LATOUR’S THIRD GIFFORD LECTURE: “The puzzling face of a secular Gaia”

In praise of James Lovelock: “Lovelock is onto something as original as Pasteur”. Latour declares that he is giving a “charitable reading” of Lovelock, emphasising the cracks and gaps and interruptions as opposed to the uncharitable reductionist readings of a New Age perspective (reducing Gaia to a goddess or a super-organism) or of an engineering perspective (reducing Gaia to a Providentially or blindly designed whole). “No holistic view of Gaia can be sustained”.

Against the duality agent/environment: “There is no environment any more”. Gaia has purged Darwinism of its remnants of Providence. The “selfish gene” explains nothing, as there are too many agents, each going to the end of its intention to modify all the others. “Any selfish goal is swamped by the selfish goals of all the others”. So all calculation of optimisation is impossible.

Narration versus design and teleology: All creatures have become agents, each possessing intention and interpretation, each adapting to the environment but also adjusting the environment to it. This amounts to a “dissolution of the environment”, everything that was background is now foreground, all the former props and décor have become active agents.

Gaia is not a globe, not a “blue planet”. It is far messier than that image suggests. You can’t globalise by jumping to a higher point of view, as this higher point of view is generated by the contingent success of living forms. Any feedback loops, such as those that generate a much higher than chance level of oxygen, are not pre-ordained, but only the result of the contingent spread of organisms adjusting the environment favorably to themselves.

Secular Gaia: We are the “people of Gaia”, which is not the same thing as the people of Nature. Religion and science are always inextricably mixed, but Gaia understood  as a secular entity is far less “religious” (in the sense of “religion one”, as discussed in lecture 2) than Nature. Gaia is “fully secular”, ie fully of this world. “Secular” means that “there is no outside Cause or spiritual Nature”.

Lovelock/Pasteur and “science two”: science does not proceed by simple expansion but by revision of the furniture of the world. Science is historical and proceeds also by ontological revision. Secular science means no undisputable nor indefeasible claims. Reductionism comes after, giving names to characters that have first proved themselves in trials and tribulations. Metaphysical obstacles must be overcome: Pasteur had to convince surgeons that they were killing their patients with the very scalpels they were using to save them, infecting them. We have had to be convinced that we are a sickness of Gaia, part of its geo-story. We can’t escape (the sub-lunar has become central again) and we should feel responsible (the Anthropocene means we are conscious of being part of the narration and able to influence it).

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One Response to LATOUR’S THIRD GIFFORD LECTURE: “The puzzling face of a secular Gaia”

  1. Pingback: Latour Links | (((Knowledge Ecology)))

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