Nevertheless, all this hippyish stuff about Gaia – Lovelock’s theory that the Earth, its objects and inhabitants, its biochemical properties and swirling gases, is a single organism with interlocking parts in fundamental harmony – seems mumbo-jumbo to me, like that scene in Hair where everyone is invited up on stage to do a dance. Lovelock’s rambling, maundering book indeed reads like the jottings of a trendy vicar who, in his youth, wore sandals, plucked the guitar, went to India in a camper van, and talked with a dazed expression about flower-power and how, when a butterfly flaps its wings in Patagonia, the result is rain in Abergavenny. Everything connects, see.
Lovelock has shrugged off these criticisms, appealing to the value of intuition (‘Without it, we die’) and the non-linear logic of ‘dynamic, self-regulating systems,’ which, he writes, ‘wholly defy a logical explanation that uses step-by-step arguments’. This comes across as a bit hand-wavey and circular (you can’t understand my theory because my theory can’t be understood by you), but any mention of ‘dynamic, self-regulating systems’ is an invocation of cybernetics, and it’s clear that the influence of cybernetics on Lovelock’s thinking runs deep.
Indeed, he enjoys striking out at the many failings of human intelligence. Foremost among these, he counts our reluctance to embrace nuclear power in order to stop fossil-fuel-induced global warming (“auto-genocide”), followed by fashionable fantasies of fleeing to Mars. This might make him sound like a curmudgeon, but the book is too leavened with wit and optimism for that. Novacene is the collected wisdom of an elder of our tribe which more than repays the short time it takes to read.
I should at this point declare an interest. I have known Lovelock for more than half my life, and nearly half of his, and have written a biography (now clearly in need of updating) covering a large part of his life. I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him. That said, if his latest book had contained the ramblings of a once great mind in its dotage, I would as a friend have ignored it. But because it is as important and accessible as anything he has written, if shorter than one might have hoped, I can recommend it with a clear conscience.
But this is not meant to be a closely argued theory. It is meant to be, and feels like, the last thoughts of an unusual mind searching for a concluding message. It feels like a conversation with the kind of generous older person who believes the best legacy is to provoke interesting questions.
Lovelock on AI is rather like Lovelock on planetary ecosystems. The hypothesis might not be true. But it doesn’t half make you think.
The hard science behind such speculation is explained – with the help of an amanuensis, Bryan Appleyard – with beautiful clarity, and a characteristic mischievous wit. Lovelock is justifiably proud of his record as a successful scientific maverick, and he especially enjoys trolling the more misanthropic green thinkers who suppose that the proper response to climatic catastrophe is to dismantle industrial civilisation, rather than to intensify our engineering efforts in alternative energy sources and mitigation... As a whole, however, the book is a bracing corrective to the crypto-Christian guilt and self-loathing of much traditional environmentalism. “My last word on the Anthropocene,” Lovelock writes, “is a shout of joy, joy at the colossal expansion of our knowledge of the world and the cosmos that this age has produced.”
I have never read a jauntier book about artificial intelligence taking over the world. It’s as if the writers of The Matrix had spent the film diplomatically refusing to take sides in the fight between machine and man. “For a while at least, the new electronic life might prefer to collaborate with the organic life which has done... so much to keep the planet habitable,” Lovelock says. A few pages later: “Cyborg scientists may well exhibit collections of live humans. After all, people who live near London go to Kew Gardens to watch the plants.”... Somehow, though, this hardly matters — the book as a whole is captivating. As Lovelock talks us through the steps that will take robots from servant to master it all seems entirely plausible.