Friday, November 25, 2011


The seventh chapter of the book called “The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution” by John Brockman (1995) -- which is drawn from the people who write on is by Lynn Margulis who just died. She was a year older than me, an evolutionary biologist, and the person who had the original insight about our human cells being an assemblage of different bacteria, all grabbed and stuffed inside its cell walls by a eukaryote long ago. (This tendency has persisted in us, deeper than heredity -- our very nature to grab and stuff.) And more recently someone else has discovered that not only do our cellular mitochondria have their own little separate circlet of genes, there is also free-floating code just wandering around in the fluid of the cells.

None of this shocks me. I’m beginning to understand that we are only a molecular dance and that our “identity” is a happy (I hope) illusion that is ended by death, which is not the destruction of a creature so much as the molecules no longer cooperating. Same thing, different point of view.

What shocked me was that Margulis would say something like, “I’ve been accused of fantasizing that the planet is a creature, but I do NOT think so. I do think that the planet is an ecology and that it was evolving its patterns before there were humans -- will continue after humans are gone.” Then in the comments the oh-so-smart scientists would say, “Margulis thinks the planet is a creature -- what a warm and fuzzy thought, just like a woman.” The name of the chapter is “Gaia Is a Tough Bitch” (A free download at ) and that’s Margulis, too. Lovelock, who was the original Gaia guy, probably should have changed his name to “Toughlock.” Or even “Toughlove.” Some scientists never get past “love” and others have never recovered from “red in tooth and claw.”

Margulis says, “The language of evolutionary biology is the language of chemistry.” The action -- the mutability and unfolding change -- is happening down among the bacteria, not up there with the dinosaurs. It’s just so much more fun to look for fossils while wearing your field khaki.

“The question is, From where comes the useful variation upon which selection acts? This problem has not yet been solved. But I claim that most significant inherited variation comes from mergers — from what the Russians, especially Konstantin S. Mereschkovsky, called symbiogenesis and the American Ivan Emanuel Wallin called symbionticism. Wallin meant by the term the incorporation of microbial genetic systems into progenitors of animal or plant cells.”

That is to say, selection comes from infection, which takes into the cells new code that is either better or worse for the creature. It is our own ability to handle infection, attaching new code to carrier-viruses and sending them into the cells of an afflicted body, that has become a potent medical procedure, including the only AIDS cure so far.

But it was a struggle to get the objective selfless scientists to look at her evidence. She said bitterly, “The only way behavior changes in science is that certain people die and differently behaving people take their places.” Luckily, this is a little too cynical and the scientists did come around, many of them without dying.

So Margulis went to even MORE shocking but logical conclusions:

“Put it this way: a purified chemical is prepared from brain and added to another purified chemical. These two chemicals — two different kinds of motile proteins — together crawl away, they locomote. They move all by themselves. Biochemists and cell biologists can show us the minimal common denominator of movement, locomotion. Anima. Soul. These moving proteins I interpret as the remains of the swimming bacteria incorporated by beings who became our ancestors as they became us.”

No Buddhist or Hindu would be shocked. This is what they thought all along: that we are an illusion, that our sensory maps are very partial, that we all merge into each other and become each other, and that the the strongest moral principle is compassion for all our forms.

Margulis’ next step got her into trouble again. She says,

“I noticed that all kinds of bacteria produced gases. Oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, ammonia — more than thirty different gases are given off by the bacteria whose evolutionary history I was keen to reconstruct. Why did every scientist I asked believe that atmospheric oxygen was a biological product but the other atmospheric gases — nitrogen, methane, sulfur, and so on — were not? "Go talk to Lovelock," at least four different scientists suggested. Lovelock believed that the gases in the atmosphere were biological. He had, by this time, a very good idea of which live organisms were probably "breathing out" the gases in question. These gases were far too abundant in the atmosphere to be formed by chemical and physical processes alone. He argued that the atmosphere was a physiological and not just a chemical system.”

Here is her formal position: “Lovelock would say that Earth is an organism. I disagree with this phraseology. No organism eats its own waste. I prefer to say that Earth is an ecosystem, one continuous enormous ecosystem composed of many component ecosystems.”. . .

“The Gaia hypothesis is a biological idea, but it's not human-centered. Those who want Gaia to be an Earth goddess for a cuddly, furry human environment find no solace in it.” . . .

“Gaia is a tough bitch — a system that has worked for over three billion years without people.”

The question is whether human beings are able to destroy this system one component ecosystem at a time. So far it looks as though we are, though the bacteria and viruses are fighting back as hard as they can. In legal systems, intentions count. In the real world, results count. Gaia has no intentions, no yearning, nothing but simple bit-by-bit interweaving forces that have somehow created us.

A recent article suggests that the reason people hate atheists and try to eliminate them is that they think no one will behave themselves unless God is watching and putting it all in His “book.” But the real laws of life are written in chemical compounds, the bonds among them, the valences of their electrons. A strong Christian ethical tradition is that creatures should do what their natures let them do best, on grounds that God made them that way so there must be a purpose. So the Christians take the purpose of humans to be praising God and enjoying His creation. (Puritanism is a heresy.) Since God is understood to be a Creator and we’re told we’re created in His image, we should all be artists. Artists or children. (Be careful to wash your hands.)


Anonymous said...

No organism eats its own waste? Hasn't she ever watched dogs?

prairie mary said...

Ah, well. All these theory people. . .

And what about alcohol consumption -- oh, wait, that's the waste of bacteria that's consumed by humans.

Actually, I think dogs prefer cat turds.

Prairie Mary

Art Durkee said...

Puritanism is indeed a heresy. Too bad it's the root ethic of American culture. But then, Europe sent all their heretics over here, which is why we're messed up about sex and they're much less so.

The creation-centered spiritual tradition, the mystical tradition, which as Matthew Fox points out is profoundly based in the Bible, opposes both Puritanism and fundamentalist Biblical literalism. That's a tradition within Christianity that strongly affirms that we are PART of Creation, not its lords. And that praise and pleasure are essential.

prairie mary said...

It's remarkable that the best theologians in the country and the finest seminary professors explain this year after year, but the public at large and the media NEVER get it.

Prairie Mary

Rebecca Clayton said...

I think Lynn Margulis liked to think of herself as a "tough bitch," but my experience with her suggested she was more mean and jealous than tough. She engaged in a war of words with my major professor at George Washington University (a protozology researcher in evolutionary biology) in the 80's, and it was obviously not over substance but over personality. Margulis had made her reputation as "the smartest girl in the room" and as "Mrs. Carl Sagan," and she didn't want any younger "smart girl" stealing her thunder.

When Margulis was in grad school in the early '60's, being a faculty wife or being the only smart girl in the boys club were the two main ways in to the hard sciences for women, so I don't fault her for that, per se.

When my cohort started grad school in the '70's, most of these women were welcoming and glad to see the boys' club changing. Others, like Margulis, resisted and sabotaged younger "competitors" for male attention.

Like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and Steven Jay Gould, Lynn Margulis did science popularization, not scientific research. These people are prominent for their public squabbles, not for their contributions to research. I think it's unfortunate that their respective academic institutions gave them research credibility.

There's nothing wrong with writing for the general public, and squabbling does add to the excitement, but these people should not have been gate keepers for grant proposals, journal publication, and tenure.