tragedy of the commons", where there is no systemic regulation over and above the actions of the parts. 

However, Latour gives a careful reading of Lovelock to show that he (Lovelock) was conscious of these worries and careful to develop the metaphor of Gaia to explicit address them. Latour emphasizes that Locklock was a reductionist: there is no entity called Gaia over and above the cooperation of is parts. Gaia just is that system constructed from that cooperation, and so it resists being taken as an entity independent of that cooperation. Margulis puts the point in Darwinian terms: you can't evaluate the fitness of an organism independent of some environment, so organisms and environments must together be the unit of biological significance. The point can be put more generally: the function of any component must be understood in terms of the system it is a component of

The upshot is that the system isn't something over and above its parts but is constituted by them. In other words, the "geo" assumption that we can distinguish the actors from the stage is wrong. Latour reads the term "Gaia" as an attempt to bring the system to the forefront without treating it as an independent, providential Nature-Godhead, but instead as something more mundane: a system to which we all constitute and to which are all actively contributing. 

On Latour's view, what the criticisms of Lovelock and "Gaia" reveal is a paucity in our conceptual apparatus. We're locked into a "two-level" way of thinking: either we're talking about the operation of parts, or we are talking about wholes conceived of holistically. The former is the domain of strict reductionist science, and the latter is the domain of providential political theology. We have no way to talk about systems of interconnected parts whose cooperation constitutes a whole. Latour wants to embrace the talk of "Gaia" as a genuinely novel attempt to address exactly this conceptual paucity. I still don't think I like the word.

[24:50] "Whenever you stop talking about the individual *in* an environment, then it means you are for providential "nanny" Gaia, which is the all-powerful thermostat. We are so deprived of an alternative, that whenever we begin to say "we don't want an organism *in* an environment, when the environment is transformed by the organism", then immediately people hear "it is a holistic argument, and I'm sure it's wrong."

[35:17] "There is nothing global about Gaia. It is a whole where the very notion of what is a whole and what is a part has changed."

[47:30] "The common is impossible when it is thought of as a whole. The common is possible precisely because it is an extraordinarily difficult set of skills to compose. But if you have a two level standpoint, it means there will never be any alternative; this is the tragedy of the commons. It doesn't matter if we talk about biology or economics or society, the problem is the same. The problem isn't in the data, the problem is in the way we borrow a definition of association from politics and theology." 

I don't know that I like the term Gaia any better, but hearing this talk definitely resolved any ambivalence or discomfort I had about the use of the term or this thread in complexity theory. I think Latour's analysis is completely on target. 

As I said, I've been thinking about these issues myself for a long time. I've personally grown fond of talking about organisms at different scales, which I think can systematize the discussion across the sciences. If I'm uncomfortable with "Gaia", it's because the term points to a logically possible organism, but not any specific one. From the framework of organisms, "Gaia" represents something like "the most complete organism on Earth", and I'm not exactly sure which that is, or what standard we're using to judge "completeness"; I don't think organisms can be so easily individuated so as to have any one "Gaia", so unless we're talking about some specific organisms I'm not sure the term is useful. 

A few notes:

1) Latour's analysis is completely critical, and without positive recommendation (aside from a theatrical play he produced in conjunction with this research). He never says "here, use this vocabulary instead". His own vocabulary seems inconsistent: sometimes talking in terms of parts/wholes and other times calling holism a "poison". He seems to equate "systems" with "wholes", which I think is a mistake. So let me help: there are no parts or wholes; mereology is alchemy. There are only components and the organisms they compose, and this relationship cannot be expressed with a container metaphor. The proper vocabulary for talking about the relationships among components is network theory-- not ANT, but graph theory in the style of Bechtel and Baez

2) I suspect that our two-level tendency in this case is related to Dennett's discussion of the design and intentional stances. In fact, I think Dennett might be wrong to mark three levels of distinction; I think it's probably only two levels: design and intention, with the physical stance just being a special case of design. On this reading, the design stance is the reductionist stance, understanding the operation of a thing in terms of the mechanics of its parts. The intentional stance is the holistic stance, treating the system as an entity-in-itself, with all the systemic dispositions that might entail. Reworking Dennett's discussion of the intentional stance around a two-level distinction would take some work, but it might also go some way to explain why we struggle with the conceptual apparatus for talking about systems and components. In other words, this might not merely be a conceptual failure; it might be a genuine cognitive bias. We might have a Gaia-blindspot.

3) In any case, Latour's discussion suggests that working out these conceptual confusions will go at least some way towards resolving our biggest challenges today. If we saw the climate not as some independent system hanging over our heads but as one that directly arises from the actions we take, then maybe climate change wouldn't be so difficult from a policy perspective. If our political system were designed to not just represent our interests but to respond directly to them, maybe we'd be able to organize our political infrastructure to take action on such policies. 

In other words, I'm being optimistic because of contemporary French philosophy. Yowza.