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Beyond Gaia?
An Exploration of Earth Consciousness and Gender

by Andrew Rothery


At this time we live in a world where the dominant global philosophy of life is crumbling and no new philosophy has yet fully appeared. It is therefore a time of flux, a time of creative crisis, a time of living between worlds. The fragmenting philosophy of which I speak is characterised by a mechanistic world view where nature (including humanity) is seen as a resource to be used and abused as people see fit. With the growing destruction and de-stabilisation of the Earth’s complex ecosystems and the increasingly unhappy and volatile nature of human societies, it is clear that we need to find new ways of living or risk complete extinction! Life on Earth could go on without us, and the countless other species that we would take with us, but what a tragic loss this would be both for us and for Life as a whole.

In the midst of such a time of great change it is no coincidence that a "new" idea has appeared in Western culture which could hold the key not only to our survival as a species, but to the creation of a philosophy of life which so far exceeds our current notions of quality and purpose that it is still largely beyond the scope of our imagination. The new idea I'm talking about is the Gaia Theory (seeing the Earth functioning as a living organism), intuited by James Lovelock in the late 1960's and developed since then by himself and many other scientists and philosophers. However, while I believe that Gaia Theory has the potential to create a global paradigm shift as significant as those catalysed by Copernicus and Galileo, currently it is still only understood by a small minority of people and accepted by even less.

A major reason for the marginalisation of such a significant breakthrough in human understanding is the “ecopathic” (ecologically damaging) state of mind which perfuses todays technocentric societies. However, what I will focus on in this essay is the suggestion that an equally significant, and perhaps related, cause of this marginalisation is Gaia Theory’s strong association with the female gender. Since any philosophy with a strong gender polarisation tends to create opposition from the other gender, Gaia Theory will encourage marginalisation and rejection from those who have strong beliefs in the primacy of the male gender, be they religious or scientific. This issue is particularly significant in todays world where male dominance is still the key driving force behind most human development. I therefore suggest that we need to be very clear about the relevance of femininity to the concept of the living Earth, if Gaia Theory is to become more widely understood and accepted. If we explore this issue and agree that gender is an essential element, all well and good, but if we discover that it is not, we will need to begin developing a new language and symbolism which goes beyond gender. To begin such a journey it is therefore important to understand why the Earth has traditionally been seen as a female entity.

Earth as a Mother

Perceiving the Earth as a mother figure is one of the oldest mythological perspectives in human history. We know that our ancient ancestors carved talismans in the shape of hugely pregnant women and some of the earliest places of worship, initiation and sacrament were cave systems running deep into the dark safety of the Earth. It is easy to see why this was and, for many indigenous peoples across the world today, still is the case. As ancient people gathered plants for food, they would have noticed how they grew up out of the soil and likened this to the seemingly miraculous feat of human pregnancy and birth. The soil was therefore seen as the fertile womb and the seed/plant as the child being born. Our ancestors would have also noticed how all animals depend on plants for sustenance, hence all biological life became seen to be “born” from the Earth Mother. If we also look at the landscape as a whole, it undulates with feminine curves, gives “birth” to life-giving streams and rivers and offers safety in the form of its many cave systems. This fact was honoured by ancient peoples through the construction of temples and shrines in the form of mounds, chambers, fougous and sacred wells or springs. The Earth was therefore attributed with the same fertile and generative power as the female womb, and all plants and animals, including ourselves, were seen as “her” children.

As culture and language developed, the Earth Mother became known by many different names. To the Ancient Greeks she was Gaia or Gaea, mother of all the other gods goddesses and an extension of the word Ge meaning earth. The Celts had numerous names for her such as Erce or Ertha in the Germanic tribes, and Danu, Dana or Anu in ancient Ireland. In Africa she has many names including Ala in Nigeria and Asase Yaa in the Ashanti tribe of West Africa. Indians know her as Devi, the Chinese called her Hu Tu and Native Americans have many names for her, including Ambika and Maka. The perception of the Earth as a mother was therefore a globally recognised way of seeing the planet as a living organism which encouraged the principles of respecting nature and living within the carrying capacity of local ecosystems to become woven into cultural mythologies creating societies which were ecologically literate and ecologically loving.

In addition to seeing the Earth as mother of many “children”, it is also possible to see the biosphere as the sole offspring of the planet, since Gaia Theory suggests that it functions as a single integrated system. This perspective ties in with some observable facts about the development of the Earth’s biosphere. While cellular life is of a completely different order of organisation and complexity to the surrounding geochemical Earth system, it is still infused by and dependant upon its salts, water and gases. Similar to a child in the human womb, this “bio-web” of cellular life seems to have greatly influenced the physiology of its surrounding environment, the crustal surface of the Earth, to form the biosphere. The evolution of cellular life over the last 3.5 billion years can therefore be seen as the development of a complex planetary super-organism in utero. Particularly significant is the similarity of our emerging global human infrastructure, which has been likened to a global neural system or brain, usually the last organ to develop fully in highly complex organisms (1). This idea of the Earth being “pregnant” with a “biosphere child” creates a more gender-balanced scenario, since it portrays the “feminine” Earth and the “masculine” Sun working together in a way which is similar to sexual coupling. It also ties in with the archetypal relationship of Gaia with the Green Man, who represents the plant kingdom and the gift of photosynthesis, which is the driving force behind virtually all life in the biosphere. The Green Man is archetypally perceived as the child and then lover of the parent Earth Goddess whose everlasting relationship with her maintains the seasonal cycle of life, death and rebirth which pulses year after year around the planet.

Viewing the Earth as a mother, of either many children or of a single “biosphere child” therefore provides an easy link for us between the everyday life of which we are a part and the inherent fertility of the Earth. It is therefore understandable why Gaia was the name chosen to describe James Lovelock’s theory of the Earth functioning as a single living organism. It does however, encourage us to see the Earth as two separate systems - the lithosphere (mother) and the biosphere (children or child). It also encourages us to see the Earth as an “other”, out of which we have emerged, rather than an extension of the “self” that we all fundamentally are. If we look at the direction which contemporary science is taking in its attempt to describe the patterns of a living universe it is possible to see that a different principle is emerging, that of the holon. This could provide us with new language and symbolism to describe the aliveness of the planet Earth.

Earth as a Holon

Over 25 years ago the Hungarian author and philosopher Arthur Koestler developed the term holon to describe the organisation of biological and social systems (2). Holon comes from the Greek words holos, meaning whole and on, meaning part or particle. It implies a kind of organisation where a system has a level of self autonomy and an embededness within a larger system e.g. the organs in our body are relatively well defined in themselves and yet they are embedded within the wholeness of our body. This relationship between holons of different levels is known as a holarchy and can be seen to exist across the whole universe from the level of the universe itself, down through galaxies, solar systems and planets, to organisms, cells, molecules and atoms. The Earth is therefore embedded within the holon of the Solar System, whilst containing its own holarchy of organisms, cells, molecules and atoms. If we then define living organisms simply as self-organising systems, a theory called autopoiesis first put forward by Maturana and Verala in 1972, holons at every level in the Universe may be seen as being alive by virtue of maintaining their overall structure whilst undergoing continous and profound internal transformations (3). Hence, the holon is a way of describing living systems in their own right, and therefore appears to transcend the need for genderisation. We thus have a situation where many of the living systems throughout the universe, including the Earth, can be described without referring to gender.

If, however, we explore the internal structure of holons in greater detail, an interesting pattern emerges. Each contains a clearly defined centre which is usually hot and radiant, and a cooler periphery where more complex and stable structures form. This basic pattern of organisation exists at every level we choose to examine. Our galaxy, the Milky Way has a relatively hot solar “bulge” at its centre and cooler gaseous “arms” at its periphery, where nebulae, the pre-cursors to solar systems, are formed (4). At the heart of our Solar System lies the Sun, a massive sphere of blazing gas, surrounded by circulating planets, asteroids and comets, all of which formed from an earlier accretion ring which contained all the elements that were too heavy to be dragged into the growing Sun (5). Earth itself has a molten central core and mantle, with a cooler crust at its periphery. The structure of cells and atoms also follow this pattern with a central nucleus that is relatively dense and the peripheral cytoplasm or electron cloud which is more expanded. Even the structure of the Universe itself shows a similar pattern, with the hot centre out of which energy first exploded and the peripheral cooling process where the first particles formed the nascent clouds of proto-galaxies. Thus, the apparent genderless nature of holons contains a duality of internal form which reflects gender, a universal observation that is also depicted in the ancient Taoist system of yin and yang.

Looking at this gendered structure of holons in the context of the evolution of the universe, it is possible to see a third pattern emerging. Each new level of the holarchy seems to form within the feminine or yin region of the holon i.e. the cooling particles of the Big Bang form galaxies, the peripheral arms of galaxies produce nebulae, the accretion rings of Solar Systems create planets and the surface of fertile planets produce cells. By contrast the masculine, hot-centres and their radiant energy appear to be the power house of the holon which catalyses the creation of its peripheral, feminine, zone and the consequent emergence of greater complexity there which forms the next level of the holarchy. Thus the development of our Sun initiated the formation of the surrounding accretion ring from which the planets appeared and the dense compaction of the Earth’s core caused the lighter crustal environment to coaggulate around it, which provided the more stable environment for cellular life to evolve. It appears then, that the feminine aspect of a holon contains the form and location for a new level of the holarchy to emerge, while the masculine aspect provides the energy which catalyses this process. We can therefore say that the Earth exists as a holon containing the male/female duality of its parent Solar System, rather than seeing the Earth only as a feminine counterpart to the masculine Sun.

If we look at this perspective in the context of the wider universal holarchy, it appears that at almost every level, from the whole universe down to simple cells, the duality of gender exists simply as a dual tendency within the single overall holon which ultimately produces a new level of holarchy. Only on the Earth, when simple cells become more complex and begin to form multicellular organisms, do these two tendencies appear as two separate forms, i.e. the male and female. It therefore seems that the norm for the evolving universe is to form holons like galaxies, solar systems, planets and simple cells, which include, but also transcend, gender. Perhaps then, it is because we have viewed the internal structure of these holons from our own human perspective of having genders in two separate forms, that we have projected either a feminine or masculine onto them. We therefore appear to have assumed that the Earth must be either male or female and ascribed it with the gender which fits most closely with our societal needs, rather than seeing the planet as a complete holon in its own right emerging from its parent Solar System. With this in mind, it seems reasonably clear that we cannot portray the living Earth as both a holon and purely female at the same time. If this is the case, how could we begin to characterise the Earth as a living organism in a way reflects its true nature as a holon combining both genders?

Earth as a Child

If we go back to the beginnings of our Solar System we simply see the massive cloud of gas and dust that we call a nebula. Then, through either the seeding of the cloud by the remains of an exploding supernova, or the simple attraction of two hydrogen atoms within the cloud, a snowballing effect is created where the lightest atoms of hydrogen and helium are drawn together (6). Eventually the density of the tightly packing atoms causes them to ignite and form the nascent star which is now our Sun. As more and more hydrogen and helium atoms are pulled into the growing “proto Sun”, the accretion ring of the remaining heavier elements is formed around it. Attractive processes between atoms within the accretion ring then enable a similar snowballing effect to occur which produces all of the planets in the Solar System, including the Earth. The consequent evolution of the Earth to ever greater complexity can therefore be seen as the development of a “child” of the Solar System. This process is dependant upon the energising warmth of the Sun, much in the same way as we might view the sprouting of a young plant from its seed, the development of a chick inside its incubated egg, or the formation of a human embryo from a single cell. The important philosophical shift here is to begin seeing the accretion ring of the early Solar System as the feminine counterpoint to the masculine Sun, out of which the next level of complexity (the planets) emerges, rather than the individual Earth. Earth can then be seen as a holon containing both genders which makes it inherently fertile.

A key element to this ideology is being able to understand the Earth as a single system rather than the traditional separation of the biosphere from the lithosphere. As long ago as the 1920’s the Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky began to use the term “biosphere” to describe the relationship between the lithosphere and biological life as a single continuum - “a disperse of rock” . The evolutionary biologist Elizabet Sahtouris eloquently develops this idea further by talking about biological life as “ rock rearranging itself - like music come alive - packaging itself as cells, speeding its chemical changes with enzymes…..transforming itself into ever-evolving creatures and back into rock”. She also compares the living Earth with a Giant Redwood, which is mostly inert cellulose surrounded by a thin surface layer of biochemically active cells. Thus we begin to see that the thin surface layer of biological “life” which surrounds the Earth is simply an emergent complexity from within the larger “living” mineral body of the planet.

Seeing the Earth as a growing child rather than a pregnant mother enables us to view the biosphere as a developing organ within a larger body. If we look at the infrastructure of the biosphere, with its high levels of complexity and interconnectedness between individual species, it looks increasingly like a massive information sharing network. The information, in many forms, including molecular structures, images and sounds, has gradually been assimilated over billions of years with an increasing level of awareness and clarity that is perhaps peaking with the emergence of humanity. It is commonly proposed that humanity alone represents the “brain” of the Earth, but I feel that this is far too anthropocentric and misses the immense complexity and information sharing which goes on between all other forms of biological life from blue whales to bacteria. This perspective is supported by the revolutionary work of the microbiologist Lynne Margulis who has shown that bacteria, the earliest form of biological life, are able to exchange their DNA at will thus creating the first incarnation of the World Wide Web. I therefore suggest that the whole global ecosystem is functioning as kind of planetary brain, a brain which has been developing over the last 3.5 billion years. Indeed it is even possible to see the Earth in toto as a developing sensory organ of the larger living Solar System.

This concurs with the views of French philosopher, Pierre Tielhard de Chadin, who proposed that humanity was a part of the generation of a new sphere of the Earth system connected with thought and consciousness which he termed the noosphere (7). While he maintained that humanity was integral to the noosphere’s development, he suggested that it was ultimately a planetary phenomenon which would be able to “think” in ways which transcended our current level of understanding. Tielhard de Chadin’s ideas have been explored and popularised by ecophilosophers such as Peter Russell, who suggests that, within the larger planetary “brain”, humanity can be seen to represent the area which is involved with the development of self-consciousness i.e. the equivalent to the frontal lobe of the human brain. This possibility provides us with a clear role for humanity within the larger living system of the Earth and shows us that our desire to continuously develop our ability to communicate information and ideas through telephone, television and computer is just as much a part of the Earth’s natural systems as oceans, trees and blue-green algae. Seeing ourselves as being a part of a developing planetary child allows the possibility of transcending the gender conflicts which have occurred so often throughout human history over the ways in which we view the world around and within us. It also provides an explanation for our apparently continuous drive towards development and learning, and could potentially offer a suitable focus for us to begin synergistically linking our intricate and powerful technologies back into the deeper rhythms of the Earth as a whole.

Beyond Gaia?

Our ancient ancestors intuitively knew that the Earth was alive and that every human life was a part of the larger life of the Earth. This awareness has waxed and waned over the millennia of technological development, but it is never more significant and poignant than today where there is increasing evidence that our way of life is akin to a form of self-harming on a global scale. Whilst our collective addiction to technology and the apparent comforts which it provides is clearly a key factor in the ecopathic state of the so-called “developed” world, the conflict between the genders is also hugely significant, perhaps even more so. The fact that the Earth has consistently been seen to be a feminine organism by most of those who have felt the planetary pulse in their hearts, has no doubt encouraged the ecological vandalism of cultures who have planted their flag on the other great pole of existence - the masculine.

In this essay I have explored the reasons why the Earth has traditionally been seen as a Mother and how this perspective can be seen to contradict the contemporary scientific view of the Earth as a holon which contains both genders. An alternative is to see the Earth as a developing child, which is becoming increasingly self-aware and intelligent. One conclusion which may be drawn from these ideas is that much depends on the perspective from which you define the living Earth. If you view the Earth from the place of an individual human it does indeed look as though you’ve emerged from the fertile womb of a great Mother. This even holds if you take on the perspective of the biosphere as a single integrated offspring of the Earth.

However, if you shift your perspective to that of the planet as a whole, the situation changes. The biosphere suddenly seems more like an immensely complex organ of sensitivity which you are developing to explore your local environment (the surrounding universe) and gain a greater awareness of oneself as a planetary organism. You begin to notice the holonic pattern of the universe and realise that you are an emergent offspring of the Solar System, together with other planets. Does this “Earth Child” perspective provide a strong enough case for moving on from the name Gaia in order to describe the science and philosophy of the Earth as a living being? My answer is “yes” and “no”! Genderised perspectives of our surrounding world are essential because they are often objectively true, but perhaps more importantly they also provide a clear link to our subjective life and being. I therefore think that there will always be relevance in using gender to describe the living Earth as “other” i.e. “she” or “her”, however, when we think of the living Earth as a greater aspect of our own “self”, we may need to go beyond gender.

In his seminal work on the evolution of masculinity, Iron John – A Book About Men, the poet and scholar Robert Bly develops the notion of a “deep masculinity” which lies close to the Earth and embodies a wetness and a groundedness which goes beyond the usual link between maleness, fire and intensity (8). This notion of an earthy masculinity therefore invites a stronger connection and relationship with the dark and oceanic nature of the feminine. We may therefore need to look in a similar way for a “deep femininity” which goes beyond our conventional notions of mother and out into the complex web of life that is our living planet. Such a possibility is hinted at by Joanna Macy in her excellent study of Buddhist psychology and ecology, World as Lover, World as Self (9). She describes a “Mother of All Buddhas" who transcends ordinary definitions of self and other to embody the source of the Buddha’s doctrine of dependant co-arising (the universal inter-relationship of all things). Macy states that - “Freed from the dichotomies which oppose earth to sky, flesh to spirit, the feminine appears here clothed in light and space…”. The Mother of All Buddhas is therefore a metaphor for the original living wisdom within all beings, regardless of gender. “She” is also acknowledged in some translations of a particular section of the ancient Taoist text the Tao Te Ching (10):

“The Valley Spirit never dies
It is called Mysterious Female.

The entrance to the Mysterious Female
Is called the root of Heaven and Earth.

Endless flow
Of inexhaustible energy.”

If we allow such images of the deep feminine to perfuse our description of the living Earth, together with those of the deep masculine, we can begin to open to words and images which transcend our ordinary notions of gender.

Paul Shepard, in his radical work on ecology and human psychological development, Nature and Madness, proposes that our ecopathology begins with the Goddess-worshipping agricultural societies of the pre-classical world, rather than their later destruction by the male-dominated pastoral peoples (11). The point he makes is that in pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies, as children developed, their original identification with their biological mother as the prime source of nourishment and wellbeing gradually shifted outwards to their surrounding environment. Shepard suggests that in agricultural societies this shift was inhibited by the anthropomorphic portrayal of the surrounding environment as the mother image of the Great Goddess, causing people to maintain a relatively infantile relationship with the Earth. He therefore makes the distinction between seeing the living Earth as “mother” and “matrix”, the latter perspective enabling children to develop a more pluralistic relationship with the living world around them and mature fully.

The word matrix comes from the same ancient root as mother, “ma”, but while implying a similar inherent fertility, it also embodies a pluralistic meaning which serves to transcend simple genderised terms of identification. An “Earth Matrix” therefore suggests a planetary web or net, as well as a womb, which offers more possibilities of identification with both genders simultaneously. It also ties in with recent experiential discoveries such as the “web-string” theory and practice of ecotherapist Michael Cohen, who suggests that we can view our relationship with all aspects of the natural world as energetic threads along which communication can occur both ways e.g. our connection with a flower or an animal (12). This perspective, similar to the ancient Saxon worldview known as “wyrd”, meaning web (13), has very recently been further confirmed by the discoveries of the Virgo Consortium, who have spent the last 10 years simulating the development of our universe (14). Their images of how billions of galaxies relate to each other show that what we have previously seen as discrete collections of stars and nebulae, are in fact linked in one giant network of light. Thus, if the base structure of the universe is being viewed as a matrix, then seeing the living Earth as a matrix becomes more acceptable. Perhaps then the core issue here is not whether it’s appropriate or not to use a feminine name to describe the living Earth, but what we actually mean when we use the word “Gaia” in this context. Are we attempting to re-create the primacy of the human mother, as our early agrarian ancestors did, or are we looking for a more pluralistic definition which includes the possibilities for the expression of Earth’s female, male and beyond-gender aspects, as a developing planetary organism?

I would agree with the latter sentiment and suggest that it is time for us to move on from the conventional meaning of Gaia which we have inherited from the Ancient Greeks, and see our planetary self in a new light as a matrix rather than simply a mother, and as a developing child rather than a mature adult. This would enable both women and men to see themselves more easily as part of the larger planetary organism that is the Earth. It would also offer more opportunities to include people of different cultures and backgrounds around the world in the exploration of their relationship with the living Earth, particularly those who adhere to a masculine deist or purely scientific perspective such as our own. The word “Gaia” itself does seem to have a definite resonance and soulfulness which almost feels like a gift from the Earth itself to us awakening humans, so I feel fully supportive of continuing to use it when referring to the living Earth. However, I believe that for Gaia to become properly recognised and respected as a living organism, it will be up to the growing community of ecopsychologists to clarify what we collectively mean when we use this name and then communicate this understanding more effectively and proactively in wider society. Hopefully this essay will stimulate a useful discussion which enables us to move closer to achieving this goal!

Here’s then to Gaia, the Earth Matrix! May this incredible, unique and deeply beautiful life system continue journeying towards greater self awareness and ever deeper understanding of our place in the cosmos.

Andrew Rothery
June 2005

1. Russell, Peter - The Awakening Earth, (1988), pubs. Fontana.
2. Sahtouris, Elizabet - Earth Dance, (1999), Internet Publication
3. Capra, Fritjof - The Web of Life, (1996), pubs. Harper Collins
4. Love, Jamie - The Formation of Our Solar System and Long Period Comets, (2001 -2004), Internet
5. Origins Education Forum - The Birth and Formation of Galaxies, (2004), Internet
6. Roberge, Aki - Planetary Formation and Our Solar System, (1997), Seminar Paper, Internet
7. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre - The Phenomenon of Man, (1980), pubs. Fontana.
8. Bly, Robert - Iron John - A Book About Men, (1990), pubs. Element Books.
9. Macy, Joanna – World as Lover, World as Self, (1991), pubs. Parallax Press.
10. Lao-tzu – The Tao Te Ching, Trans. Stephen Aldiss and Stanley Lombardo, (1993),
11. Shepard, Paul - Nature and Madness, (1982), pubs. University of Georgia Press.
12. Cohen, Michael – Natural Systems Thinking Process, (2002), Internet
13. Bates, Brian – The Way of Wyrd (2005), pubs. Hay House.
14. Virgo Consortium - Millennium Simulation, (2005), Press Release from Institute for Computational Cosmology, University of Durham
Pubs. – Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

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