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.