Editor’s note: This piece was written in 2010 as a part of an extracurricular activity for UNESP.
Fact or fiction
International box-office success, “Avatar” is based on a theory long known by scientists
Whoever comes across the fantastic parallel reality created by James Cameron in his most recent success, Avatar, may think it is nothing but a fruit of the director’s fertile imagination. However, the film, which has gained popularity among a variety of people around the world, has a scientific base that most of us could have never imagined.
Even though it is a fictional work, Avatar is built upon a scientific hypothesis which had already been explored and disseminated by a number of specialists from the area: the Gaia hypothesis.
Inspired by Greek goddess Gaia, which means “Earth”, the thesis consists of the theory that our planet works as a huge single living organism, instead of considering it just a pile of rocks and minerals orbiting in space and home to different species of living creatures.
“The Gaia hypothesis can be understood as the effort employed by the living creatures themselves to maintain the physical conditions that are necessary for life”, states Flávio José Vieira Junior, junior student of Biology from UNESP (Júlio de Mesquita Filho São Paulo State University).
James Lovelock, creator of the hypothesis, believed that living organisms and Earth’s organic compounds had evolved together, as a single living system, capable of affecting chemical, physical and biological conditions on the surface of planet Earth.
“According to some scientists, supporters of this theory, this system is able to auto-regulate the global temperature, the atmosphere’s composition, oceans’ salinities, among other things”, states Rafael Campos Duarte, researcher of the Marine Biology Center in USP (University of São Paulo).
In other words, the planet itself is capable of maintaining ideal environmental conditions for life to persist.
Fiction for both Greeks and Trojans
An aspect of Avatar which can be related to the Gaia hypothesis, now popularly known as Gaia theory, is the fact that “biological entities of the planet Pandora, in which the movie is set, live in constant harmony and are somehow connected in order to react together to the possible changes that can occur, as if the planet was a single living being that needs to control its own emotions”, believes Campos.
Such reaction can be observed on the scene in which many luminous creatures that look like little flying jellyfishes land on foreigner Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) when he is on the “great tree of life”. Their gesture can be interpreted as a way of warning Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana) that Jake was the planet’s savior.
Besides, Campos states that the connection of the Na’vi people’s hair strings to the living beings of Pandora is a form of communication between them, that is, a specific link between natives and nature itself.
The interrelations above are only possible due to the existence of Eiwa, a sort of supreme divinity, responsible for the harmony and the balance of all habitants of Pandora, a “being” by means of which all people exist, as if everything was just an extension of it. “Bringing it to our reality, Eiwa would be something like our God, a divinity to which we credit most of the explanations to various natural phenomena and inexplicable happenings”, risks the biologist.
It can be said, therefore, that James Cameron did, in a certain way, create a product that would theoretically be able to please both intellectual and religious people combining a good scientific basis to a touch of spiritualism.
Despite innovations in ambiance and narrative foundation, the plot is still the same old Hollywood formula, though disguised by a more eco-friendly initiative: boy meets girl, they fall in love, face various obstacles (this time, in catastrophical proportions), suffer, but, in the end, live happily ever after.
Some specialists, such as paleontologist Peter Ward, defend other hypothesis, which opposes to the one shown above: the Medeia hypothesis.
As Gaia, the “less popular sister” has also roots in the Greek mythology. “The Medeia hypothesis, whose name is based upon the Greek myth of Medeia, the goddess who, according to the legend, killed her sons when they were born, opposes to the Gaia hypothesis, using as main evidences the mass extinctions which took place on Earth”, explains Campos.
According to this theory, the living creatures find themselves in an endless struggle to survive the constant changes of the environment, ranging from initial changes in concentration of atmospherical gases necessary to their survival, to more radical occurrences that are result of industrialization and the fast propagation of capitalism as a cultural and economical model.
Could we affirm, however, that one theory deserves more credibility than the other does? According to Campos, it is very difficult to choose a more plausible idea, since we can interpret the same fact according to the two hypothesis, obtaining coherent explanations from both. “However, the Gaia hypothesis, because it is more popular and based upon studies and practical applications, ends up being the favorite for many scientists, even though it should not be interpreted as the most correct of the two”, reinforces the specialist.
Recently, much has been discussed about global warming and its various consequences to planet Earth. With that, the Gaia hypothesis gained attention not only among specialists, but also among the great public, due, in part, to productions such as Avatar, which helped by showing the world environmental problems that only get worse.
Besides that, a great number of scientific articles is being published, using Lovelock’s ideas to explain some environmental processes and how they relate to the survival of humanity.
Nonetheless, most of the world’s population ends up ignoring their own participation in the natural processes that occur in planet Earth, closing their eyes to the problems caused by them. “The harmonious and respectable coexistence between men and our planet will only exist if we understand our role in these processes, and how certain activities done by ourselves can be capable of modifying them”, believes Campos.
Scientists have been trying to alert that our planet tends to react, and it already is, in order to maintain its balance, although the only way to reach equilibrium is by making human survival impossible.
According to the biologist, “there must occur an increasing investment in science and a change in human thinking, in order for us to get to know better what happens in our planet, so we can restore it before much of what we know disappears”.
In other words, human survival depends only on human beings ourselves and the way we think, feel and relate to “Mother Earth”.
It is up to us to decide whether we will start to act like a part of the planet, in order to assure our existence; or continue to act as mere guests of its surface, only taking advantage of its wealth and hospitality.
Despite her looks, Jéssica was not born in Japan, but in Brazil, to where her grandparents migrated long before she considered existing. Avid for cha(lle)nge, she’s already lived in 6 different cities (including Elkhart, IN), acted in a TV show, sang in choirs, researched cinema, taught English and studied Journalism, Advertising and Engineering – but never finished any of the majors. She currently lives (with 2 cats) in Porto Alegre, RS, where she works on (finally) graduating in Journalism, while being an intern at the Press Office of the Supreme Court of Rio Grande do Sul.
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