books science

The Symbiotic Planet, by Lynn Margulis

symbiotic planetOne 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.


  1. Hi – just started getting your blog after reading Herve Kempf’s How the Rich are Destroying the Planet last week.
    This idea of symbiosis is one I have been exploring in my artwork and research since 1999 after reading a couple of great collections edited by William Irwin Thompson on Gaia and ‘The New Science of Becoming’. Lyn Margulis had an essay in that book – that lead me onto her work.
    I really belive that this parallel connection between an understanding of evolutionary science and our cultural structures is very close and one we are drawn to mimic. Slowly awareness and credence is given to Margulis’ work and hopefully this will influence our readiness to collaborate and acknowledge the network of the ecosystem as crucial to our continued evolution. Or else?
    I wrote a research paper based on this notion, symbiosis as a cultural metaphor and the role of the artist in bringing our collective consciousness to perceive this interdependence. There are many individuals elaborating on the concept and its cultural importance. There is so much more than the bacterial science – it is based on a perspective that does not champion the categorisation of knowledge (once you do that you miss the linkages) – a shift from considering lifeforms as separate discrete entity to growing colonies operating within their environmental limitations.
    I am of course not looking at the data as a scientist would but as an artist and so I give weight to an instinctual knowledge that ‘working together’ and valuing the resource is preferrable to competitive advantage and exploiting the resource – just because it feels right.
    On a tangent, check out things like conceptual architecture – the aim is to create living breathing shelters that can be self regulating ecosystems.

    1. Interesting – I think artists and storytellers (of all kinds) have a big role to play in bringing scientific ideas out of academia and into culture. And that’s what needs to happen, and it’s a growing trend already. I’m convinced it’s going to be one of the great philosophical shifts of the century – perhaps even the defining one.

      Is any of your work online anywhere?

  2. Check out the Land Institute’s work is domesticating the perennial cultivars of the world’s grain crops for the first time in the history of humanity and creating a perennial agriculture “farming the image of nature.” Symbiosis from the microscopic to the planetary, or ecospheric as they call it, is integral to their work. They speak of the Neolithic invention of agriculture based on annual plants, which as pioneers are not particularly symbiotic compared to their perennial cousins, as being humanity’s ‘original sin’ (of which they say the Fall of Adam and Eve is somewhat allegorical, if you ignore the relatively recently translated earlier Babylonian books with the story, which has more to do with the chief God getting fed up with the racket associated with the early city state compared to the quiet that pre-urban peoples must have experienced; but it is a good allegory for communicating the significance of basing agriculture on annual plants). They are heavily influenced by the work of Alfred North Whitehead, who conceived every point of space-time as a process of taking in and being taken in by everything else in the universe (clumsily put in lieu of a 700 pp book), what he called “concrescence” — for which it could be said that the very fabric of the universe is symbiotic, to be ignored only at one’s peril. Whitehead also conceived ‘God’, with a dual nature, is imminent and present in every point of space-time in the universe, and morality is also woven into its very fabric (albeit neither God nor morality being defined in terms the Mosaic religions, although some innovative Christians and a number of ecologists have built his work into their own. Most likely you are familiar with it, but “Concepts of Symbiogenesis: A Historical and Critical Study of the Research of Russian Botanists” edited by Margulis was very interesting discussion of the origins and development of symbiotic theory of evolution in Russia and the USSR, before and after Stalin that is.

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