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This is the most important episode of AEWCH for me. In it I talk with my friend and intellectual mentor, biologist and geoscientist Lynn Margulis. This is, I believe, the last recorded discussion with Lynn before her death from a stroke on November 22, 2011. Lynn was a profound intellect, and, I believe, the most important thinker in the last 50 years.
With James Lovelock, she developed the Gaia theory - that organisms interact with the non-living aspects of the Earth to regulate Earth systems like cloud cover, oceanic salinity, atmospheric gas abundance, and more. She also proved and popularized the notion that organelles in nucleated cells are symbioses of bacterial mergers.
Along with her son Dorion Sagan (from her marriage to Carl Sagan), she developed a new theory of evolution, symbiogenesis, which boldly asserts, and with ample evidence, that new species arise out of symbiotic mergers with bacteria, not through random genetic mutation-meets-natural selection.
The episode is a wide-ranging exploration of Lynn's work and thought; focusing particularly on Because Lynn offer so much, I've started this episode off with my essay, As Above, So Below, which I wrote in the days after her death. The essay appears in the book Lynn Margulis: The Life And Legacy Of A Scientific Rebel. Feel free to skip past the intro if you're familiar with her work, or to listen to it as a primer afterward, to get your bearings in the dizzying array of names and scientific concepts on the episode.
On this episode, among many other things:
- the difference between ecological association and symbiosis
- why Darwin never mentioned the origin of species
- why the mainstream pop-science version of evolution is religion, not science
- "there's this concept that almost all scientists have that there really is an objective reality, but there's no evidence whatsoever (for that) because everything observed is through an observer, and that observer tends to be a person..."
- How all science starts as esoterica
- How scientific facts are accepted - and not accepted until capitalism approves
- Is life process or entity
- Why zoologists have such a hard time understanding evolution
- "'Medical science' is an oxymoron, like 'military intelligence'."
- Why Lynn just wanted to avoid people and read her whole life
- Emily Dickinson and the Matster
• For more on Lynn, read her countless publications. The two that everyone should read are Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution and (with Dorion Sagan) Acquiring Genomes: A Theory Of The Origin Of Species. Also, I recommend the text book I had to read for my first course with her, Environmental Evolution - 2nd Edition: Effects of the Origin and Evolution of Life on Planet Earth and her book of essays, Dazzle Gradually: Reflections on the Nature of Nature. A documentary about Lynn's life and work, Symbiotic Earth, was released in 2017. Here's Lynn interviewed by geneticist Jay Tischfield and here's Lynn presenting the Gaia theory to NASA.
• In the episode, we talk several times about the "Homage To Darwin" event, which was organized around Lynn's year at Oxford. The event featured Lynn, Richard Dawkins, paleobiologist Martin Brasier, biologist Steve Bell, and systems biologist Denis Noble. It's one of many occasions wherein Lynn revealed the stupidity of Richard Dawkins's ideas about evolution. It appears in three parts. Part One, Part Two, Part Three. I highly recommend watching all of them.
• Alfred North Whitehead was a profound influence on Lynn's thinking, especially later in life. She mentions him at the top, and later in the episode, brings up his book The Function Of Reason.
• Lynn says, "We are all Schwendenerists!" means we all accept symbiosis because we accept the truth that lichens are symbiotic organisms. This was discovered by Simon Schwendener, a Swiss botanist.
• Lynn mentions James Watson's book, DNA: The Secret of Life.
• Rosemary and Peter Grant studied the finches on the Galápagos Islands for years.
• An amazing book that expresses clashes between neo-Darwinism and Gaia and symbiogenesis (this is before Lynn and Dorion fully developed the theory of symbiogenesis) is From Gaia to Selfish Genes: Selected Writings in the Life Sciences.
• Would you like to learn about the photosynthetic sea slug? That's a rehtorical question. Of course you would.
• Here's a lengthy commentary on the debate between Lynn and Richard Dawkins that gets mentioned a few times in the episode.
• Palentologists Niles Eldrege and Stephen Jay Gould observed and popularized the idea of "punctuated equilibrium" - that most populations of organisms are stable and exhibit little change, until sudden and massive changes occur. This theory is expressed consistently in the fossil record, and in many ways, challenges neo-Darwinian theories of evolution.
• Ludwig Fleck's book, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact is a precursor to Thomas Kuhn's famous concept of a "paradigm shift," and it's a great look into how facts are made, how they inhere, and...then what?
• "The Experiment As Mediator Of Object And Subject" by Goethe (yes, Goethe!) changed my life, and it should be evoked again and again until it changes the face of science.
• A mind-blowing short essay on where organisms start and stop is "Where Do Organisms End?"
• Lynn often raved about Max King's book Species Evolution: The Role of Chromosome Change which I (still!) have yet to read.
• Lynn's book of short stories, Luminous Fish, is quite good. I remember being a little scared to read it and then thinking - why did I expect anything less?
• Here's a small bit on Swiss Emily Dickinson translator Hans Werner Lüscher.
The Emily Dickinson poem Lynn recites in part:
What mystery pervades a well!
That water lives so far –
A neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar
Whose limit none has ever seen,
But just his lid of glass –
Like looking every time you please
In an abyss's face!
The grass does not appear afraid,
I often wonder he
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is awe to me.
Related somehow they may be,
The sedge stands near the sea –
Where he is floorless
And does no timidity betray
But nature is a stranger yet:
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.
To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.
You can expect a bit more on Lynn's work - particularly on the origins of sex - from me in the near future.
Until next time, friends,