"Giants of Gaia" - Diana Stanley
Section 3: Dr Lynn Margulis:
Web Publication by
Mountain Man Graphics, Australia in the Southern Autumn of 1996
Against much Opposition
Currently a distinguished professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the faculty home page for Dr Lynn Margulis plays down the scale of achievements which, against much opposition, Lynn Margulis has achieved over the last few decades. The data on this page tells us that Lynn Margulis is a Member of the National Academy of Science, obtaining her A.B., University of Chicago in 1957, an M.S. at the University of Wisconsin in 1960, Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1963 with Postdoctoral achievements in 1977 - Sherman Fairchild Fellow, California Institute of Technology, 19'79 - Guggenheim Fellow and 1983 - Aņo sabãtico en Espaņa. It concludes with a description of her current (1993) work concerning Microbial Symbionts and Organelle Heredity, and a short list of authored books and articles.
For that great cross-section of the populace who have little or no knowledge concerning the field of microbiology, it might seem that those who study algae, slime, bacteria and simple plant life are out on a limb by themselves, so to speak. And seemingly, this was exactly where Lynn Margulis placed herself when she commenced to contend with the tradional theories of cell evolution.
In reference to the Gaia Hypothesis, Lynn Margulis has been Lovelock's principal collaborator for twenty-five years. She is an expert on the role that microorganisms play in evolution. In the late 1960's, at the same time that the Gaia Hypothesis was first being stated, Margulis first put forward her creative theory of endosymbiosis. And very much like the Gaia Hypothesis when it was first formulated, the concept was so new and required such a degree of leading edge specialised information, that it was often completely misunderstood - not only by researchers in unrelated fields, but also by her peers.
What is endosymbiosis ?
A good question ... and based on the luxury of over two decades of further research work in the area, a definition of this conceptual process is relatively easy to obtain, however this was not always so. Briefly, we might say that endosymbiosis attempts to specify the relationship between organisms which live one within another in a mutually beneficial relationship with one serving as a host cell (the boss cell) and another the symbiont (the dependent organism) which resides within the host cell.
The definition of endosymbiosis to those unfamiliar with the classifications of sub-cellular entities, seems to be made complex by the use many technical microbiological terms. Therefore at early this point in the review of Lynn Margilis' contribution to the Gaia Hypothesis it might be simply best to quote a reference of the then existent model of cell evolution (the Autogenous Model) which assumed that everything arose from the one organism. The following explanation of the new Endosymbiotic Model is courtesy of the Biology Dept at the University of Alberta and which contains a useful diagram presented in connection with the following information:
I will attempt a layman's translation. Suppose we were investigating the life-form on another planet which looked and behaved exactly like a modern day motor vehicle. It is clearly composed of parts - machinery which works together. The tradional theories would examine this mythical being in terms of being evolved from some single fundamental part. Lynn Margulis's endosymbiotic theory would suggest that instead the currently existent "car organism" has evolved from a cooperative evolution of a number of its constituent parts acting in some accord. Keep in mind here that we must apply this analogy back to the microscopic constituents of a living cell. While this example may raise microbiological eyebrows I would hope that it provides illumination to a number of home mechanics.
Effectively, Lynn Margulis contended that symbiosis, not chance mutation, was the driving force behind evolution and that the cooperation between organisms and the environment are the chief agents of natural selection -- not competition among individuals. She says that "Darwin's grand vision was not wrong, only incomplete. This was a little much to handle for some of her critics, and at first her theory was not accepted, especially in its original appearance alongside that of the Gaia Hypothesis:
the planet is, in Margulis's words, a "super organismic system"
evolution is the result of cooperative not competitive processes.
At that time in 1969, her paper was rejected by over a dozen scientific journals because no one knew how to evaluate it. Finally, after a long and hard struggle against peer-reviewed resistance, she prevailed. The extent of vision and perseverance with her emerging theory is often measured by the reviews of critics. It is therefore quite rewarding to find that one of the leading critics of the Gaia Hypothesis, Richard Dawkins, in reference to the separately contrived theory by Margulis states the following:
At the present time in contemporary scientific circles, what was once regarded as an absurd speculation is now taken as self-evident truth. Most recent biology textbooks include reference to Lynn Margulis' theory of endosymbiosis, the majority of them put it forward as the most likely explanation of the origin and evolution of life on the planet we know as Earth.
Understanding Evolution - The Turning Point
It may seem that a review of Lynn Margulis' work in the area of microbiology would hardly be advantaged by the information presented by a theoretical high-energy physicist. Nevertheless, such is the case. The American physicist Fritjof Capra, received his Ph.D. on the gravitational collapse of neutron stars from the University of Vienna in 1966 where he studied with Werner Heisenberg. He taught and researched theoretical high-energy physics at Orsay in Paris from 1966-1968, the University of California in Santa Cruz from 1968-1970, Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre, and at the Imperial College in London.
In 1975 in London, the first of Capra's books was published entitled "The Tao of Physics" in which he observes that the emerging world-view of theoretical particle physics - ie: the most fundamental material substrate describable by the scientific "bootstrap" description of nature - bears striking similarity to the world-views of the ancient Eastern sages which were forthcoming 2,500 years before the beginning of particle physics.
In the year of 1982, Fritjof Capra published a second book entitled " The Turning Point" - Science, Society, and the rising culture. A compelling vision of a new reality. A reconciliation of science and the human spirit for a future that will work. In this second work he expressed a development of these earlier ideas, and in which the work of Lynn Margulis receives mention in a section entitled "The Systems View of Life" - (Page 288).
An organism that thinks only in themes of its own survival will invariably destroy its environment and, as we are learning from bitter experience, will thus destroy itself.
From the systems point of view the unit of survival is not at entity at all, but rather a pattern of organisation adopted by an organism in its interactions with its environment; or, as neurologist Robert Livingston has expressed it, the evolutionary selection process acts on the basis of behaviour.
In the history of life on earth, the coevolution of , microcosm and macrocosm is of particular importance. Conventional accounts of the origin of life usually describe the build-up of higher life forms in microevolution and neglect the macroevolutionary aspects. But these two are complementary aspects of the same evolutionary process, as Jantsch has emphasised. From one perspective microscopic life creates the macroscopic conditions for its further evolution; from the other perspective the macroscopic biosphere creates its own microscopic life. The unfolding of complexity arises not from adaptation of organisms to a given environment but rather from the coevolution of organism and environment at all systems levels.
When the earliest life forms appeared on earth around four billion years ago-half a billion years after the formation of the planet-they were single-celled organisms without a cell nucleus that looked rather like some of today's bacteria. These so-called prokaryotes lived without oxygen, since there was little or no free oxygen in the atmosphere. But almost as soon as the microorganisms originated they began to modify their environment and create the macroscopic conditions for the further evolution of life.
For the next two billion years some prokaryotes produced oxygen through photosynthesis, until it reached its present levels of concentration in the earth's atmosphere. Thus the stage was set for the emergence of more complex, oxygen-breathing cells that would be capable of forming cell tissues and multicellular organisms. The next important evolutionary step was the emergence of eukaryotes, single-celled organisms with a nucleus contained the organism's genetic material in its chromosomes. It was these cells that later on formed multicellular organisms.
According to Lynn Margulis, co-author of the Gaia hypothesis, eukaryotic cells originated in a symbiosis between several prokaryotes that continued to live on as organelles within the new type of cell. We have mentioned the two kinds of organelles-mitochondria and chloroplasts-that regulate the complementary respiration requirements of animals and plants. These are nothing but the former prokaryotes, which still continue to manage the energy household of the planetary Gaia system, as they have done for the past four billion years.
In the further evolution of life, two steps enormously accelerated the evolutionary process and produced an abundance of new forms.
While the research work of Lynn Margulis in the area of cell evolution was gradually being accepted, her collaboration with Dr James Lovelock in the formulation of the Gaia Hypothesis was often viewed in a critical manner. Neverthess, such an environment did not seem to daunt her scientific progress in many areas, neither did it hinder her publication and joint publication of a number of articles, reviews and books in the interim period of the 1970's and 1980's in which debate on the Gaia Hypothesis raged within scientific circles and - indeed moreso - outside of these.
From the web record of a paper presented by request to the Tjalling Koopmans Distinguished Lecture Series, IIASA, Laxenburg - 13 September 1995 we learn a little more about the background of Lynn Margulis ...
She has participated in the development of science teaching materials at levels from elementary to graduate school. With students and colleagues, she has recently published a handson middle school unit: "What Happens to Trash and Garbage? An Introduction to the Carbon Cycle". She continues to collaborate with James E. Lovelock, F.R.S., on investigations concerning his "Gaia Hypothesis". Her current projects include studies of the bacterial symbionts of termites and of protists from microbial mat communities. Nearly thirty years after she first proposed it, Margulis continues to work out the consequences of the modern serial endosymbiosis theory. Symbiogenesis is widely accepted as the mechanism of origin of plastids (from cyanobacteria) and of mitochondria (from respiring bacteria) and can be taken as proven.
In the following section we will examine some of the ideas put forward by Lynn Margulis in many areas - not necessarily directly related to the Gaia Hypothesis - quite often tangentially interleaved. Possibly the most important item of understanding that should be assimilated is the nature of the emergence of the interdisciplinary science now known as biochemistry. Microorganisms are present in every domain of the earth, from the upper reaches of the atmosphere, to the depths of the ocean, from the volcanically heated pools of sulphurous water to the interior worlds of all other larger living organisms ... these smallest of creatures are pretty ubiquitous. No doubt, this fact accords with the tremendous difficulty that the early researchers faced - with Margulis in the forefront - concerning the establishment of some form of classifications across this huge interdisciplinary platform.
Interdisciplinary Reseach continues
As Lynn Margulis chipped away at refinement of the endosymbiotic theory of cell development and evolution, she always managed to find time to turn her mind to other issues and research areas. In the last few decades some of Lynn Margulis's works include: The Origin of Eukaryotic Cells (1970), Early Life (1981), and Symbiosis in Cell Evolution (2d ed., 1993). She is also the coauthor, with Karlene V. Schwartz, of Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth (2d ed., 1988), and with Dorion Sagan of Microcosmos (1986), Origins Of Sex (1986), and Mystery Dance (1991).
In a lively review of the book "Origins of Sex we find the following commentary:
The basic argument is that sexual processes come in a very wide variety of kinds and are separate from reproduction in most taxa. The difficulty is not explaining the evolution of sex - different sexual processes have evolved multiple times, and have been lost multiple times. It is not strange that almost all 'higher' vertebrates use gametic meiosis, what is strange is that so few of them have reverted to asexuality. The explanation offered is that due to historical developments sex has become so closely linked to reproduction, embryology and development that it is now an indispensable part of the life cycle.
It seems that Lynnn Margulis purposefully turned her mind to the more fundamental questions, and those which had been for much time left in the too-hard basket. As a result of her research, although she received a great deal of resistance from her contemporaries, she also made enormous gains in the understanding of life processes, and opened the way up for further research students to follow. In the book Microcosmos Margulis writes:
In another book "God, Gaia, and Biophilia" also by Dorian Sagan and Lynn Margulis we find the following further reference to the revolutionary thinking concerning the concept of a global Gaian life system:
Clearly, in the later years of the twentieth century, the nature of a very specific and detailed ecological awareness was being born - both in terms of cultural awareness outside the scientific disciplines yet also within them. The interdisciplinary research which was conducted during this period was all very new to the scientific and traditonal disciplinary fields of biology, geology and the earth and life sciences. It provided for the acceptance of a more global and open-systems approach to the parameters which, since the emergence of classical scientific thought with Newton and later Maxell, had concentrated on the physical cause and effect phenomena of closed and analytical Cartesian modelled systems.
The emergence of interdisciplinary research and activity in these years began to provide alternative definitions and models to a new body of contemporary scientific minds, and while there was yet a great deal of resistance from those who felt obliged to retain the traditional structuring of scientific thought, there was nevertheless a gradual growth in an underground scientific culture which involved itself and immersed itself in these concepts.
The Five Kingdoms
In the study of the Kingdoms of Nature, it was possibly Aristotle who, in 350 BC, first published classification of the world into the Mineral Kingdom (consistent of the raw material of earth, water and air), the Kingdom of Plants and the Kingdom of Animals. If memory serves me correctly, he also classified the Kingdom of Man as a separate kingdom owing to the emergence of reason as a sensiblity exhibited by man over and above that of the constituent members of the Animal Kingdom. While this classification system might have been widely held more than two thousand years ago, it was lost to the dark ages and - like many of the current western paradigms - had to be discovered once more and with the assumed assistance of the newly emerged and shining light of cartesian reason which flourished in the success of the downfall of geocentricity, and in the illumination of the sacred quest of the natural and physical scientist who set forth to re-explore the extent of the known world.
Taxonomy is often defined as the scientific process of the classification of living things or organisms. In the history of modern human understanding concerning the nature of living things it was Linnaeus - (1707 - 1788) who developed a way to classify organisms based on shared characteristics. Although he did not believe in evolution, we now know that shared characteristics among organisms is a strong argument for evolution. Thus the Linnean classification system is also a useful tool for studying how organisms evolved (ie. their ancestry).
Related organisms are categorized into groups called taxa. The higher the group in the category, the more inclusive it is. The heirarchy for taxonomic groups (with the example) is: Kingdom (Animalia), Phylum (Chordata), Class (Mammalia), Order (Primates), Family (Hominidae), Genus (Homo) and then Species (Sapiens). In this manner, Linneas once again reintroduced the ideas of kingdoms to the generic understanding of mankind. However , possibly due to the absence of the same natured form of the traditional Aristotlean reason, he failed to classified man as distinct from his proposed two existing kingdoms of living things, plant and animal.
When Darwin set forth his life's research work concerning the observation of nature, from which the Darwinian Theory of Evolution was born, he could not explain how variation arose or was maintained in a population. Independently, seeing the world was then much larger in the 1860's than it is today, an Austrian monk - Gregor Mendel, provided explanation by experimenting with flower cross-pollination, and the beginings of genetic research was established. Others followed his footsteps, and technologies changed. The research of the current century, and particularly in the last few decades, has exploded into a spectrum of specialisation - biochemistry, botany, ecology, cell-biology and molecular biology, medical research, microbiology, mycology, paleontology, parasitology, virology, phycology, protistology, zoology, genetics and many other interdisciplinary fields - each of which allowed a more detailed understanding of life-processes. Each of which offered a new outlook of the scientific observation of life.
Of such background, in collaboration with others in many areas, Lynn Margulis and Karlene Schwartz published a comprehensive work entitled The Five Kingdoms (2nd Edition in 1988), which contained a huge compendium of the 92 existing (living) phyla classified into the microbiological perspective of five kingdoms.
Kingdom Animalia - The Animal Kingdom - Multi-cellular motile organisms which feed heterotrophically
Kingdom Plantae - The Plant Kingdom - Multi-cellular organisms which feed by photosynthesis
Kingdom Protista - The Protist Kingdom - Protozoa and single-celled algae
Kingdom Fungi - The Fungus Kingdom - Fungi
Kingdom Monera - The Monera Kingdom - Bacteria and blue-green algae
Parallel to these Kingdoms, but not included, are the Viruses.
The Five Kingdoms CD-Rom: was also recently published, enabling the work of authors Lynn Margulis and Karlene Schwartz to become more widely utilised. The media description (refer link) states it to be an "indispensable resource for those interested in biodiversity, it provides an expert's overview of our Earth's diversity.
The emergence of a fully structured alternate classification of living organisms on the planet earth did not please many of Lynn Margulis' peers, and there is still great debates in the usenet newsgroups, especially in the bio.evolution and bio.systematics, concerning the more appropriate schema of the living kingdoms to be used.
Respect for Living Systems
In a recent review of the book "How the Leopard Changed its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity"by Brian Goodwin, Lynn Margulis demonstrates that she certainly maintains some strong and individualistic opinions concerning the nature of living beings and evolution. These are often in contrast to those which are maintained by the traditional mainstream physical sciences, and by alligned researchers in the fields of cybernetics, artificial intelligence, computer sciences and neural computing.
Goodwin lauds the virtues of morphogenetic field explanations. However, he does not mean the "morphic field" of Rupert Sheldrake -- Goodwin is no soft-headed mystic. His solution to the origin of evolutionary and developmentally new structures lies in new strategies: the use of complex, dynamic-system, mathematical modelling to investigate the intrinsic action embedded in matter itself, the inherent biophysical limitations of heredity and the "myth of order-out-of-chaos". In other words, he advocates a new "science of qualities".
Goodwin thus recognizes the problem clearly, but I find his solutions deficient.
He appropriately concatenates a set of interrelated problems in his perceptive insistence on whole organisms and their relationships when he writes: "the shrinking of the globe puts all cultures at risk as we export our problems to other cultures in the name of solutions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the methods we propose for increased food production in the Third World."
Yet he is following a dead-end path in proffering an answer via computer calculations of "cellular automata", settling "at the edge of chaos as the 'best' place to be for maximum adaptability". The idea of computer-generated "internal dynamic properties that characterize the condition towards which a complex system with hereditary variation will spontaneously evolve" is, I believe, a scientific version of "boys with toys will play".
Genuine investigations -- cytological, biochemical, genetic (including the study of cytoplasmic heredity) and ultrastructural -- expose directly and more realistically the condition towards which a complex system with hereditary variation spontaneously evolves. Genuine insight into morphogenesis, the emergence of form -- which passionately interests Goodwin --comes not from computer models but from intimacy with the microscopic and submicroscopic behaviours of living beings.
His Acetabularia whorls are parallel to the Hunza-like community structures of the integrated cyanobacteria, proteobacteria and thermoplasmas which comprise the much larger sparkling chlorophyte alga -- just as the Himalayan terraces are products of donkey-goat-people community interactions, though on a far larger scale.
Goodwin's concerns must preoccupy all of us, especially biology students, teachers and research scientists. But his proffered strategies for resolving them fall short: they are more amusements than resolutions, more chaotic than definitive, and, ironically, less respectful of living organisms than they should be.
Outspoken? Well, yes, one would have to say that Lynn Margulis is not backward at coming forward, and the issues which occupy her convictions are those related to living things. Molecular biology has enabled Lynn Margulis and other specialist researchers to conduct a different type of analysis on the characteristics of living organisms. As it has eventuated, Lynn Margulis and others have more recently determined that the emergent themes of their collaborative research had been already partially explored and examined by independent work outside of the US and UK.
In a further book review, on this occassion one entitled Concepts of Symbiogenesis: A Historical and Critical Study of the Research of Russian Botanists and printed Yale University Press, 1993, we find that Lynn Margulis and McMeamin are editing a collection of Russian research papers which stem back to the year 1900:
What is Life ?
As we have found in the preceeding section concerning the formulation of the Gaia Hypothesis by Dr James Lovelock, this question would have been purposefully redirected by the traditional physical sciences to the attention of counterparts in the philosophy departments, possibly the biology department or, dependent upon their cultural beliefs, possibly to the theological offices. The traditional stance of the physical scientist is that he did not have to consider such questions. Although this point has already been referenced earlier, it is relevant to re-examine it with respect to the thinking of Lynn Margulis. It concerns the influential doctrines of the physical sciences which were eloquently and simply stated by Clerk Maxwell, in his work Matter and Motion in 1882:
Physical Science is that department of knowledge which relates to the order of nature, or in other words, to the regular succession of events. The name of physical science, however, is often applied in a more or less restricted manner to those brances of science in which the phenomena considered are of the simplest and most abstract kind, excluding the consideration of the more complex phenomena, such as those observed in living beings.
It is perhaps this traditionally lifeless conceptualisation of the parameters used in the scientific specification of nature that aggravates the sensibility of Lynn Margulis. In collaboration with Dr James Lovelock she can perceive the specifications of a globally interconnected ecological system - and the basis of the parameters for these specifications are alive - for the nature which is being studied is best described as an ecosystem.
It is perhaps this respect for living systems which enables Lynn Margulis to be able to present a lecture in Europe, in the northern Autumn - September - of 1995 on the subject "What is Life". The abstract to this lecture reads as follows:
"What is life?" is a scientific and philosophical exploration. Along the way, it explores the opposite question - what is death?; as well as delves into the origins of life; Earth's status as a superorganism; the biological connection between programmed death and sex; the symbiotic evolution of the five organic kingdoms (bacteria, protoctists, animals, fungi, and plants); the solar basis of our global economy; and the startling suggestion that life, not just human life, is free to act and has played an unexpectedly large part in its own evolution.
In conclusion of this section of the presentation concerning the current interdisciplinary developments of the Gaia Theory in relation to Dr Lynn Margulis I would have to say I respect of her usage of the word surfing (global oceanic) in such context.
Section 4 Gaia - Contributory Historical Background
"Giants of Gaia" - Diana Stanley
Section 3: Dr Lynn Margulis:
Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia in the Southern Autumn of 1996