Passion, poetry and … biology

Lynn Margulis The Symbiotic Planet:
A New Look at Evolution

Basic Books 1998

I’m a sucker for popular science books. As a minor member of one of C P Snow’s Two Cultures, I am respectful of but in no way conversant with the scientific mind (and even less so with technology), so popular science writings are my way of consuming regurgitated scientific principles without too much indigestion. (Too many mixed metaphors, methinks.)

Lynn Margulis is a celebrated microbiologist who has, by all accounts, done sterling work on the relationships between bacteria, fungi, plants and animals. Her main contribution to science is her endosymbiotic theory, which postulates that over millions of years organisms have often absorbed or been absorbed by others, developing and evolving into new organisms (I think I have that right). For example, human cells have long been known to include bacterial relics such as mitochondria, which among other attributes process oxygen and provide the energy that keeps us going, and without which we would certainly not have evolved to be here.

The Symbiotic Planet goes further than that however and suggests links with James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. Gaia, so beloved by some mystics, feminists and romantics, is actually the name currently given to the processes that help to regulate the planetary eco-systems that sustain life in its myriad forms, not some anthropomorphised goddess that needs worshipping (as would have happened in the classical period).

There are lots of exciting ideas here, the distillation of many years of work, collaboration and stamina, and I certainly am in no position to criticise the science behind them. Her writing at times exhibits passion and poetry, and you can see that she is a real powerhouse of a woman who converses and argues with other scientists (inter alia she was married to Carl Sagan for nearly a decade) to expand horizons and perpectives.

What I am less happy about in this book, though, is its poor editing and occasional lack of clarity and direction. Many of her other books are co-authored (often with one of her sons) and I feel that this publication could have done with more imput from other minds. We have a whole chapter on her early career which, while interesting, diverts from the main thrust of her arguments. There are fine diagrams, but they are often placed arbitrarily amongst the pages and labelled inconsistently when compared one with another. There is an index, but we non-scientists, at whom the book must largely be aimed, would have welcomed a glossary when new terms are introduced (though to be fair these are sometimes partly explained a few pages on, but sometimes not at all). And there are occasional misspellings (an obvious one is ‘archaebacteria’, appearing twice on one page as ‘archeabacteria’, which raises concerns about those I must have missed).

Most of these faults must be laid at the door of an editor (was there one?), because there is no doubting the enthusiasm, expertise and creativity of the author, still evident many years on from the book’s original publication date. In fact, one of the plus-points of this book for me, as a non-scientist, was the analogy I can see with the creative arts: I’ve often suspected that it’s hard to create new art-forms de novo, and that most artistic innovation is the symbiosis of two or more distinct genres or disciplines. The Symbiotic Planet‘s arguments provide the perfect parallel for such fusions while discussing the evolution of life-forms, but of course raise different and certainly deeper questions.

Review first published in July 2012 and here slightly revised

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4 thoughts on “Passion, poetry and … biology

  1. I do so love these places where the creativity of the scientific mind is in evidence. And while I shall take your caveats with me, I feel I’m going to have to read this (I am SO late coming to it!). Thank you for a great evaluation, Chris.

    1. Glad you feel inspired to read this after my review! In spite of my caveats I aim to look out for her other books aimed at the non-specialist. I do find these ‘big ideas’ can be both uplifting and moving if they’re expressed well as well as with scientific authority.

  2. I get the impression that many of the arguments in this book will coincide surprisingly with conclusions I (with minimal scientific background) have been toying with. Pity about the editing shortcomings.

    1. First of all, good to hear from you, Col — hope your move went well and that you’re all settled in.

      Second, yes this was a fascinating book. Its general tenor felt right even if the technical bits were occasionally muddling for this bear of little brain.

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