Saturday, January 21, 2012

life as art: the legacy of lynn margulis

RealitySandwich | Richard Dawkins, formidable commander of both the Queen's English and a veritable worldwide army of devoted reductionists, once referred to the late Lynn Margulis as the "high priestess of symbiosis". Was this a warm colourful accolade or a shrewd slight? Given that Dawkins has spent decades steadfastly clinging to his beloved selfish gene paradigm and has even spoken of selfish cooperation when dealing with the symbiotic side of life that Margulis championed, I suspect his sentiment was not entirely benign. Although Dawkins openly admired Margulis for persevering with the theory that various cell organelles evolved through a process of endosymbiosis, and while aware, like any biologist, that the web of life evinces all manner of symbiotic relationships, he always seemed distinctly rattled by the social connotations that symbiosis invariably evokes. After all, unlike the notion of selfish genes, mutually beneficial cooperation sounds nice. Two or more organisms working together in an integrated and coherent way? Why, symbiosis has an almost ‘lovey-dovey' and ‘new-agey' air to it! Goddess forbid that we should draw any social lessons from such intimate biological arrangements! Best, then, to employ a cunning linguistic trick and make this embarrassingly alluring aspect of life disappear. Or at least shove it out of the way. Hence Dawkins use of the clumsy term ‘selfish cooperation' (as opposed to speaking of, say, emergent higher order selves, or even unconscious cooperation).

According to Dawkins, we might be impressed by two living systems working in some sort of mutually beneficial accord but in reality it is nothing more than a convoluted extension of selfishness. Don't be too moved by the astonishing sight of a pollen dusted humming bird feeding on a symbiotic nectar rich bloom! Don't let exotic symbiotic corals (that are a union of an animal and an alga) blow your mind! Don't gloat too long over a picture of a bobtail squid packed full of symbiotic bioluminescent bacteria! Move on people, this symbiosis business is all smoke and mirrors. Life is, at heart, no more than inert bits of digital DNA code that know nothing of cooperation and harmonious coexistence but only the competitive drive to replicate. If their phenotypic expression is involved in some exquisite symbiotic arrangement or another, then this is really beside the point.

Such was the kind of paradigmatic resistance that Margulis was up against. It is probably no coincidence that it was a woman who came to the fore promoting the significance of symbiosis in the evolution of life -- and not just the symbiotic origins of mitochondria and chloroplasts or the symbiosis evinced by corals or flowering plants and their pollinators, but even the emergence of new species through the process of symbiogenesis (this is still a contentious issue -- but examples continue to emerge). Is there something deeply feminine about cooperation? Is the drive for co-existence somehow more active in the female psyche than in the male psyche? In any case, legend tells us that Margulis had a really hard time convincing her academic male superiors that certain organelles within mammalian cells were once free living bacteria. It's one thing to note the symbiotic alliance of, say, cleaner fish with their bigger fish customers (who could easily gobble up the diminutive cleaners if they wanted), but when you realise that mitochondria (the energy engines of animals) and chloroplasts (the energy engines of plants) were once separate living micro-organisms that are now symbiotically woven inside animals and plants, symbiosis emerges as a kind of advanced technique learned by life, so sophisticated and subtle in deployment that we may be blind to it. If, however, we acknowledge the important role symbiosis has played in life's evolution, the way we perceive life begins to change. Life is no longer seen to be wholly red in tooth and claw -- but rather symbiotic in embrace and interchange (at least where possible).


nanakwame said...

Interesting site Evolving Consciousness bite by bite 

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