RIP, Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis died this week shortly after suffering a stroke.  She was a biologist whose work became one of the foundations of my understanding of life and of the mysteries of creation and evolution; she’s right there with Gary Snyder and Thomas Berry in my pantheon of inspirations and guiding lights (see my memorial post for Thomas here).  Lynn’s fundamental insight was that evolution is driven at least as much by symbiosis as by competition and natural selection; she was convinced that the forward motion, the new forms, the creative impulse, underlying life was at its heart a process of two or more different organisms coming together and becoming something different than either could be on their own.  At the largest scale, she saw all life on earth as the result of collaborations between bacteria: her biggest contribution to science was the realization that plant cells and animals cells began as symbiotic collaborations of bacteria.  Rather than seeing animals, or humans, as the pinnacle of evolution, her picture celebrated the entire biosphere as a reflection of the unimaginable complexity of bacterial communities. Her lasting legacy is a view of life on earth  that is centered on collaboration more than competition – a blending toward a greater purpose rather than a struggle for individual domination.

Of course, animals cells are not now made of groups of bacteria, but the rich internal complexity of our cells has its roots in an age when free-living bacteria absorbed other bacteria and developed a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship. The classic example of this is that cells’ energy-producing mitochondria clearly began as separate bacteria absorbed within another cell’s wall; Margulis also thinks it likely that the intricate dance of mitosis and meiosis that allow cells to divide and reproduce was originally orchestrated by symbiotic bacterial components.

She agrees that natural selection (“survival of the fittest”) has a role, but one of filtering and weeding, rather than moving evolution forward. She similarly argued against the role of random mutations as a creative, progressive agent in evolution.  Considering that many of our society’s structures are modeled after the idea of the survival of the fittest (think: our educational meritocracy and of course our economic system), Margulis’ insights about the true roots of evolutionary progress suggest entirely different fundamental principles upon which we might find more fruitful paths forward as a society.

In the wake of her death, several good pieces began circulating online.  Here’s a few that make a good primer on what Lynn Margulis believed and contributed to human understanding:

Short, solid obit from Astrobiology Magazine
Recent interview in Discover Magazine
More in-depth look at her work from John Horgan, a science writer who featured her in a book of his

As a young scientist, she was ridiculed for championing long-neglected theories of symbiogenesis, but over the course of her career, those early heresies became conventional wisdom.  To the end, she continued to push the envelope – the final piece of her symbiotic vision of the cell is that neurons originated as free-living spirochete bacteria, and she holds that not just more complex cell structures, but also new species begin with innovative symbiotic relationships; these later theories have yet to be proven or accepted by the biology community.  But her understanding of life on earth as fundamentally a rich stew of bacterial relationships has become a matter of common understanding.

Margulis received many honors, including the National Medal of Science, but perhaps the most impressive is the 2009 Darwin-Wallace Medal, awarded only at 50-year intervals by the London-based Linnean Society for significant advances in the study of natural history and evolution—in essence, recognizing the most important researcher in every couple of generations!  You can peruse her books here on Amazon. Her frequent co-author was Dorian Sagan, her son; she and Carl Sagan were married as young visionary scientists (I always love the picture of this pair, one focused on the cosmos surrounding our pale blue dot of a home, the other on the microcosmos within the earthly realm). She noted later in life that she twice “quit her job as a wife,” understanding that one couldn’t be a good wife, nurturing mother, and world-class scientist all at the same time. Her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, always had an open door for visitors and passers-through; this is but one example of her open embrace of the world around her.  Thanks for that, Lynn!

About Jim

Night sky watcher; a mobile bit of earth's body. One foot lingering in Lower Cañoncito's piñon-juniper foothills at the southern tip of the Rockies, the edge of the Great Plains stretching away from the mouth of our little valley a couple miles downstream. The other foot re-rooting into the Land of the White Pines, home of my blood and bones, amidst the coastal plain and glacial hills and ponds of southern Maine, between the North Atlantic and the bones of the ancient Appalachian Mountains.

Posted on 2011/11/26, in Big Picture, Earth, Jimwords. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Astute observations about a great and under appreciated hero. It is indeed fun to picture the young and curious couple, Sagan and Margulis, living, loving, and debating the miracles of this cosmic and mundane dance.

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