The inventor James Lovelock was born in England in 1919. Early during the Second World War, armed with a degree in chemistry, he went to work for the British government on a variety of projects on the borderline between the physical and the biological sciences. He had an incredible ability to make gadgets from piles of old junk, often surplus to the military effort, and this continued after the war. His greatest triumph was to invent the electron capture detector, an instrument so accurate that if one spilt a solvent on a rag in Japan, one could detect it in Britain a week later. Naturally, a man with such talents attracted attention. Lovelock went freelance and in the early 1960s he was often in California aiding one of his clients, the American space agency NASA, which was just then trying to detect if there was life on Mars.

Lovelock approached the problem indirectly, arguing that there was no need to send rockets to the red planet, but this wasn't necessarily a welcome conclusion for those invested in space travel. He argued that simply looking at the atmospheric composition of a planet would enable us to know whether that planet was likely to support life. Mars, Lovelock said, had no life, but Earth obviously was very different. This led to his great insight. The Earth is not just teeming with life. The Earth, in some sense, is life. Earth is an organism!

In the mid-1960s, Lovelock returned to the somewhat isolated village in the south of England, where he lived, undisturbed, with his family. Here he talked things over with his one close friend, the novelist William Golding, a man who likewise sought solitude, especially since the success of his first novel, The Lord of the Flies (1954). It was Golding who gave a name to Lovelock's insight, suggesting that it be called Gaia, after the ancient Greek goddess of Earth. But Golding did more than just give the idea a name. For the next few years, as Lovelock extended his thinking on the subject, Golding encouraged and helped the scientist to explore his hypothesis. This came naturally. Since his youth, Golding had been an enthusiast for the thinking of the polymath and mystic Rudolf Steiner. Steiner, who is best known today as the founder of the Waldorf (or Steiner) school system, which emphasises the role of the imagination in learning, had some very odd ideas (many derived from the theosophists) about heavenly spirits and reincarnation, all bound up with an idealistic philosophy that sees life throbbing everywhere. Hence, absolutely central to Steiner's thought, was the view that Earth is living, it is an organism. ...[Continue reading on Aeon Magazine]