We recently heard Lynn Margulis interviewed on another BBC radio program we like, Best of Natural History, in an episode that aired last summer (and which is apparently no longer linkable). Lynn Margulis is a well-known microbiologist and evolutionary thinker at the University of Massachusetts, now spending a year at Oxford. Listening to the show, we realized that we share a lot of similar ideas about cooperation vs. competition in life. We've blogged about cooperation here before (here and here), and it's an important theme in our book, The Mermaid's Tale, but we realized we didn't cite her enough in the book and we want to make amends here for that.
We gave our book the subtitle, Four Billion Years of Cooperation in the Making of Living Things, to stress the fundamental nature of cooperation in life. In the book we explain at length how intense, vital cooperation is found at all levels of life from genomes on up. We contrast that with the current prevalence, if not obsession, with competition as the core of life. Margulis is one of many, including ourselves, who have noted the anthropological fact that science is shaped to and by its cultural context in many ways and in that sense is less purely 'objective' than we may like to think. In this case, the idea is that Darwin's ideas fit a monarchical, commercial, capitalistic world.
Margulis is a microbiologist who has worked extensively with symbiosis, and she sees it as central to life. She focuses on the microbial world, and notes that the cell itself is a composite of what were formerly independent cells or units that have merged horizontally, that is, by fusing rather than evolving through parent-offspring descent.
She emphasizes, as we do, that when life depends on multiple factors interacting successfully, that is more important on a day to day basis, by far, than long-term evolutionary competition. On the radio program, clips from Richard Dawkins were contrasted with her statements. He, of course, has long stressed the importance of competition in life, and in evolution. These two views are often seen as incompatible: either life is about cooperation or it's about competition: someone has to be wrong! But that contrast is what's wrong. Of course there is 'competition' in the sense of differential proliferation of genes and cells and the like. But selection is elusive, and a major point of the latter chapters of our book is to discuss some of the reasons that this is so. We believe that cooperation is primary and constrains selective evolution. But that's a subject for another post -- or a book.
Margulis is perhaps best-known for her association with the idea of Gaia, that life is itself part of a global system that functions as a system rather than, as she put it in the interview, as just a pile of independent rocks. Gaia has been taken, or perhaps taken over, by many in the non-science public as a kind of super holism, and has been criticized heavily by some scientists as being at best not helpful or trivially obvious, and at worst a kind of mysticism.
Margulis makes many good arguments in her interview. But she hasn't been hiding her light under a barrel, and is long and well-published in this area. Her views are widely available. But we wanted to write this post because our ideas in The Mermaid's Tale are very similar in many ways, and while we developed our ideas independently, we should have been more informed about her work and given her more credit for these similar ideas. We did cite major work of hers in our brief annotated bibliography; but our annotation focused on work in the Gaia context rather than the quite broad similarity of viewpoint we share in relation to evolution generally. We'd like to make up for our book's citation shortcomings in the small way of this post.