At Next Nature, we often argue that "our image of nature as static, balanced and harmonious is naive and up for reconsideration." Paleontologist Peter J. Ward happens to agree. In a challenge to the Gaia hypothesis, which holds that all life functions as nurturing, super-organismal "mother", Ward argues that life on earth has a death wish that would do Freud proud.

Ward claims that, contrary to popular images of cataclysmic asteroids and volcanoes, most mass extinctions on earth were set in motion by microbes.  2.4 billion years ago, microscopic cyanobacteria emerged newly equipped with photosynthesis and triggered the Great Oxygenation Event. While great for aerobic organisms, it was fatal news for anaerobic life, which had up until then had free reign over the planet. The sudden release of oxygen is also likely what set off the Huronian Glaciation, a deadly "snowball earth" that kept the planet locked in ice for 300 million years.

Anaerobic microbes had their revenge during subsequent extinction events. Historically, whenever atmospheric carbon has risen above 1,000 parts per million (ppm), a super-charged greenhouse effect dramatically weakens the temperature differential between the poles and the tropics. Without pronounced temperature gradients to drive ocean mixing, only the top layer of the sea remains oxygenated. Anaerobic bacteria thrive below this zone, producing enough hydrogen sulfide gas to poison the entire planet. This poisoning may be to blame for the End-Permian event, "the mother of all extinctions", when 96% of all marine organisms disappeared.

Humans, microbes though we're not, are an element of the earth's self-destructive tendency. If our Co2 emissions go above the tipping point of 1,000 ppm, as predicted by some upper-end IPCC estimates for 2100, we may trip an event identical to the one that wiped out the trilobites.

Interestingly enough, in the long run, it's a carbon shortage that may spell the end of life, long before the sun vaporizes the oceans. In 500 million years, life's insatiable need for carbon – the basic building block of every organism – could mean that atmospheric carbon might eventually drop below 10 ppm, the amount needed to sustain grasses. In terms of total biomass, evidence indicates that earth is already in its "old age".

Life sprung from a happy coincidence of molecules. According to Ward, it will bumble around earth for about 4 billion years, and snuff itself out just as accidentally as it arose. So much for Disney nature.

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  • The link to Pure science Wiki is

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  • It is true that geological studies show changes of the environment that contradicts the strong Gaia hypothesis of ecosystems working towards an optimum state. It is also true that there is evidence that ecosystems have collapsed from within. However, the frequency of such ecosystem collapses through geological history is many orders of magnitude lower than the extremely high frequency predicted by the Malthusian model of maximum reproduction. So evolution must be driven by something other than maximization of reproduction. The selfish gene model (the theoretical mechanism basis of the Medea hypothesis of life destroying itself) appears to be supported by simple computer simulations, but so does strong Gaia hypothesis. The strong Gaia hypothesis failed scale-up to more complex systems, and the missing frequency of Medean ecosystem collapses can be explained if the selfish gene model also fails scale-up to the greater complexity of real life because real life is too complex to be livable to such rigid, unselfcritical entities as the selfish gene model claims that living organisms are. In other words, the selfish gene model is based on the same methodological error as is the strong Gaia hypothesis. This is explained in greater detail on the pages "Moderating the Gaia/Medea debate" and "Self-organization" on Pure science Wiki, a wiki devoted to the scientific method unaffected by academic prestige obsession. I recommend Pure science Wiki!

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  • Thanks for the typo catch - hopefully not a prophetic one! My defense of terms like "suicidal" is that these kind of metaphors make complex research accessible to a general audience. Saying that life is aimless and amoral is correct, but it doesn't make for a great story. If we're going to create emotional narratives for science, we may as well have competing ones... But I agree that there needs to be far more objectivity in science reporting.

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  • "According to War, it will....snuff itself out just as accidentally as it arose." I love that typo, if in fact it was one (typo = potentially beneficial lexical mutation?). Great post! I'm worried about the framing of life on earth as anti-life/suicidal -- isn't the idea that life is brutal and violent one of the narratives that legitimized man's quest to "conquer" nature and set himself apart from it? Are we just going to swing back and forth between one anthropomorphism of reality after another? Can we not just point at life, nature, history, and say this happened, that happened, this is the nature of reality, without applying these sort of normative moral language practices to the function of reality? Cheers!

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