I have come across many instances of people claiming that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic must be seen as a kind of “message” from nature; that human beings have abused “her” excessively; and that, if we continue along such an abusive trajectory, we can expect even more severe natural “responses” in the form of viruses (or perhaps bacteria) as symptoms of our shortsighted treatment of what is, after all, our own primordial “mother” in the sense of the biological matrix of our provenance. The people who have made this claim include some prominent, accountable ones, such as the United Nations Environment Programme director, Inger Anderson, and Pope Francis, which means that it cannot be dismissed as merely alarmist behaviour.
But what does it mean to say that “nature is sending us a message”? Most people would probably tend to reject this as metaphorical language use, or anthropomorphism, and laugh it off. After all, only intelligent entities can engage in message-sending, and those of us who grew up in communities with strong religious ties would recall that we were taught that humans were installed in the position of “masters of the Earth”, to rule over nature as they saw fit. As theologian (or self-described “geologian”) Thomas Berry persistently argued, our religious heritage should take some of the responsibility for humans’ maltreatment of nature because of the erroneous belief that it is there for our exclusive “use”.
Berry’s work is linked to the name “Gaia” — an old, mythical name for the Earth, or Earth Mother — but his contribution to this sphere of thought comes after that of its progenitor, geophysiologist and climate scientist James Lovelock. It was Lovelock who first formulated the Gaia hypothesis, which stated that the Earth must be understood as a single, extremely complex and diversified, physiological, geophysical and biological system — a “macro-organism” — and not merely as a “neutral” space on which living organisms are found. As more scientists tested predictions based on this hypothesis and its experimental implementation, it eventually attained the status of “Gaia theory” (nowadays sometimes referred to as Earth systems theory).
It is worth quoting a summary by Lovelock that explains the difference, taken from his 1979 book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth: “Gaia Hypothesis: This postulates that the physical and chemical condition of the surface of the Earth, of the atmosphere, and of the oceans has been and is actively made fit and comfortable by the presence of life itself. This is in contrast to the conventional wisdom, which held that life adapted to the planetary conditions as it and they evolved their separate ways. This describes the original Gaia hypothesis, which we now know to be wrong. Life does not regulate or make the Earth comfortable for itself. I now think that regulation, at a state fit for life, is a property of the whole evolving system of life, air, ocean and rocks. This could be called Gaia Theory, since it has a mathematical basis in the model Daisyworld and because it makes testable predictions.”
To put it more simply, Gaia theory posits that living ecologies and inorganic things (which together comprise the “Earth system”) interact in a self-regulating manner that maintains life-promoting conditions — remembering that “life” encompasses not just the so-called higher animals, including humans, but all animals and plants, as well as microscopic life forms such as bacteria and viruses.
Attributing to nature — or Gaia, the Earth system — the capacity to “send us a message” suggests, further, that there is intelligence involved. It is easy to grasp the fact that (sentient) animals and plants display intelligence: think of plants responding to sunlight, and growing towards (or sometimes away from) it, which is known as phototropism. But can one suppose that Gaia is somehow intelligent?
Here is what Lovelock has to say, to quote at length from his 1979 book: “Among several difficult concepts embodied in the Gaia hypothesis is that of intelligence. Like life itself, we can at present only categorise and cannot completely define it. Intelligence is a property of living systems and is concerned with the ability to answer questions correctly. We might add, especially questions about those responses to the environment [that] affect the system’s survival, and the survival of the association of systems to which it belongs.
“At the cellular level, decisions as to the edibility or otherwise of things encountered, and as to whether the environment is favourable or hazardous, are vital for survival. They are, however, automatic processes and do not involve conscious thought. Much of the routine operation of homoeostasis [the tendency to maintain a relatively stable condition in living systems], whether it be for the cell, the animal, or for the entire biosphere, takes place automatically, and yet it must be recognised that some form of intelligence is required even within an automatic process, to interpret correctly information received about the environment. To supply the right answers to simple questions such as: ‘Is it too hot?’ or: ‘Is there enough air to breathe?’ requires intelligence … Indeed, all cybernetic [automatic control or regulation] systems are intelligent to the extent that they must give the correct answer to at least one question. If Gaia exists, then she is without doubt intelligent in this limited sense at the least.
“There is a spectrum of intelligence ranging from the most rudimentary … to our own conscious and unconscious thoughts during the solving of a difficult problem … Compared with the thermostasis of a kitchen oven, the body’s automatic temperature-regulating system is intelligent to the point of genius, but it is still below the level of consciousness. It is to be compared in intelligence with the level of the regulatory mechanisms [that] we would expect to find Gaia using.”
Someone who argues that the Earth’s overall system, or Gaia, is not intelligent because there is no consciousness involved would, therefore, be wrong, in light of what Lovelock writes in the excerpt above. “Intelligent regulatory mechanisms” are clearly part and parcel of the cybernetic processes or self-regulation that occurs in nature, considered as Gaia.
As far as the genesis of the novel coronavirus goes, one might argue, from a strictly anthropocentric position, that it was anything but a show of intelligence, given the havoc that it is wreaking among human beings. But that would be to miss the point. As I have previously argued, with reference to a number of sources, all indications point to human beings as being ultimately responsible for the emergence of viruses, shed by animals that are stressed because of the destruction of their habitat.
It follows that, because the connections among all living beings are part of the encompassing Earth system (which also includes inorganic matter such as water and rocks), the increase in anthropogenic global warming (which has already killed innumerable species) and the destruction of forests that are home to many different species, would have a negative effect on the processes that work towards relative homeostasis, and hence elicit “automatic” compensatory reactions. It is, therefore, not unimaginable that the zoonotic transfer of the novel coronavirus from an animal — either directly or through an intermediate animal — could be such an unconscious, automatic reaction on the part of Gaia, which could contribute to restoring a homeostatic equilibrium thrown out of kilter by human activities going back at least 200 years to the beginning of the industrial revolution. After all, if one of nature’s children — humans — are behaving in a ruinous manner towards all her other children, what needs to be done?