The Big Picture, and the Little One Too.

12 Dec

1/4/2012 UPDATE: This essay is now going to appear in another magazine, and in Fall of 2012, a book, so I’m removing most of the content here and leaving an excerpt. You can still read the full essay on Reality Sandwich – the link is below.

On November 22nd, 2011, my friend and teacher, Lynn Margulis, died. She was the smartest person I’ve ever known, and also one of the most loving. I’m working on a more personal essay about her, but here is the essay I wrote on her life’s work. She was a world-renowned biologist and thinker, whose ideas changed and continue to change the way we understand life. She had a fearless spirit. You can also find this essay on web magazine,Reality Sandwich.

As Above, So Below: The Worldview of Lynn Margulis

“In the arithmetic of life, One is always Many.”

Lynn Margulis, biologist and Distinguished Professor of Geosciences, composed a grand and powerful view of the living and the non-living. Integrating the work of obscure Russian scientists, DNA pulled from cell organelles, computer-generated daisies, and the hindguts of termites, her vision was wider in scope and more profound in depth than any other coherent scientific world view. At the time of her death on November 22nd, 2011, it is a vision that remains misunderstood and misconstrued by many scientists.

Much of this view came from her uncanny ability to first lean forward and see the smallest inhabitants of the Earth; to hover there, and then to leap back at the speed of thought to conceptualize the entire planet. Lean forward, then stand back. This inner movement, this seeing from soil to space, marked a unique scientific endeavor.

This perspective was earned only through walking through diverse areas of study – geology, genetics, biology, chemistry, literature, embryology, paleontology. Those fields, are sometimes separated by an untraversed distance at universities: they are housed in separate buildings which may as well be different worlds. In Margulis, they found agreement and discussion with each other; they were reconnected, just as they are intrinsically connected in nature.

This journey led her to emphasize in all her scientific work two phenomena – the fusing of distinct beings into a single being: symbiosis; and the interaction of organisms and their environments to create relational “loops” that led to regulation of many Earth systems: Gaia Theory.

Taken separately these concepts have the ability to redefine, respectively, how we understand organisms and the environment.

Taken together, they can redefine our consciousness.

* * *

…neo-Darwinists were…critical of Margulis’s work, some going so far as to say she was “corrupted by fame” – presumably the slight fame she achieved after she popularized the endosymbiotic origin of cell organelles. Anyone who knew Margulis laughed at such accusations. She worked in a small lab with a few dedicated graduate students: The lab was small in part because she resisted funding from corporate and governmental agencies that she thought would damage the integrity of her work. Once she dismissed a potential funder for wanting her to do work whose content could not be disclosed to the public. “If it’s not public, it’s not science,” she said, and hung up the phone on tens of thousands, possibly millions, of dollars. The graduate students were dedicated because she practiced science for science’s sake, and was fond of quoting quantum physicist and philosopher David Bohm, who said, “Science is the search for truth…whether we like it or not.” The truth was Margulis’s concern, not popularity, not big money, and certainly not fame.

Many neo-Darwinist concerns circled nervously around words like “Gaia” and “cooperation” (which Margulis did not like to use). They were, perhaps rightly, concerned that these terms were ripe for religious appropriation. But Margulis herself was outspoken against such mishandling of her research.

Some new agers love to grasp symbiosis as signifying “altruism” between organisms. But it’s much more complex than that – there is something “in it” for every symbiont, just as a state beneficial in some way arises out of each symbiosis. Terms like “altruism” had no scientific value, because they are too single-minded to describe the phenomenon.

New age thinkers also use Gaia as a blanket term. They’ve appropriated it to mean that the Earth is a living organism. Or they refer to Gaia as a “goddess”. This turns Gaia into a sort of Stepford planet by containing its complexity in a simple and inadequate metaphor. This no more grasps reality than “selfishness” does our genes.

Margulis expressed her solution to the error once by saying, “Gaia is not merely an organism.” The Earth is beyond stale conception. It is more magnificent and active than we can imagine. Gaia is object and process. Gaia houses volcanos and every book, every word on volcanos ever written, and at the same time is those volcanos. It is where our greatest loves live, and where every human heartbeat has ever rhythmically pulsed. In this new understanding; that something can pulse with life and yet be beyond our concepts of living, those concepts begin to change.

If Gaia is conscious, it possesses a consciousness of a different magnitude, probably of a different order all together.

Richard Dawkins and his pre-cursors like John Maynard Smith, as well as other misguided neo-Darwinist thinkers could not and cannot understand this lesson: this complexity is impossible to incorporate in a linear and reductive understanding.

Part of their failure lies in a misunderstood version of cause and effect that plagues science. At a certain level of complexity, somewhere just above a billiard ball clanking into a another billiard ball, cause and effect begins to change its shape. This change may be real – that is, it may actually shift in its laws and patterns in nature – or it may be imagined – in other words, it may demand a different sort of thinking . Effectively it doesn’t matter, since we need to contend with the shift in our thinking. To encompass complex systems with our thinking, we must imagine a model that is less like “cause-effect” more like “being-manifestation.” That is, multiple layers and numerous agents of forces unconsciously conspire together, and their conspiring is so intermingled, that it is simultaneously cause and effect, and thus beyond both. For example, the being, or process of Gaia manifests itself as an unstable, constantly correcting level of oceanic salinity. One cannot be said to cause the other, since the oceanic salinity interacts so deeply with the beings and environs from which it arises. Symbiosis and biological forms demand the same sort of thought.

This complexity shames the metaphorical lack of nuance in “selfish genes”. Neo-Darwinists, who so often speak publicly about the erosion of sound scientific thought, have themselves engendered ideas that represent a threat to clear scientific thinking. It’s not merely that Dawkins’s metaphors are incorrect (and they are incorrect), but his whole idea of evolution is too mystical (in the pejorative sense), too imagined, too metaphorical to be correct. Dawkins, who claims to be an atheist, relies on a host of selfish angels within us and the possibility for meme-salvation to justify his theory. He substantiates his magical worldview on a meager past of scientific work.

Margulis on the other hand, worked constantly and tirelessly in her lab, always aiming at and incorporating new pursuits. At the time of her death, she – with her handful of graduate students and a clutch of international scientists as collaborators – was researching cures for Lyme disease and reassessing how treatable syphilis is (both Lyme and syphilis come from spirochetes, which Margulis probably knew more about than any other scientist); she was also writing a book on Emily Dickinson. Her projects often had the unsettling side-effect of forcing us to reexamine our most cherished presumptions. In other words, she was a sort of investigative light where Dawkins is merely polemical shadow: she was a true materialist whose work produced spiritual effects.

Neo-Darwinism is an evolution that people can and have build social theories (memes, for example) out of. But symbiogenesis and Gaia theory, truer versions of evolutionary motivators, require a new philosophy and perspective to understand at all.

It requires the deepening of the capacity to understand.

These concepts are not conveniently, like neo-Darwinism, mirror-images of the current economic system (nor are they, as many confusedly think, a Kropotkian “mutual aid” analogue for socialism) and so have enjoyed no real social metaphor. Perhaps as we – in the newly and deeply connected world of the internet, social profiles, and globalization – witness the dissolution of the cult of isolated individuality and embark on understanding a clearer and more nuanced view of individuality, so to will we ready ourselves for a clearer view of evolution and life.

“In the arithmetic of life, One is always Many. Many often make one, and one, when looked at more closely, can be seen to be composed of many,” said Margulis and Guerrero. Being able to move from one perspectival state to the next – this is a sort of mental phase transition that is necessary to understand life, evolution, and the environment. It is the sort of thinking Goethe advocated; a thinking whose movement mirrored the movement of life itself…

4 Responses to “The Big Picture, and the Little One Too.”

  1. Dave December 12, 2011 at 8:38 pm #

    First I’m sorry you lost your friend.

    Wow! I didn’t know that daisyworld and Gaia theory existed let alone what it was. Your article makes the complex understandable! When I googled daisyworld I received far more (relevant) hits than I would ever look at, but of those that I did look at none of them made as much sense as what you have written.

    Adding that successfully bucking the establishment can happen was an added treat and a kick in the backside for me. Thank you for writing this article.


    • Conner Habib December 14, 2011 at 9:23 pm #

      Ha, thanks Dave. Not everyone who writes about science is a writer – sometimes it take s a little outside help to clear it up. So happy you enjoyed the essay.

  2. Gerardo January 4, 2012 at 5:28 am #

    I’ve known of Gaia Theory for a while now, but have always debated how to look at it, since it’s mostly portrayed as nothing short of religion. You’ve done a great job of expanding on Gaia. It is true, to be able to fully grasp Gaia, we have to change the way we do and interpret science.

    As a biology student, I am in constant awe of intra/interspecific interactions, but it is symbiotic relationships that are often overlooked. Thank you for writing this article. I enjoyed every bit of it

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