A few days ago, I was discussing with a friend and he used the term «superorganism» for Gaia as the Earth Goddess. When I said that Gaia is not a superorganism but a holobiont, he asked me, «but what is a holobiont, exactly?» I thought about that for a while, and then I said, «a holobiont is a democracy, a superorganism is a dictatorship.»
If you have a friend who is a biologist, try to tell her that Gaia is a superorganism. Likely, she won’t be happy and, even if she won’t attack you physically, she will at least ask you – venomously enough – something like: «And so, tell me, good sir, how could natural selection have generated this — ahem– ‘Gaia’ of yours? You tell me that there is only one Gaia on this planet and so, in order to evolve, did perhaps different planetary ecosystems in the galaxy compete with each other?» I am not inventing this, it is the scathing criticism of the Gaia theory that Richard Dawkins produced in his book, «The Extended Phenotype» (1982).
Given a certain interpretation of Darwin’s idea, Dawkins’ position is logical and even unavoidable. There is just one problem: the current interpretation of Darwin’s theory is wrong.
Don’t misunderstand me: Darwin was one of the greatest scientific geniuses in history, but we need to take into account that he was working on limited data and with limited tools. He himself could never decide exactly between two concepts that he used interchangeably: «natural selection» and «survival of the fittest.» They are not the same thing, not exactly at least. If you emphasize the idea of the «survival of the fittest,» then you see evolution as a continuous competition among the best in the search for the even better. It is a cutthroat competition, truly nature in red tooth and claw.
But it doesn’t really work that way. An alternative view of evolution takes its inspiration mainly from the work of Lynn Margulis (1938 – 2011). In brief, the unit of evolution is not the organism (at least, not only the organism) but theholobiont. And evolution is not competitive but mainly collaborative.
It is a long story, and I invite you to read the fundamental book «Symbiotic Planet» (Margulis, 1988). See also an article of mine on «Cassandra’s Legacy» and my Facebook group on holobionts. But, basically, holobionts are collaborative societies of organisms that live together, helping each other. A good example is a human being, a community formed of the main organism (the proper «human»), and a large number and variety of micro-organisms (the microbiota) that live inside and on the surface of the main organism. Every living being on this planet is a holobiont, and there are holobionts formed of smaller holobionts: think of a forest. Trees are holobionts, a forest is a holobiont formed of trees. Holobionts are a self-similar entity operating at various scales.
Then, evolution is a mechanism for keeping a population stable. It operates mainly at the bottom, not at the top. Those organisms which are defective because their genome is damaged, those that Gorshov and Makarieva call «decay individuals» (Biotic Regulation and the Environment, 2000), are removed and the genetic information contained in the population is maintained intact in order to regulate the system. It is not the «survival of the fittest» but the «non-survival of the unfit.» It is a mechanism that sheds entropy away from the system.
Holobionts do compete, but the concept seems to be (this is an interpretation of mine, still to be understood in many respects) that while organisms search for perfection, holobionts strive for the good enough. Mostly, holobionts just survive. And those that survive tend to shed away those parts of themselves which are not good for their survival. They continuously exchange genetic information with other holobionts (it is called «holosex«), they teach survival techniques to each other. You could say that holobionts are a democracy, while organisms are a dictatorship. (you might also say that holobionts are communists, but that means pushing the similitude a little too much)
So, back to Gaia, now it should be clear that Gaia is a holobiont, just like us (see also this article by Castell et al.) You could call Her a super-holobiont that includes all the smaller holobionts of the biosphere. Then, this idea overcomes Dawkins’ objection: Gaia exists not because She competes with other superorganisms. She exists because the sub-holobionts that form Her collaborate with each other. Think of a forest: did it evolve by competing with other forests? No. The same is true for Gaia. She operates like all other holobionts. She survives because She is fit to survive.
The beauty of this concept is that it gives a form and a substance to Gaia that other views don’t provide. So far, Gaia has been an abstract term, mostly described in terms of scientific models and equations. But if She is a holobiont, well, the Goddess is one of us! And when you pat, touch, or caress another human being, you are patting, touching, and caressing the Goddess herself. You can do that with your dog, too! We, living creatures of the biosphere, all partake in the same holobionticity!
Note: these ideas are not new, after all:
“I will sing of well-founded Earth, mother of all, eldest of all beings. She feeds all creatures that are in the world, all that go upon the goodly land, and all that are in the paths of the seas, and all that fly: all these are fed of her store. Through you, O queen, men are blessed in their children and blessed in their harvests, and to you it belongs to give means of life to mortal men and to take it away.” Homeric Hymns,