Caitlin Kossmann (Yale), “Truth or Tool? Scientific Language and the Metaphor of Gaia”

Wednesday, April 24, 2019
4:00 PM - 5:00 PM
McClellan Hall, Room 101
This paper explores the development and reception of the Gaia hypothesis (later Gaia theory), first proposed by James Lovelock in the 1960s and modified throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first by Lovelock and his collaborator Lynn Margulis. I interrogate the structuring logics and epistemic tools in play in the various framings of the concept as scientific (by its proponents) or non-scientific (by its detractors). In particular, I focus on Lovelock and Margulis’s use of language, and the status of metaphor in the sciences as a common but fraught tool for conceiving of and working with scientific ideas. Ultimately, this paper provides a case study for how scientific metaphors tap into longstanding histories and debates both within scientific communities and larger cultural conversations that must be negotiated, without being fully resolved, for a theory to become part of mainstream practice. The case of Gaia is particularly important in our present moment, as it reminds us of the histories and debates within science, philosophy, and religion that structure our understandings of climate change and the Anthropocene as global ecological crises. 

Caitlin is a second-year PhD student in the History of Science and Medicine Program. She is broadly interested in conceptions of nature and the nature/culture divide, as well as in how material culture studies and the history of technology can inform our understanding of knowledge production. 

This event is part of the Yale Environmental History Spring 2019 Graduate Student Workshop Series.

To attend and request a copy of the pre-circulated chapter manuscript, please email