Friday, November 25, 2011


Lynn Margulis receiving the National Science Award
Lynn Margulis receiving the National Science Award -- photo by Paul Hosefos/The New York Times

Lynn Margulis, who was one of the giants of evolutionary biology and the co-author with James Lovelock of the original Gaiia Hypothesis, has died. Famously and controversially she has asserted that life at the cellular level is a community and that mutuality or symbiosis is as significant as random mutation in evolution. She also challenged the New Age fuzzy-wuzzy gentle Earth Goddess spin given to the Gaiia Hypothesis saying that, "Gaiia is a tough bitch." But, in this era of climate change, her observation of what happens when science and culture clash strikes me as the most poignant: "If science doesn't fit in with the cultural milieu, people dismiss science, they never reject their cultural milieu!"

Even though I understand little of the deep science that underlies her work, I've always intuitively identified with her spirit and mission ("I didn't believe things from books or authorities; I wanted to find out for myself."). In reading about her today, I got a hint as to a possible source of my affinity toward her -- she was born in Chicago on March 5, 1938, as was I. Maybe, it's in the stars.

Continue over the jump for a text about Gaiia and a great video interview.

"Gaia Is a Tough Bitch" by Lynn Margulis

My primary work has always been in cell evolution, yet for a long time I've been associated with James Lovelock and his Gaia hypothesis. In the early seventies, I was trying to align bacteria by their metabolic pathways. I noticed that all kinds of bacteria produced gases. Oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, ammonia — more than thirty different gases are given off by the bacteria whose evolutionary history I was keen to reconstruct. Why did every scientist I asked believe that atmospheric oxygen was a biological product but the other atmospheric gases — nitrogen, methane, sulfur, and so on — were not? "Go talk to Lovelock," at least four different scientists suggested. Lovelock believed that the gases in the atmosphere were biological. He had, by this time, a very good idea of which live organisms were probably "breathing out" the gases in question. These gases were far too abundant in the atmosphere to be formed by chemical and physical processes alone. He argued that the atmosphere was a physiological and not just a chemical system.

The Gaia hypothesis states that the temperature of the planet, the oxidation state and other chemistry of all of the gases of the lower atmosphere (except helium, argon, and other nonreactive ones) are produced and maintained by the sum of life. We explored how this could be. How could the temperature of the planet be regulated by living beings? How could the atmospheric gas composition — the 20-percent oxygen and the one to two parts per million methane, for example — be actively maintained by living matter?

It took me days of conversation even to begin to understand Lovelock's thinking. My first response, just like that of the neo-Darwinists, was "business as usual." I would say, "Oh, you mean that organisms adapt to their environment." He would respond, very sweetly, "No, I don't mean that." Lovelock kept telling me what he really meant, and it was hard for me to listen. Since his was a new idea, he hadn't yet developed an appropriate vocabulary. Perhaps I helped him work out his explanations, but I did very little else.

The Gaia hypothesis is a biological idea, but it's not human-centered. Those who want Gaia to be an Earth goddess for a cuddly, furry human environment find no solace in it. They tend to be critical or to misunderstand. They can buy into the theory only by misinterpreting it. Some critics are worried that the Gaia hypothesis says the environment will respond to any insults done to it and the natural systems will take care of the problems. This, they maintain, gives industries a license to pollute. Yes, Gaia will take care of itself; yes, environmental excesses will be ameliorated, but it's likely that such restoration of the environment will occur in a world devoid of people.

Lovelock would say that Earth is an organism. I disagree with this phraseology. No organism eats its own waste. I prefer to say that Earth is an ecosystem, one continuous enormous ecosystem composed of many component ecosystems. Lovelock's position is to let the people believe that Earth is an organism, because if they think it is just a pile of rocks they kick it, ignore it, and mistreat it. If they think Earth is an organism, they'll tend to treat it with respect. To me, this is a helpful cop-out, not science. Yet I do agree with Lovelock when he claims that most of the things scientists do are not science either. And I realize that by taking the stance he does he is more effective than I am in communicating Gaian ideas.

If science doesn't fit in with the cultural milieu, people dismiss science, they never reject their cultural milieu! If we are involved in science of which some aspects are not commensurate with the cultural milieu, then we are told that our science is flawed. I suspect that all people have cultural concepts into which science must fit. Although I try to recognize these biases in myself, I'm sure I cannot entirely avoid them. I try to focus on the direct observational aspects of science.

Gaia is a tough bitch — a system that has worked for over three billion years without people. This planet's surface and its atmosphere and environment will continue to evolve long after people and prejudice are gone. (read more with discussion at The Edge)

And here's the interview:

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