Gaia Hypothesis: Analogy Of The Elephant And Its Fleas

The view of the Earth from space brought with it a very important insight: The realization that the planet as a whole may be a living being. We Earthlings might be likened to fleas who have spent all their lives on an elephant, unaware of what it really was. They charted the terrain – all the different patches of skin, hair, and bumps – studied the chemistry, plotted the temperature changes, and classified the other animals that shared their world, arriving at what they thought was a reasonable understanding of where they lived.

Then one day a few of the fleas took a huge leap and looked at the elephant from a distance of a hundred feet. Suddenly it dawned: ‘The whole thing is alive!’ This was the truly awesome realization the trip to the moon brought to many. The whole planet appeared to be alive – not just teaming with life, but an organism in its own right.

If the idea of the Earth as a living being is initially difficult to accept, it may be partly due to our notions of what sort of things can and cannot be organisms. We accept a vast range of systems as living organisms, from bacteria to blue whales, but when it comes to the whole planet we might balk a little. It is, however, worth reminding ourselves that four hundred years ago no one realized that there were organisms within us and around us, so small that they could not be seen with the naked eye. Only with the development of the microscope did people begin to surmise that there were living organisms that minute. Today we are viewing life from the other direction, through the ‘macroscope’ of the Earthview; and we are beginning to surmise that something as vast as our planet might also be a living organism.

This hypothesis is all the more difficult to accept because the living Earth is not an organism we can normally observe outside ourselves: it is an organism of which we are an intimate part. Only when we step into space can we begin to see it as a separate being. Stuck like fleas on an elephant, we have not, until recently, had the chance to see the planet as a whole. Would a cell in our own bodies, seeing a tiny part of the inside of the body for a short period, ever guess that the body as a whole was a living being in its own right?

Another reason we may find this a rather strange idea is that our everyday perspectives and thinking about the planet have generally been in timescales appropriate to human life. The planet’s own timescale, however, is vastly greater than ours. The rhythm of day and night might be considered the pulse of the planet, one full cycle for every hundred thousand human heartbeats. Speeding up time appropriately, we would see the atmosphere and ocean currents swirling round the planet, circulating nutrients and carrying away waste products, much as the blood circulates nutrients and carries away waste in our own bodies.

Written by Peter Russell in his book The Global Brain


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