A hypothesis.


Simply put, the Gaia hypothesis says that Earth is a living system and uses similar mechanisms that living creatures use to stay alive, by constantly regulating temperature, chemical and physical inputs and outputs and adaptation through evolution.

“The scientific idea is that when they start interacting with each other, these four components, something extraordinary emerges out of those interactions which you couldn't have known in advance. It's called an emergent property. It's the ability of the whole, of all four of them working together — life, atmosphere, rocks and water — working together to keep the surface conditions on the planet suitable or within the limits that life can tolerate. Life has a very important role here. Life is intimately involved in regulating the temperature, the acidity of the planet, the distribution of key elements. And so, the idea suggests that the Earth is one great living organism.“

Stephan Harding

Independently of whether you go for or against this hypothesis - whether you believe Earth is alive or not - it is obvious that these manifestations have a big impact in our lives while at the same time we - either as individuals or as collectives - influence these manifestations with our actions.

In a similar way :

  • The Moon has been up there as long as evolution has been taking place, and lunar rhythms are embedded in the life cycles of many organisms.

  • For many animals, particularly birds, the Moon is essential to migration and navigation. Other will time their reproduction to coincide with the specific phases of the lunar cycle.

  • There is also a whole world of fascinating adaptations relating to tides and the unique properties of moonlight.

The same applies one way or another to entities like the sun and other celestial objects.

The point is that all these "bodies" - that have a behavioral aspect in them - were once - in ancient times - considered as distinct ontological entities with their respective characteristics, properties and personalities.

This "behavioral aspect" is in modern science "disassembled" or fragmented in specific (mainly materialistic) operations in a way that we have disassociated them from their ontological context (as totalities). In a similar way the body is "disassembled" into cells, tissues, organs and consciousness is "disassembled" as interactions inside the nervous system etc.

Of course this "fragmentation of the meaning of the entity as a totality" has been the driving force behind our evolution and the way by which we made our discoveries and our technological achievements.

The question:

Is this fragmentation of meaning now an obstacle into going forward? Are we in need of a "big picture"? Do we have to make a reconciliation of some kind?

Simplified version:

What are the proposals as to avoid the pitfalls of this fragmentation inside the scientific community and society in general?

  • 2
    Gaia hypothesis is not new: it has been developed by James Lovelock in the 1970s. Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 12:04
  • Yes, we need to understand the parts, and how they fit together. The result would be an Education system that provides people with what they need to know to function effectively and be healthy.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 12:06
  • @Mauro ALLEGRANZA, sure! I am just referencing it as context, for the sake of formulating my question. Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 12:09
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    @Scott Rowe, of course the socio-ethical part is important, but I am mainly concerned in the epistemological part; how understanding about nature and life in general is formulated. Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 12:46
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    A similar consideration is present in Science Fiction works, IIRC from book(s) of Isaac Asimov, as the science become more and more specialized (and dealing with details), it becomes harder to find connexions between specialized branches. In the book, a new kind of scientist emerge, that acts as generalists, who learn different branches without going into details so they can see the connexions. Nowadays we have meta analysis
    – Kaddath
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 11:36

7 Answers 7


Fragmentation is another word for specialisation, and specialisation is a feature of the two main areas of activity in which the most effort is invested in developing new ideas, namely business and academia. You do get some degree of bilateral cross fertilisation- areas such as biophysics, for example- but there are few university degree that cover all of the topics that need to be viewed holistically to get an overall view of Earth as a system, in which the effects of the social, political and economic activities of humans are assessed against the biological and physical processes at work on a global scale. To combat the fragmentation you need visionary leadership, receptive ears among the politicians and business leaders who have the influence to direct funding to given research topics, and a willingness among researchers to compromise their specialist research ambitions in favour of more general cooperation, and I suspect we are short of all three.

  • Always to the point! Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 16:29

Your questions are quite broad, but I'll answer to the general spirit of the inquiry.

Are we lost in the details?... Is this fragmentation of meaning now an obstacle into going forward? Are we in need of a "big picture"? Do we have to make a reconciliation of some kind?

The answer is that Western society in particular has a tendency to practice philosophical reductionism. In fact, that's one complaint frequently made of the analytical tradition where analysis of language has taken front and center. In fact, similar criticisms are made of the Western notion of psychology also, where an infatuation with viewing behaviors as disease has moved us away from the original aspirations of the Ancient Greeks who used philosophy as a tool to tell us how to differentiate vice and virtue to achieve ataraxia or eudaimonia.

Today, there are movements of various sorts to rectify this "missing the big picture" where the big picture is best understood as the metanarrative. Positive psychology moves away from the medical model of the mind. In business, the Fifth Discipline. In math and science, the Santa Fe Institute attempts to apply systems thinking. And of course, religion still prosperous in the face of the emptiness that the secular intellectual community provides when it comes to metanarratives.

One thing is for sure, that it is a struggle for people and society to exist as a society without metanarratives, and the rise of authoritarian governments may be partially fueled by the metanarratives of fear and hope they peddle.

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    I never metanarrative I didn't like. Actually, I don't like any of them... What's the big problem with emptiness, anyway? What you see is what you get. Life's a b**** and then you die. Ok.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 18:37
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    @ScottRowe Now that made me lol. The problem with emptiness is that the womb is much warmer and certainly safer.
    – J D
    Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 19:48
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    I see some optimism here! Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 21:17
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    @IoannisPaizis I have my flaws. ; )
    – J D
    Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 22:20

What do you imagine a "big picture" to look like?

We can start by asserting that every part of those ancient "respective characteristics, properties and personalities" was entirely fictitious and based on no factual observations. Different cultures invented different folk tales, and they all pitched on different characteristics for the respective natural processes or non-Earth objects.

That's even assuming they knew about any of them. Any astrology which considers Uranus or Neptune has been invented since 1781. :) Many other societies weren't even aware of other planets. And famously, even in the early 1900s, TE Lawrence guided his Arab allies to victory against an event spooked by an unexpected lunar eclipse.

Furthermore, specialisation in one area doesn't mean unawareness of how your specialization fits into the rest of the field. If anything, you may even have more insight, because you know what the wider field needs to find out in your specialist area.

I'm basically frame-challenging your question here. From your question, it's not clear that you have a good enough idea of what specialisation looks like or what a big picture looks like. I think you need to ask a much better question for what you think might be missing here.

In particular, reattaching goddess myths to lumps of rock is not something which will serve humanity well. We achieved the knowledge we have today by discarding religious myths, whether Greek, Roman or Abrahamic religions.

  • On the other hand our foundations are based on them! (Greek) Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 21:20

Fragmentation of totality is necessary to understand that there is only cause and effect. How do you approach the fragmentation and how honest are you with your findings is of utmost importance? You can approach the problem from materialistic point of view or from spiritual or consciousness point of view. Dissecting the whole if you find that feelings are fundamental part of existence then the investigator should honestly admit it. If he doesn’t then the whole exercise of innovation and research is a sham.

There is a need to find and hold onto a bigger picture. And the bigger picture is that there is suffering. We must address this issue. Climate change is a distinct possibility. Destruction through world war is also a possibility. We must be mentally prepared for that.


"Going forward" as used in your final question can be understood in different ways:

  1. Going forward in understanding the phenomena observed in the biosphere.

    That’s a question of epistemology, science and philosophy of science. These are - first of all - descriptive disciplines. The aspect of fragmentation and the need of a big picture relate to the old methodological question how to relate analysis and synthesis or how to relate proceeding top-down or bottom-up. It is obvious that one cannot play out one method against the other.

    The taks is to investigate a system: When studying only the components, then one dismisses the law of their interaction. Concerning the opposite approach, one cannot understand the interaction until one identified the components and their properties.

  2. Going forward with our acting as part of the biosphere.

    That’s a normative question, dealing with agreement about values, rules, and goals. Since two decades the term Anthropocene has been coined for the present geological period because it is also shaped by human action. The term is currently under discussion. For further information see Erle C. Ellis Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction.

  • Interesting differentiation. While (2) is always part of my way thinking, for this question I am mainly refering to (1). Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 12:13
  • My concerns related to (1): because of the fragmentation into diff. scientific domains, the same specialists who study for ex. a component, do not study the system and vice versa. So understanding keeps being fragmented. Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 12:21
  • For example: When Greek philologists started translating the ancient Greek philosophers, the translations were obscure; latter on when (modern) philosophers started engaging in this, things got more profound. Same with archeology, see Antikythera mechanism. Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 12:27
  • By the way, is there a "domain" that deals with (1) and (2) as a coherent system? Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 12:50
  • @IonnisPaizis If you ask for a domain in the sense of an academic discipline I propose the concept of philosophy according to Aristotle. It comprises philosophy of nature and ethics, for example his Physics and his Nicomachean Ethics.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 17:59

Is this fragmentation of meaning now an obstacle into going forward? Are we in need of a "big picture"? Do we have to make a reconciliation of some kind?

It doesn't appear to be an obstacle. The non-fragmented view is likely to be co-emergent with the reductionist scientific ideals. The reconciliation is simply being aware that they are a type of unity, but cannot be readily described as the same process. In some ways, like trying to reconcile quantum causality, with physical causality; they seem to be part of an emergent union, but one is more Boolean hypothesis driven, the other is like a statistical mechanical hypothesis of interwoven probabilities.

It seems unrealistic to not recognise ourselves as an emergent property of at least the big bang. Making us both a fragment of, and an interwoven element to, the 'birth process' of all prior things before us.

As has always been the case - the reconciliation will take part under this same emergent system in question. And this emergent system seems not to care whether the associated meaning of reductionism vs. computational irriducibility is at play. It currently posits only continued emergence.

  • but somehow this emergence you are talking about, seems to be structured; doesn't this structure has its own principles? Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 16:07
  • Both the structure and the process of the development of the structure is co-emergent. A structural-functional relationship. For example - a bird is wings, beak, etc. but an object with these properties that doesn't operate by the same function is not a bird. It is the parts and process in tandem Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 0:45

I think it's easy to claim someone is missing the big picture. I think it might be you.

Note: speaking only for biology here.

We see this complaint a lot, in science - people look at the title of a hugely specific paper on, say, ant hormones, and claim that we're so reductionist that we're missing the larger view, that we'd never see the whole anthill.

What they don't do is look at scientific research as a whole. They assume that this specific paper is the only word ever to be published on the subject. But, if you hop to another field, someone will be looking at how those hormones spread through the air. Someone else researches how these hormones fit into a larger web of chemical signals, someone else the precise details of how these latch onto the brains of ants, someone else the behaviours modulated by these that allow the ants to find food.

The individual piece of research isn't the anthill, it's an ant. Of course it's small and tightly focussed. Enough ants, though, and another researcher can describe the behaviour of part of that hill. Enough behaviours described, and the general structure of the hill emerges.

You might argue that you should start from the whole anthill. But, you can't. It's too big - if you take everything we've learnt about ants, you have more than a full lifetime of things to learn*. And that is just ants. How on earth can you take in the knowledge we have about the whole world?

But, scientific advancement is an emergent property of research, kind of. You pile enough tiny observations together, and someone draws links between them. someone else draws links between the links. And it has to be this way. Because there's a finite limit on how much knowledge one person can understand in a lifetime.

On a more snarky note, there's this idea we don't link things from other fields up (biophysics, biochemistry, and computational biology would beg to differ) or that we ignore the larger system (systems biology, ecology, and say, endocrinology are all the study of large, complex systems). But to do that kind of study, you have to have a good model of how the underlying system works. And, to do that, you need detailed study of each part of the system.

*hits on google scholar for "ants" - 4,110,000 academic articles. Time to read an academic article, 2 hours. ((4,110,000x2)/16)/365 = 1407 years. Assuming only 10% are relevant, and you can start reading papers at 16, put in a 16 hour day every day, and live to a very old age, you'll die shortly before getting a complete, systematic understanding of ants.

  • I am just worried about who draws the "links between the links" as you say, because I find it difficult to find them. Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 16:03
  • @IoannisPaizis - I get that, I guess, it's still too big for even a "link between link" to not still look incredibly specialist. Something like, say, a systematic review, metanalysis or a textbook, might give you the links for that field. One level higher, and you start being limited to explaining at a high school science level, because you don't have enough time. I'd also argue some of the links are between experts, too - it's pretty common to see a physicist and a biologist collaborate on a paper - both bring their knowledge of that area to their area of focus.
    – lupe
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 16:08
  • This is why I didn't go to graduate school. I had other things to do.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 18:33

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