Think of Copernicus and Galileo. We were the center of the solar system and then those guys said we weren’t. They were right, but it wasn’t easy. Now think of biologist Lynn Margulis. We thought we evolved through random mutation, survival of the fittest, an individual’s DNA. Then she said we didn’t. She was right; and although no one could burn a modern genius at the stake for insisting on her findings, torching a scientist’s funding is still pretty nasty.
But she persisted. Biologist Lynn Margulis gave us a new way to look at life—and perhaps, a new way to live it. She showed life doesn’t evolve just through random DNA mistakes and competition. Instead, interdependence is the key. Cells are the baseline—not “selfish” genes. Loops and new relationships replace linear branches of life. Nothing is an individual: everything is a community. Every living thing is conscious of its surroundings.
Evolution geographer James MacAllister was Lynn Margulis’s graduate student, friend, swimming buddy, and assistant for 10 years, until her sudden death in 2011. He created animations of many of her discoveries, was her teaching assistant, and continues to digitize and represent her research.
I met Jim at his home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where we talked about:
- Old-school evolution thinking based on random DNA mistakes and competition (aka the Modern Synthesis or neo-Darwinism. Richard Dawkins, a neo-Darwinist, who often sparred with Lynn Margulis, once called her “Attila the Hen.”)
- Lynn’s radically different view on how life evolves (aka symbiosis, biological relativity, systems biology)
- How the Modern Synthesis doesn’t do justice to the microbiome
- How DNA is like a bundt pan
- The often-bumpy road to shifts in scientific thinking
- How Lynn and James Lovelock collaborated on Gaia Theory
- How this view of evolution could change our outlook on life
Keep an eye out for this new film, Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis Rocked the Boat and Started a Scientific Revolution. You can watch the trailer at http://hummingbirdfilms.com/symbioticearth/
Jim MacAllister’s Environmental Evolution newsletter http://www.envevo.org/environmentalevolution.org/Home.html
Music in this episode is “Always Be” by the Colin L. Orchestra, from Live at WNYU, used via a Creative Commons license.