Life as Art: The Legacy of Lynn Margulis


 

Richard Dawkins, formidable commander of both the
Queen's English and a veritable worldwide army of devoted reductionists, once
referred to the late Lynn Margulis as the "high priestess of symbiosis". Was
this a warm colourful accolade or a shrewd slight? Given that Dawkins has spent
decades steadfastly clinging to his beloved selfish gene paradigm and has
even spoken of selfish cooperation when dealing with the symbiotic side of life
that Margulis championed, I suspect his sentiment was not entirely benign. Although
Dawkins openly admired Margulis for persevering with the theory that various
cell organelles evolved through a process of endosymbiosis, and while aware,
like any biologist, that the web of life evinces all manner of symbiotic
relationships, he always seemed distinctly rattled by the social connotations
that symbiosis invariably evokes. After all, unlike the notion of selfish genes,
mutually beneficial cooperation sounds nice.
Two or more organisms working together in an integrated and coherent way? Why,
symbiosis has an almost ‘lovey-dovey' and ‘new-agey' air to it! Goddess forbid
that we should draw any social lessons from such intimate biological
arrangements! Best, then, to employ a cunning linguistic trick and make this
embarrassingly alluring aspect of life disappear. Or at least shove it out of
the way. Hence Dawkins use of the clumsy term ‘selfish cooperation' (as opposed
to speaking of, say, emergent higher order selves, or even unconscious
cooperation).

According
to Dawkins, we might be impressed by two living systems working in some sort of
mutually beneficial accord but in reality it is nothing more than a convoluted
extension of selfishness. Don't be too moved by the astonishing sight of a pollen
dusted humming bird feeding on a symbiotic nectar rich bloom! Don't let exotic symbiotic
corals (that are a union of an animal and an alga) blow your mind! Don't gloat too
long over a picture of a bobtail squid packed full of symbiotic bioluminescent
bacteria! Move on people, this symbiosis business is all smoke and mirrors. Life
is, at heart, no more than inert bits of digital DNA code that know nothing of
cooperation and harmonious coexistence but only the competitive drive to replicate.
If their phenotypic expression is involved in some exquisite symbiotic
arrangement or another, then this is really beside the point.

Such
was the kind of paradigmatic resistance that Margulis was up against. It is
probably no coincidence that it was a woman who came to the fore promoting the
significance of symbiosis in the evolution of life — and not just the symbiotic
origins of mitochondria and chloroplasts or the symbiosis evinced by corals or
flowering plants and their pollinators, but even the emergence of new species
through the process of symbiogenesis (this is still a contentious issue — but
examples continue to emerge). Is there something deeply feminine about
cooperation? Is the drive for co-existence somehow more active in the female
psyche than in the male psyche? In any case, legend tells us that Margulis had
a really hard time convincing her academic male superiors that certain
organelles within mammalian cells were once free living bacteria. It's one
thing to note the symbiotic alliance of, say, cleaner fish with their bigger
fish customers (who could easily gobble up the diminutive cleaners if they
wanted), but when you realise that mitochondria (the energy engines of animals)
and chloroplasts (the energy engines of plants) were once separate living micro-organisms
that are now symbiotically woven inside animals and plants, symbiosis emerges
as a kind of advanced technique learned by life, so sophisticated and subtle in
deployment that we may be blind to it. If, however, we acknowledge the important
role symbiosis has played in life's evolution, the way we perceive life begins
to change. Life is no longer seen to be wholly red in tooth and claw — but rather
symbiotic in embrace and interchange (at least where possible).

Ever
since the publication of Darwin's The
Origin of Species
, the general trend has been for biologists and
evolutionists (traditionally men) to ‘big up' the role of competition, fighting
and bloodshed within life's web. Dog eat dog. Predator and prey. The biological
arms race. Survival of the fittest. War and attrition. Head-banging ruts.
Leonine infanticide. Parasitic wasps. Army ants. Strangler figs. The battle for
resources. In the wake of Margulis's work however, it is clear that relentless
competition is not the sole theme of life. Far from it. Then again, we surely
know this deep down. When we walk through a pristine ecosystem, we don't emerge
traumatized and tearful at all the violence and aggravated competitiveness on
display. True, competition is evident if our senses are keen. Maybe we observed
some birds fighting over a territorial branch. Or the skeletal remains of a mouse
eaten by some predator. Or two different species of ant in combat. Or maybe we
were bitten by some insectile critter oblivious to our protestations. But such
competition was not the whole of the picture was it? If we were really astute
we would be aware that about three quarters of all the plant species in the
forest had symbiotic fungi attached to their roots — some so intimately entwined
that the fungi actually penetrate the membrane of plant cells in order to swap
precious living materials. Along with this invisible underground alliance, we would
also be wise to the various bacteria that engage in recycling and thereby foster
a kind of eco-systemic symbiosis that aids the forest's sustainability. We
would be aware of all the insect species that pollinate the plants. We would also
know that the gene complexes inside insects that foster nectar seeking only
make sense in the context of the gene complexes inside plants that make nectar (and
pollen) bearing flowers. We would likewise realise that the patches of lichen
on any rocks we chanced across were composed of tightly cooperative amalgams of
fungi and algae. We would be aware of the symbiotic cellulose dining gut
bacteria at work inside any ruminants we chanced across (like deer). We might
also divine the symbiotic exchange of gases between the plant kingdom and the
animal kingdom. Symbiosis is everywhere. Regardless of its alluringly warm
connotations, cooperation and synergistic networking are a major feature of life
on Earth, a real kind of naturally selected wisdom that makes multicellular
life as we know it possible.

The
emotional connotations conveyed by certain words and concepts probably also explains
why Gaia theory — also avidly promoted by Margulis — found such an icy reception
when it first went mainstream back in 1979 after the publication of James
Lovelock's first Gaia book. Gaia has obvious associations with mothers and
mythical feminine beings. Gaia suggests nurturing and even maternal love. It is
also captures an immense concept — all of life on Earth along with the atmosphere,
oceans and soil interconnected into one totality. How at odds with reductionism
is such a concept? Exemplified by Dawkins's rhetoric, there has been an all out
attempt by mainstream biology to reduce the artistry of life (and we can all
admit that evolving life is exceedingly artistic
in terms of organic creativity) to mindless bits and pieces. Like genes. Genes
are small and readily quantifiable. Compare this to an entire cell whose
contextual configuration will determine what happens within its bounded domain.
Also consider large collections of cells and the extensive self-organizing structures
that zillions of cells and zillions of genes are involved in making. Unlike
immobile stretches of DNA, this vast flowing network of biological relationships is far harder to get one's
head around. Gaia is not simply symbiosis as seen from space as Margulis
asserted, but emergent holism with a vengeance. Indeed, symbiosis itself is
emergent holism in action. Not everything can be understood by parts alone — some
phenomena require a broader vision to perceive. Life is a result of both
bottom-up gene oriented processes and
top-down contextual processes.

As
it stands, if we describe the intricacies of life with terms like ‘dumb',
‘blind' and ‘selfish', then eyebrows tend not to raise. Yet these terms are pejorative.
What, one wonders, is our obsession with pejorative terminology when describing
the essence of life and its evolution? For the plain truth is that evolving life
is the most astonishing process we know of. Organisms are such fabulous systems
of self-generating bio-logic and organized complexity that hosts of biology
students annually gain PhDs and increase their intelligence and insight by studying
and documenting them. As for the genetic code (a code!), it is, as Watson and
Crick rightly admitted, ingenious. Yet at the end of the day many influential scientists
still insist on reducing the craftsmanship of life to selfish bits. We would
never deconstruct an acclaimed classic painting or an acclaimed classic piece
of music in this kind of way. Worse, if you try and describe life (or
bio-logic) as a kind of natural technology or a natural intelligence (albeit
unconscious), this is considered heresy of the highest order. And this is despite
the fact that life has, over millions of years, learned the canny art of living
and being-perhaps the most refined art of all (and despite also the fact that
life has learned how to engineer the conscious human cortex with its ability,
if it so wishes, to be stubbornly reductionistic!).

If
Margulis's work is to fruit, I strongly believe that we have to acknowledge
symbiosis as a key operating principle
of life on Earth and, moreover, attempt to install that operating principle
within our culture. This would be in line with the burgeoning biomimicry
movement whose guiding premise is that we can learn from Nature and mimic
life's long tested technology for our own ends. After all, our current way of
life is beleaguering the health and integrity of the whole biosphere, so we
would do well to maximize the lessons we learn from life. We hear talk of
sustainability everywhere, from both government and industry. But we often
forget that sustainability is not something we invented — life got there first.
Think about the fact that a rainforest can sustain itself for millions of
years. How come it does not drown in its own waste, or suffer death by relentless
internal conflicts, or exhaust its resources? How come a rainforest just keeps
going and keeps clean, vibrant and biodiverse without any help from ecosystem
managers or ecosystem stewards? Indeed, how did the entire web of life sustain
itself for over 3.5 billion years? Clearly life must be doing something right.
There must be, as intimated, operating principles of some specific kind. Chief
among these is assuredly symbiosis for, as Margulis attested, various forms of
symbiosis permeate the web of life. Which means that if seven billion of us wish
to sustain our existence then we have no choice but to become an extension of life's
already established modus operandi. Given that we are life — or at last a recently evolved expression of life — this
means that we have to play by the same rules and the same symbiotic logic that
much of life abides by. Yet human history abounds in overtly parasitic
behaviour towards the biosphere (and even towards one another). We have pretty
much run amok and done as we pleased, plundering every possible biospherical
resource with no thought of a sustainable morrow, rather like belligerent
children running amok in a sophisticated playground and clueless about the
various smart life principles that underlie their daily existence.

As
I have attempted to show in my book Darwin's
Unfinished Business
, life is an interconnected, ever-evolving,
ever-learning ‘onestuff'. Conscious human intelligence is part of this smart
onestuff and can take life to new levels of networked coherency not yet dreamed
of. But we don't realize this yet — we know not what we are and the true nature
of that of which we are embedded parts. Until we do, until we realize fully that
we are a conscious expansion of life on Earth's ancient acumen, we shall remain
an immature species and fail to become symbiotically integrated with the rest
of life's great web. We are not stewards or caretakers of the biosphere, but
rather apprentices — for we can learn
from the wisdom already accumulated by the biosphere and embodied in its deeply
interconnected ecosystems. The sooner we acknowledge symbiosis as a crucial
operating principle of life and find ways of creating some kind of symbiotic
culture, the sooner we can regenerate the bountiful organic paradise that we
first encountered all those millennia ago and whose memory still lingers in the
dim recesses of our minds. Like it or not, as individuals, as cultural citizens
and as planetary beings, we have no choice but to become symbiotic every which
way possible. Strength lies not simply in numbers but in their integration and
cooperation. Gaia is both tough bitch and wise teacher as Margulis knew full
well. Her legacy must continue to ramify.

 

Image by goingslo, courtesy of Creative Commons license.