In its opening chapter, Fundamentals of Geobiology (2012) outlines what geobiology is and describes its growth as a discipline. The chapter, which provides a valuable introduction, is authored by Andrew H. Knoll, Donald E. Canfield, and Kurt O. Konhauser, who also serve as editors of the range of overviews, by many authors, that comprise the book.
Geobiology, the editors note (p. 5), is a scientific discipline in which the principles and tools of biology are applied to studies of the Earth.
In concept, geobiology parallels geophysics and geochemistry.
Beginning in the 1940s, the editors note, scientists brought the tools of physics and chemistry to bear on studies of the Earth, transforming geology from a descriptive science to a quantitative field grounded in analysis, experiment, and modeling with a focus on on plate tectonics and planetary differentiation.
The Earth sciences have been primarily concerned with geochemistry and geophysics. At the periphery of the field, however, palaeontology has had an interest in applying biological thought to geology, and in advancing the argument that life has changed the planet’s environment through geological time.
According to Knoll, Canfield, and Konhauser, in their opening remarks in the text, “in the long run that [that is, that emphasis] made all the difference.”
“Geobiological thinking moved to centre stage,” the editors add, “in the 1970s with articulation of the Gaia Hypothesis by James Lovelock (1979). Much like Vernadsky before him, Lovelock argued that life, air, water and rocks interact in complex ways within an integrated Earth system. More controversially, he posited that organisms regulate the Earth system for their own benefit. While this latter view, sometimes called ‘strong Gaia,’ has found little favor with biologists or Earth scientists, most now accept the more general view that Earth surface environments cannot be understood without input from the life sciences. The seeds of these ideas may have been planted earlier, but it was Lovelock who really captured the attention of a broad scientific community.”
Whether or not Lovelock’s “strong Gaia” view has or has not found favour among biologists and Earth scientists, I do not know. Is the statement, by the editors, based on anecdotal evidence? Or is it based on a survey? If a survey, what survey instrument was used? How large was the sample? Enough to say that Lovelock, an independent scientist, is a person whose views are of interest to many people, however popular or unpopular they may be.
Plants and animals as geobiological agents
Animals as geobiological agents
Beerling and Butterfield introduce the topic of animals as geobiological agents with the following opening paragraph. I quote the paragraph (p. 195) in its entirety because it serves as a delightful and fascinating introduction to the topic:
“Given their enormous standing biomass and domination of most terrestrial environments, it is hardly surprising that land plants serve as powerful geobiological agents. Often less appreciated is the correspondingly large impact made by animals. The key to metazoan influence lies in their underlying physiology, which in most instances combines heterotrophy and motility with organ-grade multicellularity. By tapping into an effectively inexhaustible source of novel morphology and behaviour, motile multicellular heterotrophs have revolutionized the exchange between biosphere and geosphere over the past 600 million years (Butterfield, 2007, 2011).
[The articles referenced for Butterfield 2007 and 2011, in the chapter, are: Butterfield, NJ (2007) Macroevolution and macroecology through deep time. Palaeontology 50, 41-55 and Butterfield, NJ (2011) Animals and the invention of the Phanerozoic Earth system. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 26, 81-87.]
[End of excerpt; in the citation above I’ve followed the punctuation and spelling used in the chapter references.]
I look forward to learning more about plants and animals as geobiological agents. As a first project, I will translate the above-noted paragraph into everyday language, in order to attain a better grasp of its contents.