In the last few weeks, by coincidence, I had read Lynn Margulis’ 2007 novel, Luminous Fish – tales of science and love. When I heard the book existed I said to myself I had to get it quick. I’ve been an enormous admirer of this remarkable woman who, very sadly, died November 22, 2011 at 73 – for her, very young. I’d hoped to meet her one day but never did. I was surprised this brilliant scientist was stepping out and actually writing fiction – how bold and experimental, but why not?! She was after all.
I had even looked her up on the Internet some months before her death just to see what she looked like and was immediately taken by her smiling eyes and almost teasing, warm, incredibly intelligent face. I wanted to see what she looked like through her whole life, especially as a young woman because she also seemed to exude something of a sly sensuality. Maybe I was fantasizing something and wanted to see more. But the only pictures pre around 40 years of age was a very blurry one about 70 pixels wide, a young college student delivering a paper it seemed, and another getting married to then aspiring astronomer Carl Sagan at only slightly better resolution. Why even put photos like that on the Internet? Frustrating! One I’m featuring here is from 1982 at Boston University behind a microscope at about 39 years of age – much better quality – and one from maybe a decade later.
The drama and mystery of eukariotic cells
Long ago I ran across her theory that the complex cells, eukariotic cells they are called that make up the bodies of all us complex organisms both plant and animal, might have skipped a lot of fooling around with random mutations to advance their complexity in a stunningly smart short cut: cooperation with their invaders. Politically that might be called collaboration but over many generations, both politically and biologically it might just become the new normal and something qualitatively different.
Lynn Margulis proposed that other physically smaller bacteria invaded the early host cells (simpler prokaryotic cells) bringing their own separately evolved and different powers physically into the host cell producing something that got a long jump on going in alone. It had been something of a mystery how the so called “organelles” inside the larger cells evolved, the chloroplasts of plant cells that use solar energy to create sugars and store energy and the mitochondria that make it possible for animal cells to move about burning the sugar energy produced by those other organelles. Initially the invading cells were no doubt looking for something to eat. Some invading bacteria kill or damage the cells they invade. In a rough comparison us human bodies have invader bacteria inside our bodies, some doing damage some actually helping. The invaders in the case of the early “host” cells, the prokaryotic cells in question, were something like parasites that eventually lent new possibilities to the combination they became when they joined their host, and inside their host, making a rapid jump in evolution in complexity possible.
In one of the obituaries of Ms. Margulis one of the writers said Lynn had pushed back evolutionary science three billion years. By that the writer meant most evolution studies follow Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection (refined much by later discoveries of how mutations work) starting about 530 million years ago with the Cambrian Explosion and leading up to the present. You might say with her the serious study of life’s history was suddenly extended about six times deeper into the past. The Cambrian Explosion was the time when rather suddenly in evolutionary time a wide variety of the basic designs of most of today’s living creatures came into existence. Many other designs appeared too, designs that didn’t survive extinction, such as the marine creature with short stingray like wings, five eyes and an elephant like trunk in front with a claw on the end. What’s mysterious about that time in evolutionary history is that the organisms preserved in a very rare few places were of soft bodied, very hard to preserve organisms that nonetheless were preserved. The even larger mystery: why no record between the single celled world before 530 million BC? Just no opportunities to preserve soft bodied multi-cellular creatures and that out-bursting swarm of newly designed soft bodied multi-cellular critters ?
But Lynn Margulis’ theory may lead us to a better understanding how a super fast forward in designs might have come about – specifically in many forms of symbiosis – after which maybe Darwin’s perceived as highly competitive “struggle for survival” and “survival of the fittest” kicks in with further refinements and another selection means besides what Margulis proposed. In her own words quoted in her obituary in the alumni magazine of Boston University where she worked for 22 years as a researcher and teacher, “Long-term symbiosis can lead to new organs, new tissues, new behaviors… Symbiogenesis is and evolutionary relationship. It’s symbiosis over time, such that a new feature can be recognized as a product of that symbiosis.”
Chart on the wall… And what’s God got to do with it?
Back to the genetic chart in my hotel lobby wall. You can barely see the tiny demarcations on the long, long strings of genes on the chromosomes, in their bright colors. One glance and even beginning to understand that cells could amplify their complexity in the way of compromise and cooperate, adding to the competition for survival that Darwin identified, it seems incomprehensible how such a stunningly complex string of chemicals could come together and be passed down preserved from generation to generation, even if given billions of years to work out the bugs. Certainly random mutation seems like a weak explanation of what must have happened and in fact is still happening afresh. There must be some interrelation between the organisms and them and their environment at play here that we don’t yet understand or that is intrinsically an irreducible we can never know. Maybe there was some symbiosis not only between cells and later organisms but also between life and environment – another arena Margulis was involved in thinking through joining with James Lovlock in their Gaia theory of life and planet engaged in the evolutionary dance together, each modifying one another and regulating the total environment to further a health pattern of evolution. But that adds another layer to the story I’m not going to deal with here.
Looking at the human genome chart on the wall I suddenly find myself looking for an explanation that seems to put far more order into what I’m seeing than looks possible by Darwin’s random selection in a competitive ecological world – “survival of the fittest” – plus Margulis’s speedy complexification magnifying cooperation by mutually beneficial combination – survival of the most cooperative on a cellular level? I can see why people of various religious faiths would be tempted to say there must be some sort of intelligent design behind such a phenomenon. Summonsing our best efforts at analogy, as many tend to see themselves identified with God in God’s creativity, or his human form or, with the ancient gods, their human jealousies and revenge, passion and powerful sexual fecundity and so on, we can see our own powers of creativity and design to be as close an analogy as we might be able to summons to get something of a grip on what confronts us in the appearance in this universe of something as complex yet common as the genetic make up of each of us billions of people.
If you want to see just how fantastic that chart of the human genome is check out this site: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/291/5507/1304/suppl/DC2
The chart itself covering a large swath of any wall is even much more impressive. (I haven’t yet figured out how to get a copy.)
My own thought on it all is that what ever is going on is way beyond anything explained adequately by our much more ham fisted efforts and design, intelligent or otherwise since so many prototype designs fail or work very poorly in any case. We see that capacity – the ability to design – as one of the most important powers we humans have and I certainly agree with that. But the comparison, tempting as it is, and giving full respect where it is due to the creative intelligent design process itself, something is going on in this set of physical transformations called evolution that makes creativity and intelligence rudimentary in deed in comparison. We complement ourselves using yet another analogy so we can identify with something powerful and mysterious.
So what is it? What is the key to the unfolding of such intense complexity, the whatever it is that has given us the genetic material that exists in slow changing but continuity of life itself, one offspring organism after another parent organism, in these delicate tissues that outlive diamonds, steel, any thing made of gold and longer lasting as organized information than even whole faster-burning stars? This may remain a permanent unknown, as some have given the word God to the unknowable at the heart of things (in using “heart” even here resorting to another analogy with ourselves). We can describe the way gravity works in a mathematical formula and we really do understand it a little better. But really describe how it works to hold whole swirling galaxies together? Why in that particular way? Both the ultimate “how” and the even more human desire represented by “why” may be just what ultimately we will have to summons as acceptance and that’s all we well will get of final answers.
Map of China with the SEZs (Special Economic Zones) shown, looking something like the invasion of eukaryotic cells by the bacteria that will later evolve into organelles within the larger cell.
The prosaic Margulis and the communist/capitalist union
But there are more prosaic answers for us, perhaps, in Lynn Margulis’ intellectual construct which seems to be a discovery of higher life’s literal construct and that has to do with economics and the engines of power in economics and our lives as biological creatures in the world of ecology, the biosphere, and the biosphere’s relationship to the whole planet. Take the country of China, centrally planned Communism in theory but hosting – just like the larger complex cells – “organelles” of capitalism adding energy like the chloroplasts or burning energy like the mitochondia and representing a new kind of economic cooperation capable of rising 300 million people out of poverty in fifteen or twenty years.
Initially the port cities of China were crammed down Chinese throats in the 1800s. They were the concession cities of the Western Powers founded to exploit China and even addict it to opium at the point of a thousand guns for even more lucrative exploitation endorsed by no less than Queen Victoria and Presidents and businessmen of the USA. At the heart of this process was the concession port cities, the physical bodies of the invading organelles. Somehow the Chinese “host cell” the enormous third largest country by land area in the world (after Russia and Canada and just a little larger than the US) and the largest in the world by population, has transformed these one-time parasitic invaders to become new sources of power, to set up shop to produce computer screens, plastic toys, solar electric panels and toilet seat covers to the world. Initially they were called Special Economic Zones, SEZs and said to be “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” They are now where the industry that left the West went, the new workshops of the world and the host cell of which they are part is the fastest rising power, with all its warts and wonders, in the world.
Can we, like the rest of the organisms of planet Earth before us and around us, find the success of eukaryotic cells and China, and join the world of ecologically healthy evolution? Can we find acceptance of the unknown and submit ourselves to the discipline of both cooperation and competition that seems to be at the heart of evolution and at least one kind of thriving economy?
Richard Register is President of Ecocity Builders and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org