Tag Archives: symbiosis

Visionary creator of the Gaia theory, James Lovelock on AEWCH 171.

23 Nov

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Friends,

What an honor to finally meet scientific genius James Lovelock. I write “finally” because James has been a huge part of my life and education and way of thinking, though I’ve never met him. His major theoretical contribution, the Gaia theory, was co-developed with my main mentor, Lynn Margulis. In fact, you can view this as a companion episode to AEWCH 91 with Lynn Margulis (it’s the last recorded conversation with her before her death), who developed the Gaia theory with Jim. And I’ve released this episode to coincide with Lynn’s death, in 2011 – 10 years ago to the day, just one day before I’m releasing this episode with Jim.

So…what is Gaia?

Gaia is the work of the relational loops of push and pull between bacteria, other organisms, and the environment. The clouds, the atmospheric gasses, the pH and salinity of the ocean, and other Earth systems express the “dialogue” between the organisms and the Earth.  This dialogue is Gaia Theory.  Particularly relevant to these relational (often called “feedback”) loops are the smallest living beings, the bacteria.  In this dialogue, the information yielded from and received by the bacteria and environment is absolutely crucial to the existence of life on this planet. Remove the bacteria and everything dies. The world becomes a Mars or a Venus, overtaken by harshness or billowing clouds so thick that everything is obscured.

The theory was long-resisted especially by biologists, even though the science behind Gaia, particularly that found in Lovelock’s formulations, is complex and detailed, not guesswork.Lovelock named it after his friend – novelist William Golding’s – suggestion: Gaia. While many people – especially journalists, it seems, try to trace resistance to Gaia theory to its mystical and religious sounding name, the truth is, Gaia is just hard for people to understand because it requires interdisciplinary and systems thinking.

A bit on the difficulty below, but before that, let me not skip past the arrogance and laziness of a lot of people in the scientific community who just said it was just magical thinking – many without actually reading the research that Lovelock had done.

To counter this, Jim came up with an understandable and accessible metaphor in the form of a computer program called Daisyworld.  Daisyworld is not the “proof” of Gaia but a powerful model and metaphor: Lovelock and his colleague Andrew Watson devised the program to see if living and environmental factors could theoretically interact without intention.  This was a rebuff to the many criticisms that Gaia had to act through some sort of new age benevolence.In Daisyworld, there are black daisies, which absorb the sun’s heat, and white daisies, which reflect heat.  Both flowers grow and produce offspring, and both have the same thresholds for life and growth — they cannot grow at a low temperature and die at too high a temperature.  The black daisies, which absorb heat, grow faster in cooler conditions; since the heat accumulates in their petals. White daisies, which reflect the heat, need warmer conditions to produce more offspring and thrive. The sun that shines on Daisyworld is dynamic.  It grows in luminosity over millions of years. Here is Lynn Margulis, quoted at length to make clear the results:“Without any extraneous assumptions, without sex or evolution, without mystical presuppositions of planetary consciousness, the daisies of Daisyworld cool their world despite their warming sun. As the sun increases in luminosity, the black daisies grow, expanding their surface area, absorbing heat, and heating up their surroundings. As the black daisies heat up more of the surrounding land surface, the surface itself warms, permitting even more population growth.  The positive feedback continues until daisy growth has so heated the surroundings that white daisies began to crowd out the black ones.  Being less absorbent and more reflective, the white daisies begin to cool down the planet…Despite the ever-hotter sun, the planet maintains a long plateau of stable temperatures.”

Many additional factors have been added into subsequent Daisyworld models. Because people were still skeptical, “cheats” – factorss that could have thrown the model off – were introduced; and even with the cheats, Daisyworld has always displayed a deep relationship between species selection and planetary temperature regulation.After Daisyworld, much less the mountains of observable evidence gathered afterward, the environment could no longer be seen as a tyrant, lording over selection; it was now a co-evolving field.  And by implication all the organisms on the planet are connected by this vast system of regulation and dynamism. Gaian processes are real and observable (and sometimes referred to as “biogeochemistry”, a term more acceptable to mainstream science).

Because of this, Gaia theory is an intense examination of natural selection, since Gaia’s processes of regulation are the “natural selectors.”  The push and pull of the biota (the total sum of all organisms) and the inorganic — their weaving and separations, their gestures of relationship — set the framework of regulation.  There is no need to be vague about “fitness” and just what the environment “selects” with Gaia in the picture. Gaia’s processes of regulations are what is at play here.We should resist funneling this into a “purpose” in a new age way – whether it’s the scientistic new age of neo-Darwinists misunderstanding Gaia as a living organism. Or the standard new age (think the Gaia network) line that Gaia is a “goddess” trying to contain Gaia’s complexity in a simple and inadequate metaphor.

Lynn Margulis expressed her solution to the error once by saying, “Gaia is not merely an organism.”

Gaia is beyond stale conception. It is more magnificent and active than we can imagine. Gaia is object and process. Gaia houses geosystems and the beings – people – who thought up the organizing principles behind those geosystems. It 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.

And if Gaia is conscious, it possesses a consciousness of a different magnitude, probably of a different order all together. People like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne are just ill-equipped to understand complexity like that because it not only doesn’t fit in with their linear and reductive understanding of life, it also exposes their understanding as false.So: We are part of Gaia, and Gaia lives through us. This also has huge implications for “climate change” which Jim has been writing about now for years. If we are part of Gaia, that means our decision-making and our thought processes are also part of it. Which ultimately in a way means that morality – the way we approach Gaia – is a selection pressure.Morality is not shaped by evolution so much as it shapes it now.

But just to be clear Jim’s picture of climate change is much more complex even than the one we’re constantly presented with with charts and graphs and a dose of guilt constantly. Jim does lay the blame on humans in a way, but sometimes in surprising ways – it’s not just industrialism that has caused all of the problems before us, but our very exhalations are a massive part of climate change. Furthermore, there are factors beyond our control – the sun heating up contributes, as well as other geosystems.

Rather than feel guilty and helpless, we should recognize ourselves as part of Gaian processes. And where he goes from there in his latest book, Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, is controversial and also moving: computer-beings are evolving into life as a result of our actions. And rather than being here to destroy us, these computer-beings will help Gaian homeorhesis along as well, since it will be in their best interest to regulate the climate along Gaian lines.It’s a challenging but ultimately positive view of technology that dismissed the reductiveness of “singularity” thinking and also anti-tech sentiment. It’s one that echoes statements made by occultist Rudolf Steiner – who I talk about with Jim on the episode (including Steiner’s influence on Rachel Carson, who used one of Jim’s inventions) – about a hundred years ago, around the time of Jim’s birth. Yes, he’s 102 now!

What an honor to speak with Jim after years of being influenced by his work.

SHOW NOTES

• For more on Jim, there’s a whole lot on his website. And you can read his excellent memoir, Homage to Gaia. And one of my favorite books on Gaia is from MIT Press: From Gaia to Selfish Genes. And here’s a site devoted to Daisyworld. The Economist article on Gaia that Jim mentions is behind a paywall, but worth checking into.

• For a bit on Moore’s law (and why Jim says it no longer applies) wikipedia is probably the easiest intro.

• “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

• I talk about code and alienation on AEWCH 144 with religious studies and UFO scholar Diana Walsh Pasulka.

• Evolutionary biologist Ford Doolittle was once a fierce opponent of the Gaia theory and has recently relented.

Until next time, friends,
CH

Why “stay the f*ck at home” is not enough. I talk with family abolitionist Sophie Lewis on AEWCH 106!

14 Apr


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AEWCH106TitleCard
Friends,
We need to talk about the regulations and messages of “stay the fuck at home;” of quarantines and police powers; of medicine and our bodies; and we need to do it now.

So I asked the brilliant Sophie Lewis -family abolitionist, and author of the challenging and fascinating book about the politics of gestation, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family – to talk about all this and more.

Sophie and I have intersecting influences; Donna Haraway was a huge provocateur for Sophie, and my mentor, Lynn Margulis, was a huge provocateur for Donna. What these influences have led to: a question about what the individual is, how we’re all connected, where our boundaries are.

This is an intense and wide-ranging conversation. I’m so happy to share it with you.

ON THIS EPISODE

  • Why being with our families is an intolerable proposition
  • How the right has seized resistance to the state in our time
  • How the left couldn’t be less prepared for this pandemic and why
  • The way the condemnation of magic and the non-critical acceptance of science has made us impotent in the face of the current events
  • Whether or not astrology is eugenic, even though tarot is great
  • How leftists can interrogate science now
  • What Sophie learned from her silence meditation retreat (and how being greeted with silence can affect change)
  • Why Sylvia Federici and political economy takes on witchcraft (and sex work) need to be critiqued (and, uh, I kind of go off)
  • Why individual self-care is a “pestilence.”
  • The lessons of hospice care
  • The value of strangers and strangerhood
  • Why the classical elements and magic matter to leftist theory
  • What if we didn’t reach for the tools of fear and fascism in duress?

SHOW NOTES

• For more Sophie, go to her website. There you can find her essay, “Momrades against Motherhood, Mothering against the World.” And we should all read Sophie’s great, brief essay, “The Virus and the Home” where she states, “A quarantine is, in effect, an abuser’s dream…” And here’s her essay exploring the problems with Donna Haraway’s Staying With The Trouble. Sophie is also a member of the Out Of the Woods Collective who you may want to look into. Finally, here’s a good discussion between Sophie and Joanna Biggs.

• As a supplement to Sophie’s essay read Des Fitzgerald‘s excellent short essay, “Stay The Fuck At Home,” and Natasha Lennard‘s essay, “Domestic Violence Is on the Rise With Coronavirus Lockdown. The Responses Are Missing the Point.”

• Assad Haider, who critiques the tensions between identity politics and class politics was on the show way back on AEWCH 26.

• And if you do want to hear about me talking Wilhelm Reich, here you go.

• Someone once asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of Western civilization. “I think it would be a good idea,” he said. At least that’s how the story goes.

• If you’re unfamiliar with Sylvia Federici‘s work, it’s useful to some, even if it deserves (serious and thorough) critique. Here’s Daniel Denvir interviewing her on The Dig. I’ve found Federici’s work mostly uninspiring and overrated; her essays about witchcraft and magic go something like: “Capitalism disempowered witches, but I don’t believe those people ever had power in the first place.” But as you can hear from Sophie’s take, Federici has been a huge figure for many leftists, and a sort of backdoor for some leftists into witchcraft (though mostly in an aesthetic sense). Some of my critique comes out on AEWCH 98 with Thomas Waters.

• Would you like to read (or re-read) “A Cyborg Manifesto” by Donna Haraway? Also, I enjoyed, though did not fully agree with her book, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. And here’s Donna’s update on the book that Sophie found wanting.

• Check out Elizabeth Wilson’s excellent book, Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body . And though I haven’t read her book Gut Feminism yet, I am excited to.

• Alyssa Battistoni’s essay about political organizing and disorganizing is “Spadework.” And here’s an interview with Alyssa – “Living Together Shouldn’t Put Us at War With One Another or With the Earth.” And for work by Sophie’s partner, Vicky Osterweil, go here.

• Here’s Douglas Crimp’s (pictured below) essay “
How To Have Promiscuity In An Epidemic” and many of his other essays are collected in Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics.

DG
 
• Sophie talks about abortion frankly and directly here.

Sophie mentions, briefly, Ann Boyer. I have yet to read her book, The Undying: Pain, vulnerability, mortality, medicine, art, time, dreams, data, exhaustion, cancer, and care, but I’m excited to.
Until next time, friends,
CH

Against Everyone With Conner Habib 92: On The Origins Of Sex

5 Dec

AEWCH92TitleCard

AGAINST EVERYONE WITH CONNER HABIB 92
THE ORIGINS OF SEX or LIFE SUPERLIVES

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This podcast is only possible because listeners like you support it. Do contribute to my mission by supporting Against Everyone With Conner Habib on Patreon!  Thank you so, so much.

Friends,

To keep going with the themes of symbiosis from AEWCH 91, I thought I’d  present my short essay series on the origins of sex, Life Superlives, as an episode. The gist of it is this – what are the bacterial origins of sex, and what can we learn about our lives today from these scientific origin stories?

Rather than present show notes as usual, I’ve reproduced the original essays here, along with a bibliography below.

Enjoy this solo episode! Back to the conversations next week.

XO
CH

Sun1. Sex in the Gaze of the Sun

For all the problems that accompany sex in our lives — shame and fear, jealous lovers, unplanned pregnancies, STIs — one might be surprised that, according to the scientific narrative, sex began as a healing act which diverted crisis.

Once upon a time, billions of years ago, the Sun’s violent and ultraviolet rays cascaded over an ozone-less Earth, greeting the only lifeforms with harsh light. These were the bacteria; prokaryotes, so named for their lack of nuclei (pro = before, karyon = nut or core).

These beings arose only to dissolve in the radiated presence of light.  They already had a way to repair themselves, or life would have never survived its bright beginning. Their DNA — the double-stranded molecule that many of us know about but that scientists still have trouble understanding — had begun to replicate itself through a series of gestures from various enzymes. If one part of a DNA strand was damaged, it was amputated by an enzyme that could cut the DNA bonds apart (a nuclease), and then another enzyme arrived to create wholeness and heal the void.

In the gaze of the Sun, the tiny prokaryotic innards were often too damaged to recombinate on their own. So these beings reached, in the mordial soup, for the ejected DNA of their dead kin, the floating pieces of bodies amongst them. They used their own enzymes in conjunction with the dead to repair themselves.

This was the beginning of sex for living organisms.

It was a co-mingling of partners. The Sun was there first. It aroused the prokaryotes, initiated sex, and then the presence of the dead infused the living with a new possibility for life.

Experiments today that replicate ultraviolet early-Earth intensities prompt similar responses in bacteria.

Life’s first sexual partner was a star.

That also means that by evolutionary implication, our first sexual partner was a star. The ancestors of all our ancestors undulated across the Earth, under a pulsing sexual sphere.

As children, we stare at the Sun, and it blots out our perception. As adults, we know better. When we look at the Sun, we turn away, flushed. It remains a flirtatious, sexual glance cast upon an unbearably beautiful face.

PromoImage2. The Orgy Against Identity

Life threads through the world, not just living, but superliving, creating more life and more possibilities for what life can be. Every individual has within itself the potential to change, utterly, all potentials.

First, bacteria and the Sun embraced over vast distances, and created sex. After sex was created, different forms of sex were possible.

Bacterial sex can take the form of gene-swapping on a “lateral” level. In other words, genes flow freely from bacterium to bacterium, breaking from an initial host and finding their way into another.

If this happened in humans, “…a man with red hair and freckles might wake up, after a swim with a brunette and her dog, with brown hair and floppy ears.”

Because of their freely exchanged genes, bacteria are engaged in the largest and most continuous orgy of all time.

Or maybe it’s microscopic self-love. It depends on how you define bacterial species:

“(Since) all strains of bacteria can potentially share all bacterial genes, then  strictly speaking, there are no true species in the bacterial world. All bacteria are one  organism, one entity capable of genetic engineering on a planetary or global scale.”

Look closely at the world, and you will see that life defies scale: Are the tiniest organisms really just the largest organism alive, spreading across the planet and into its pores, a giant body with infinite organs? Life superlives.

In another form of bacterial sex, conjugation, a “donor” bacterium transfers genetic material into a “recipient.” The ordinary terms are biological sex — “male” and “female” — are useless in the underlying current of life: hen the donor transfers its genetic material to the recipient, it loses its donor characteristics, and the recipient receives them. Bacteria fuck their identities into each other.

Look closely, again, at the world. You will see the slippage of identity.

dali3. Carnal Incarnations

Life was born, and it superlived.

Early organisms brushed up against each other, and when they did, they consumed each other. But not always. Encounter after encounter between them gave rise to a new form of union: symbiosis.

Here’s an example. Imagine a tiny, ancient oxygen-respiring bacterium. Small, but hungry, it was  was a fierce predator. Now imagine a larger, blobbier organism – a thermoplasm, contracting and expanding itself through its shapeless life. The two come together again and again, usually leading to the thermoplasm being invaded and eaten from the inside out by its smaller relative. But not every invasion killed the thermoplasm, and soon – how? We don’t know – the invader organism was taken up by the invaded, incorporated into its being. Permanently.

The thermoplasm could now resist the death-bringing properties of oxygen, and the bacterium found rest from the hunt.

Symbiosis is the ultimate procreative sex act. Two beings merge and form a third. Not a separate being, but a reincarnation of both selves.

Symbiosis is the origin of all multicellular organisms, and likely one of the main motivators of the rise of new species.

Symbiosis is sex, super-sexing.

This creative act is the foundation of human life. Let me explain.

Many protoctists (usually mislabeled “protozoans” – there is no “zoo” in them, since they aren’t animals) like the thermoplasm, reproduce through cell division, also called mitosis, in which an organism copies its own DNA and then pulls itself in two. A startling feature of mitosis is that, even though it’s called cell “division,” it doesn’t actually divide the number or chromosomes, structures in the cell that bear many of the cell’s genes.

In the procreative variety of sex that humans have, sperm and egg cells merge to create a new being. Sperm cells and egg cells have only half the chromosomes compared to the other cells in human beings. When sperm and egg meet, each carries a complimentary half of those chromosomes. This is how sperm and egg meet and form a new being. Rather than dividing (mitosis) humans are created by compliment (meiosis).

Our cells have forms that are meant to meet. They await each other. In other words, human beings are formed through a sort of predestined symbiosis.

Look at your hands, now. They are composed of cells upon cells, grouped together in the whorls and arches of your skin, the bones beneath, the connecting tendons. Your hands are a gathering of cells. And those cells are the ancient agreements of bacteria.

Sex is us. It’s what makes our cells, it’s what made us capable of making new forms of sex and new beings.

And it’s more than just us.

From its inception, sex has been a meeting of forces far beyond bodies and desires.

LC4. Sex Before Life

We end this series with a story from before the beginning.

Once upon a time,

biology tells us,

Before bacteria…

Before the superliving hypersex of symbiosis…

Before life…

the Earth was teeming with bonds of sugars, phosphates, and nitrogenous substances.

These bonds, or ribonucleic acid (RNA), huddled into themselves, and stretched their ways throughout the surface of the planet.

For these molecules, language was form. When they encounter each other, they strained to understand each other through strange acts of translation. They wrapped themselves up into each other, and this act of language, this braiding of being, created new forms.

A mysterious correspondence: an exchange of material, packed with meaning. This was the exuberant world full of RNA, and this was the birth of sex.

This story provides us with a new and sideways answer to the old question of chicken and egg. Did two chickens having sex make the fertilized egg from which another chicken sprung?

Or did the first chicken spring from a pre-existing egg?

When we look into the origins of sex, we discover an unexpected truth.

Q. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

A. Sex.

Sources

Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of  Microbial Evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. Origins of Sex: Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. What Is Sex? New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Serres, Michel. Variations on the Body. Minneapolis: Univocal, 2012.

Lynn Margulis in conversation with Conner Habib on AEWCH 91.

19 Nov

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This podcast is only possible because listeners like you support it. Do contribute to my mission by supporting Against Everyone With Conner Habib on Patreon!  Thank you so, so much.
Promo
Friends,
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. Because Lynn offer so much, I’ve started this episode off with a lengthy introduction to all her efforts. It’s an intro adapted from the essay I wrote shortly after her death (and it 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
SHOW NOTES
• 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.
slug
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?”
• We talked about some of this waaaay back on AEWCH 6 with Alex Tsakiris (and my first chat with Alex, “Fight Science With Science“)
• 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.
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,
XO
CH
AERWCH91

Carnal Incarnations (Life Superlives: On the Origins of Sex, Part 3)

28 Mar

This is the third in a short series of essays about the origins of sex, inspired by my mentor, the biologist and geoscientist Lynn Margulis,  one of my favorite philosophers, Michel Serres.

Part 2 was about the orgy of early life and how it reveals a counterpulse to identity. Part 3 is about the ultimate sexual merger: Symbiosis.

“Life superlives.”

– Michel Serres

daliLife Superlives: On the Origins of Sex, Part 3

Carnal Incarnations

Life was born, and it superlived.

Early organisms brushed up against each other, and when they did, they consumed each other. But not always. Encounter after encounter between them gave rise to a new form of union: symbiosis.

Here’s an example. Imagine a tiny, ancient oxygen-respiring bacterium. Small, but hungry, it was  was a fierce predator. Now imagine a larger, blobbier organism – a thermoplasm, contracting and expanding itself through its shapeless life. The two come together again and again, usually leading to the thermoplasm being invaded and eaten from the inside out by its smaller relative. But not every invasion killed the thermoplasm, and soon – how? We don’t know – the invader organism was taken up by the invaded, incorporated into its being. Permanently.

The thermoplasm could now resist the death-bringing properties of oxygen, and the bacterium found rest from the hunt.

Symbiosis is the ultimate procreative sex act. Two beings merge and form a third. Not a separate being, but a reincarnation of both selves.

Symbiosis is the origin of all multicellular organisms, and likely one of the main motivators of the rise of new species.

Symbiosis is sex, super-sexing.

This creative act is the foundation of human life. Let me explain.

Many protoctists (usually mislabeled “protozoans” – there is no “zoo” in them, since they aren’t animals) like the thermoplasm, reproduce through cell division, also called mitosis, in which an organism copies its own DNA and then pulls itself in two. A startling feature of mitosis is that, even though it’s called cell “division,” it doesn’t actually divide the number or chromosomes, structures in the cell that bear many of the cell’s genes.

In the procreative variety of sex that humans have, sperm and egg cells merge to create a new being. Sperm cells and egg cells have only half the chromosomes compared to the other cells in human beings. When sperm and egg meet, each carries a complimentary half of those chromosomes. This is how sperm and egg meet and form a new being. Rather than dividing (mitosis) humans are created by compliment (meiosis).

Our cells have forms that are meant to meet. They await each other. In other words, human beings are formed through a sort of predestined symbiosis.

Look at your hands, now. They are composed of cells upon cells, grouped together in the whorls and arches of your skin, the bones beneath, the connecting tendons. Your hands are a gathering of cells. And those cells are the ancient agreements of bacteria.

Sex is us. It’s what makes our cells, it’s what made us capable of making new forms of sex and new beings.

And it’s more than just us.

From its inception, sex has been a meeting of forces far beyond bodies and desires.

2In1

Next up: Sex Before Life.

Sources

Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. Origins of Sex: Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. What Is Sex? New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Serres, Michel. Variations on the Body. Minneapolis: Univocal, 2012.