Symbiotic Earth - A glorious film about Lynn Margulis

Enrico Fermi, one the pioneers of particle physics, wrote that in science “there are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis then you’ve made a discovery.” Biologist Lynn Margulis spent her life making discoveries by finding things contrary to the hypotheses of Neo-Darwinism, the set of views that evolution happens at the genetic rather than organismal level, a notion made popular by Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene. In challenging Neo-Darwinism, Margulis created a paradigm shift that's reverberating through the foundations of biology, and beyond.

A few nights ago I had the privilege of seeing a pre-release screening of a new documentary about her ideas on symbiosis and how they are revolutionizing our understanding of the origin and evolution of life. This splendid film gives us insights into Margulis’ prolific career; and into the woman, whose vitality explodes across the screen with the force of a slow-motion supernova. I was by no means the only person who came away feeling I’d just witnessed a fifth force of nature.

The film, Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis Rocked the Boat and Started a Scientific Revolution, due for release in 2018, was shown at the NOVA cinema in Melbourne in a special event organized by local sustainable building maven Daryl Taylor. Like Taylor, I’ve long been an admirer of Margulis, and her symbiosis framework helped to inspire my work on my Crochet Coral Reef project. Corals, of course, are prime examplars of interspecies entanglings and a beautiful case of Margulis’ view that critters from across different kingdoms of life can assist and sustain one another through interdependent relations.

It is a mark of Margulis’ brilliance that symbiosis no longer seems radical, or even a surprising concept – as Mark Twain noted, great ideas are always obvious once they’ve been accepted. But when I was starting my career as a science writer, biological thinking was so dominated by the Neo-Darwinist paradigm of gene-level competition that the slightest suggestion of anything approaching “co-operation” between organisms was viewed as romantic sentimentalism, a far worse sin to be accused of in science than “heresy,” which at least has the advantage of potent symbolic associations (Copernicus, Galileo and so on.) Dawkins’ “selfish gene” concept niftily encapsulated a philosophy, made orthodox in the 1940's, that evolution “really” happens at a chemical level, and that the “true” units of natural selection are not species or organisms but the “molecular machines” known as genes.

To all this Margulis voiced a quiet insistent No! From the late 1960’s on she churned out a stream of scientific papers and books arguing for a view of life in which organisms bond together symbiotically, in the process creating new kinds of organisms. According to Margulis, the very eukaryotic cells making up the basis of plant and animal life were formed from a symbiotic melding of simpler, more primitive bacteria.

In the late 1970’s gene sequencing began to prove her right. But resistance remained entrenched in many areas of the academy; so much so that during her life Margulis never received a grant from the National Science Foundation and many other foundations to whom she applied for funding. At one point feedback on a research proposal bluntly declared: “Your work is crap. Don’t bother applying again.” Despite the growing importance of her ideas and clear evidence for them she wasn’t awarded a MacArthur or a Nobel. At some point in the 2000’s rumors began to circulate she was in line for a Nobel, but tragically in 2011 (just as this film was getting under production), she suddenly died of a stroke, and science’s greatest honor can’t be granted posthumously.

I will restrain myself here from writing a long essay about the film and its goddess of a subject – Margulis was also the co-architect with James Lovelock of the Gaia theory of our biosphere – as I’d like to do fuller justice to both when the film launches next year. For the moment I want to make a few brief remarks about gender and science. Filmmaker John Feldman has astutely chosen not to include an overt discussion of this topic, opting instead to show us a powerful female mind at work, and it’s impossible not to be struck by the force of Margulis’ intellect and will, a quality we are so used to seeing in men and are so rarely exposed to in public representations of women. Yet at this moment in 2017 when the subject of women and science is so much on the international radar it would be a lost opportunity not to say something.

One of the few allusions to Margulis’ gender in the film is a brief reference regarding her early marriage to astronomer Carl Sagan, and their son Dorion Sagan’s gently strained on-camera comment about his father being a “typical 1950’s husband” who expected his wife to be at home taking care of the housework and the kids, but that she too “had huge ambitions.” It’s a delicate moment for lovers of science as Sagan is revered in contemporary science communication, yet his fame makes her achievements all the more amazing. How did she break free – and break through – to such a degree?

The following comment isn’t included in the film, however Margulis (who had two husbands) once said: “I left my job as a wife twice. It’s not humanly possible to be a good wife, a good mother and a first-class scientist. Something has to give.” That she exhibits not a shred of anger or regret, during this two-and-a-half hour epic, about the challenges she faced as a woman – or as a wildly original thinker – and radiates to all around a luminous sense of generosity, is a capstone of appealingness on an already wonderful life.


The same day the film screened in Melbourne, a long interview appeared in Quanta Magazine with physicist Nigel Goldenfeld, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute for Universal Biology, who is using principles from physics to study the emergence and evolution of life. Throughout the interview Goldenfeld talks about concepts Margulis championed. He stresses the need for biologists to get over the “modern synthesis of biology,” the formal term for Neo-Darwinism. Goldenfeld notes the limitations of gene-level determinism and argues that life evolved from primitive, pre-nucleic cells through gene transfer, a process central to Margulis’ later thinking. Though he doesn’t mention Margulis by name, the spirit of her work shines through his discussion; and again it's a mark of her brilliance that ideas she once championed against the mainstream are now being taken up leaders of an emerging mainstream alliance between physics and biology.