One of the things I’m interested in is the change in our understanding of evolution. Our current perception of it is dominated by the ideas of competition and conflict, an angle that chimes conveniently with consumer capitalism.
But evolution advances just as much through cooperation as it does through competition. And I’ve got a suspicion that new forms of economic cooperation and a broader understanding of evolution will go together too.
Lynn Margulis is a biologist who has spent her career exploring symbiosis. Symbiosis is when two different species live in physical contact. It’s everywhere once you start looking, from nitrogen fixing bacteria on the roots of plants, to fungi and worms, flowers that rely on pollinating insects, to the cleaning stations on coral reefs. 90% of plants have symbiotic partners. The human body is full of complementary bacteria. Some creatures have co-evolved, such as the transparent sea-worms that are full of photosynthesizing bacteria, making them both plant and animal, the animal part serving as a living greenhouse for the plant part.
Not only that, the first steps in evolution that led to multi-cellular organisms were not the result of mutations, but combinations, micro-organisms with no cell walls combining and incorporating themselves. Complex life began with cooperation, and while this was radical when Margulis first began studying it, it is now generally accepted that this is what happened.
This is important and fascinating stuff, and not as well known as it should be. Unfortunately I found the book itself a frustrating read. It is more of an overview of Margulis’ own work and how it was received than an exploration of the ‘symbiotic planet’ of the title. There’s a good story there, but there were too many diversions into other aspects of her research, some controversial and not directly relevant. And while the sections on bacterial evolution and cooperation are useful and easy for this non-biologist to understand, there was little about symbiotic relationships outside of bacteria. Given the title of the book, that’s kind of what I was hoping for.
The author also makes some rather unscientific claims for her work that somewhat undermine her message. In one passage she basically suggests that her work proves there is no God, but then later makes what is practically a statement of faith in her own ideas: “in spite of slim evidence, I continue to believe” she says of one of her less accepted theories. She also admits that other scientists have accused her of ignoring competing ideas and pushing a more extreme version of her theory than the evidence supports. This is admirably honest, but I can’t remember ever reading a book where the author was so willing to risk their own credibility with the reader.
I suppose that’s inevitable from someone with a radical, heretical idea that only became mainstream after decades of patient and painstaking research. For years Margulis’ papers were rejected or torn apart in peer review, only for her theories to eventually become so accepted that they now appear in school textbooks. That must give you a certain stubborn self-belief. It just doesn’t make you a very objective guide to your own work.
So, if anyone can recommend a better and broader book on symbiosis and cooperation, please tell me about it in the comments below. I’d like to find out more, as I agree with Margulis’ suggestion that “the full impact of the symbiotic view of evolution has yet to be felt”.
Lynn Margulis died in 2011. The obituaries written then are a useful short guide to her work and considerable influence – the five minutes it’ll take to read one will be well spent. Here’s the Guardian, here’s Nature.