Lynn Margulis, Symbiosis and Evolution

Lynn Margulis is quickly becoming one of my favorite scientists. She is famous with developing the endosymbiotic theory, or the origins of some parts of the cell. She is a holistic scientist, studying a variety of disciplines in order to make sense of a whole – or a holistic story. For Margulis, science is not science unless it is integral. She believes evolution cannot be adequately explained by Neo-Darwinian accounts – they are only a part of a much larger whole which involves symbiosis.

“It’s not science to me unless it’s integrated, in such a way that it makes a story. I have this holistic view. If symbiosis is simply the living together of organisms in the same place and the same time, in physical contact with each other…and symbiogenesis is the new emergent properties that come from the living together… then Gaia which is the whole Earth living system, is symbiosis as seen from space. You can’t talk about cost-benefit and cooperation/competition because those words are proper for the banks and the basketball courts, but they’re not proper for a scientific explanation.“

  • Margulis is an advocate and colleague of Jim Lovelock, proposer of the Gaia Theory
  • She was a member of the Lindisfarne Association, a collage of scientists, artists, philosophers and poets founded by William Irwin Thompson.

I really appreciate her pointing out that talking about cost-benefit analysis, genetic advantages, etc are biases and assumptions we project into what we are observing. Not all things have a linear, one-to-one relationship.

She is of the same spirit as Thomas Kuhn in pointing out the role of paradigms in science. Modern science is “Big Science,” meaning most of the money goes into invention and innovation with pharmaceutical companies or the military-industrial complex. In an age of global industries, scientific culture reflects the larger culture – so money goes into where things are profitable, and theories are accepted that reflect the consciousness of the larger society. In a society where economics is everything and everyone is highly specialized, it’s no surprise our scientific theories have little to no holistic vision. I know some folks like to naively assume that science is somehow “pure” – but how could this be? Science is full of people, chock-full of all their biases.

It’s my hope that as our culture makes the shift from a national-industrial society to a planetary civilization, science will begin to open up to truly novel ideas that change the way we imagine ourselves in the world. In a planetary landscape, cooperation and learning how to co-exist with various ecologies, biological and social, are going to be really important. So it won’t be a surprise if our science begins to shift to the science of symbiosis. We are already seeing this, with the early theories like Gaia Hypothesis.

Here are the two interviews I’ve managed to find! Not to worry, she is actually a great conversationalist and seems to love speaking about science.


5 thoughts on “Lynn Margulis, Symbiosis and Evolution

  1. I really enjoyed this post and the films. I had not read or seen anything by Lynn Margulis before. I also enjoyed your discussion of symbiogenesis as it might relate to the larger social world. I assume that you refer to cultures that can learn to cooperate and coexist as well since they are made up of organisms in close physical contact? that is my dream. I realize that Margulis is talking about something larger, the idea of planetary symbiogenesis. I have been following your blog for a while and share it often. I should have commented earlier. Thank you for this.
    Noelle Renee

  2. Hi Noelle!

    Thank you so much for your kindness. I’m grateful that you like this blog… It’s always good to get some feedback! And yes, cultures can learn to cooperate since the world is shrinking and co-existence isn’t a distant idea. It’s an immediate physical reality, or at least is becoming one these days. I think human ecology is related to planetary ecology – so that mind is now integrated with the bigger landscape of the Earth, rather than being in a destabilizing or even viral relationship. I love James Lovelock’s metaphor of humans being like the first plants, who were toxic to the ecosphere but eventually became integral to the planet. I hope we can be the same in the near future, even if that is 1000 years from now.

  3. I applaud the work of Dr Lynn Margulis and have become a ‘big’ fan.

    I don’t want to get into the Lewontin Debate and will not, as it essentially is distractive . Research contains hypothesis and proving them correct or incorrect is part of the research ‘cycle,’ it’s just knowing when the ‘cycle’ should end is the question?

    In any event I have read and find the work of Dr Lynn Margulis fascinating and her contribution to the understanding of symbiosis of far reaching importance. My congratulations Dr Lynn on some wonderful work, you are a genius!

    Howard Crawford

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