Dorion Sagan 1990 paperback Biospheres: reproduction of planet Earth (McGraw-Hill Publishing, ISBN 0-553-28883-0) does more than offer a unique insight into the planet’s life support system. It also challenges the traditional view of humanity as the dominant feature of life on Earth.
Perhaps that is no less than what should be expected of the offspring of astronomer Carl Sagan and biologist Lynn Margulis, whose unorthodox view of evolutionary biology sees life forms merging to produce new ones. Sagan the Younger is well known as the author of books on culture, evolution, and philosophy of science.
Ecospheres to biosphere 2
Among the book’s most interesting features are mentions of still-existing institutions that are unexpectedly permanent features of the economic and technological landscape.
For example, Ecospheres Associates in Tucson, Arizona manufactures and sells water-filled sealed glass balls containing green algae, other microscopic biota, and tiny shrimp in a symbiotic community that illustrates the principle of closed life support. It’s an illustration of what Sagan calls “permanent recycling systems.” Called EcoSpheres, they come in a variety of sizes, from 4 inches in diameter to 9 inches, are priced similar to small kitchen appliances and have “replacement periods” of up to one year. With care, they can last for many years. EcoSpheres is a spin-off of NASA, the first product of American experiments to create closed ecosystems, ultimately for humans in space habitats.
The “Bioshelters”, terrestrial biospheres for individuals, families and small groups, were a product of the defunct but not forgotten New Alchemy Institute (1969-1991). Between Apollo 11 and Biosphere 2, New Alchemy built several biological shelters that it called “arks” on Cape Cod Massachusetts, Prince Edward Island (eastern Quebec), and elsewhere. The Green Center in Hatchville, MA preserves New Alchemy’s information legacy.
Ocean Arcs International, founded by the same people who brought you bio-shelters, created the self-sustaining ocean vessels mentioned in Biospheres. His idea of navigating Earth’s oceans like tiny marine colonies, relying on nothing non-renewable, including fossil fuels, has since morphed into a wastewater processing method that could qualify as a space-colony technology.
Biosphere 2, 35 miles north of Tucson, was taking shape just as Biospheres the book was almost finished. The site has become the best-known technological marvel in southern Arizona. Situated among the red rocks of the Santa Catalina Mountains, out of sight of Highway 77 and the ordinary built environment, it is said that on certain summer nights under one of those ruby Arizona sunsets, all visual cues are Martians. From the human habitat library tower, across a miniature ocean, rainforest, desert, savanna, and swamp, Biosphere 2 is 3.14 acres of Earth under glass. It has operated since 2007 as a research station and educational outreach project of the University of Arizona under a ten-year $ 30 million grant from the Philecology Foundation.
Of mice and men
But the book has a downside. Its central philosophy is environmentalism, which is worthy of suspicion for its tendency to denigrate humanity. Sagan risks this too, displaying a fairly consistent anti-human drum beat that is easily the most disgusting feature of his little book.
Each human being, Sagan says, is both an assemblage of multiple species and a unit of a larger organism. The typical surface of Homo sapiens is inhabited by a microbiological community of bacteria, fungi, roundworms, worms, etc. Our guts are tubes thickly filled with bacteria, yeast, and other microorganisms. To add insult to injury, the Lovelockian view of Gaia, Mother Earth, which Sagan sympathetically describes, presents humans as mere components. It’s almost enough to make one decide to leave all the dirt and non-human DNA behind and build strictly artificial worlds, just to show that we can. Except we can’t, as anyone who disturbs the balance of their digestive jungle soon discovers.
Truly, however, there is something disturbing about the idea, also found here, that the Gaia hypothesis could become the basis for some new green theocracy. What power would the priests of the green religion have and for what purposes? We find some indication in the value assigned to individuals in Lovelockian philosophy as described by Sagan: individuals do not matter. They are numbers, large amounts of non-essential biomass, and those numbers must be contained. All of us who do not leave the scene by means that are not best described will be midwives in the reproduction of the original biosphere, creating isolated cocoons of life in space, or perhaps not. Right there, Sagan loses clarity of vision. He thinks that maybe we should just build protective capsules to protect the offspring of Mother Earth from her dying body. OK. That’s a little weird. Furthermore, it is enough to criticize men for their reproductive inclinations. I like people, at least in principle.
Sagan says that we ALL like people, and not just in principle. We like them so much that we are on our way to becoming a superorganism made up of individual humans in the same way that our bodies are made of cells. To prevent these “cells” from wildly reproducing in superorganism “tumors”, Sagan believes we will adopt new cultural norms such as infanticide and abortion, perhaps also a bit of criminality and sexual perversion. Before long, to demonstrate the effects of crowding, he makes his way to Dr. John B. Calhoun’s rodent experiments. If one takes the results at face value and allows them to be projected onto the human future, then, as Sagan points out, only grim conclusions are possible.
Sagan would have done well to point out that the standard interpretation of Calhoun’s results is not necessarily the best. The mouse “universes” of John Calhoun’s creation became crowded over time (although they never reached more than 80% capacity). They were also closed from the beginning, making emigration impossible. Population biologists view migration and death in the same way. This is because they cannot follow people once they leave a controlled area. But, as any human explorer knows, migration and death are not the same. A more complete interpretation of Calhoun’s results reflects the impossibility of a leak, concluding that the mouse populations failed, not because they were dense, but because they were trapped in an enclosure.
Such side trips down depressing burrows explain why the book somehow stumbles instead of flying. It is not until near the end that we return to the ennobling vision of Man, the Builder of Worlds, as opposed to Man trapped inside some kind of planet-sized monster in space. We pick up the thread in the Soviet Bios program of the early 1980s, which kept two humans in a complete life support system independent of Earth during a simulated five-month space travel.
Ten years later than the much larger and more capitalist Bios, Biosphere 2 is a significant extension of the theme that Sagan tries to express. A project of Edward P. Bass’s Decisions Investments (as Space Biospheres Ventures), it is the largest and most comprehensive simulation of the earth ever performed. The device is both a technological and a biological object. Its basement “technosphere” includes systems to control temperature, filter water, balance internal pressure, fight fires, and support the scientific activities of eight “biospheres.” It is also art, a self-portrait of the Man of the late twentieth century. Like the book, Biosphere 2 is more of a quest than a destination. They are both pearls, not so much because of what they say, or don’t say, or how they say it, but because of the questions they raise, above all, “Who are we?”