At Home in Nature

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What are we reading?

Dr. Peter Ward is a paleontologist at the University of Washington, a full Professor of Earth and Space Science.  We read Dr. Ward’s Under a Green Sky and Medea Hypothesis and found them entertaining, enlightening and very singular, so to speak.

        The Medea hypothesis is a term coined by Dr. Ward for the his hypothesis that multicellular life, understood as a superorganism, is suicidal; in this view microbial-triggered mass extinctions are attempts to return the Earth to the microbial dominated state it has been for most of its history.  It is named after the mythological Medea, who killed her own children and in this respect presents an almost anti-Gaian hypothesis, in that nature is not motherly in Dr. Ward’s world, but instead is a mother.

        His reasoning is based on paleontological evidence, and among many evidences, particularly and strikingly cites the methane poisoning (3.5 billion years ago), the oxygen catastrophe (2.7 billion years ago), snowball earth (both 2.3 billion years ago and 790-630 million years ago), and 5 separate hydrogen sulfide-induced mass extinctions, including the Great Dying (251.4 million years ago).  He also cites the reason that microbes are more efficient at producing biomass, and also transforming inorganic carbon dioxide into organic carbons.  His evidence is compellingly told so that even an average person without much scientific training can understand and judge the facts. 

        His Under a Green Sky closely examines the hydrogen sulfide poisoning.  In this book, Dr. Ward goes into depth on the complex mechanisms that led to the death of most of life on earth multiple times before – and relates them to the present situation of global warming that may result in the destruction of our own species.  It is not bedtime reading, unless you enjoy nightmares.

        According to Dr. Ward, the double threat we face is not only poisoning by hydrogen sulfide, which will gain a critical concentration in the atmosphere from microbial action, but also ultraviolet radiation poisoning from a reduced ozone layer due to the same microbial action.  This double threat has in the past destroyed most living creatures and is eminent today as the oceans rise, reducing or stopping the circulation of nutrient required to abate the “bad” bacteria and help the “good” bacteria: like tilling the soil, or cleaning a stall, nature spins the oceans, cleans out filth and encourages “good” bacteria.  When the oceanic “tillage” stops, “bad” bacteria thrive under the filthy and less-aerobic conditions.

        Dr. Ward says that there is reason to hope, however, that there need be no great dying this time.  Humans are not only aware of the situation, its causes and its effects, but have advanced technology to actually alter the atmosphere or preserve their lives, and the lives of other creatures.

        This is in line with the warnings of Dr. James Lovelock and other Gaianists.  Whether you read his books and agree the earth naturally benefits from multicellular life aside, you will at least gather that there is much concord on the urgency to protect our own lives.

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