Thursday, 4 April 2013

Neuroscience versus the unknowable: revisiting Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia

…if we fail to take care of the Earth, it surely will take care of itself by making us no longer welcome.
This quote from the introduction to climate scientist James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia was an important catalyst for the the plot of Dirt Circus League. I can't remember how I first came across this book - like many of the books/articles I find that end up being important to me I suppose it's just serendipity. But the idea of planet Earth as a living, breathing, self-regulating system, and the notion that it would kill off humans in order to save itself, fascinated me. It was the core idea I needed to bring my story idea to life.

This time around I read The Revenge of Gaia much more thoroughly from beginning to end and many of Lovelock's ideas and beliefs surprised me: the fact that he is a strong believer in nuclear energy as the solution to the world's energy problems, for example. He also poo-poohs organic farming, thinks pesticides have a bad name, and that we are more likely to get cancer from simply breathing oxygen than anything else (except cigarette smoking and excessive sunburn). He's not exactly the type of environmentalist I thought he was!

Knowing versus the unknowable

Environmentalism aside, it is the notion of the unexplainable that appeals to me, and Lovelock's particular view of it. I think this quote sums it up well:

The universe is a much more intricate place than we can imagine. I often think our conscious minds will never encompass more than a tiny fraction of it all and that our comprehension of the Earth is no better than an eel’s comprehension of the ocean in which it swims. Life, the universe, consciousness, and even simpler things like riding a bicycle, are inexplicable in words. We are only just beginning to tackle these emergent phenomena, and in Gaia they are as difficult as the near magic of the quantum physics of entanglement. But this does not deny their existence.
 And this:
[there is] an acceptance that Gaia is real to the extent that we have a self-regulating Earth but with a growing recognition that many natural phenomena are unknowable and can never be explained in classical reductionist terms – phenomena such as consciousness, life, the emergence of self-regulation and a growing list of happenings in the world of quantum physics. It is time, I think, that theologians shared with scientists their wonderful word, ‘ineffable’; a word that expresses the thought that God is immanent but unknowable.
Does this have anything to do with neuroscience?

Of course it does! Reporting of neuroscience (in the western world at least) is littered with articles that try to convince us that everything in the world can be explained by brain scans (if you don't believe me read Neuroaesthetics is killing your soul). I love neuroscience. It's an incredibly diverse and fascinating field of study that is discovering more and more about the human brain. But it will not and cannot explain everything about what it means to be a human (or posthuman for that matter).

When I embarked on my PhD my goal was to write a neuro-novel for teenagers. Now that I have an (almost final draft) manuscript the neuroscience aspects of the novel, although they exist, are quite minor. I have included some brief references to neuroscience to explain how Quarter's eye implants work, and one of the characters (Surgeon) is, among other things, a neurosurgeon. But the neuroscience is just one eye-catching pathway into the real guts of what the story is about: belonging, identity, power and interconnectedness.

Lovelock's book inspired me to write about an earth-based religious cult that worships Gaia, and has as a core belief Gaia's right to destroy human life in order to save herself. But his ideas flow through my manuscript in other ways too. The notion of a single, interconnected organism that needs balance to regulate itself, for example, is expressed through the relationship of the two main characters, Quarter and Ava. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that neither will survive life in the Dirt Circus League without the other. They have a physical attraction but deeper than that is their connection that expresses itself through protection (Quarter of Ava) and healing (Ava of Quarter).

Lovelock is also keen on metaphor. He states: 'We have to use the crude tool of metaphor to translate conscious ideas into unconscious understanding.’. Perhaps Quarter and Ava's relationship may be seen as a metaphor for humanity's relationship with the Earth in its struggle to balance technology and the environment?

Or maybe I'm starting to over think it...

By the way, Lovelock does temper the notion that the Earth will kill off humans to save herself to some degree throughout the book, saying that most likely some humans will survive but that civilisation is in danger. So all is not lost. Yet.