Farewell to a Brilliant Earth Mother
I’m sitting here in a surf café in Cocoa Beach Florida, taking a break from briefings for the impending launch of the Curiosity Mars rover and trying to wrap my head around the news of the sudden death of Lynn Margulis. I wish I had more time to gather these thoughts, but I’m trying to write this before my laptop runs out of juice and goes dark. All around me videos of youthful surfers endlessly riding perfect walls of water are cleverly looped so that they never hit the beach. But though life often seems to flout it, in the real world the second law of thermodynamics rules. We each only get one short ride. Lynn’s was truly magnificent.
You could certainly describe her as a giant of modern biology but she is (was?!?) one of the greatest natural philosophers of our time. I use this archaic term to refer to a time before science was so neatly compartmentalized and departmentalized, when those who worked on what we now call biology and geology also grappled with the deepest questions of ontology and epistemology – with the meaning of life. Some say it’s harder than it used to be to know enough to see beyond these trenches. Yet the no-man’s (or woman’s) land between disciplines must be braved in order to engage the deepest problems of our existence. Lynn Margulis was that rare scientist who did data-driven work that changed the way we think about profound philosophical questions.
Everyone knows, or thinks they know, about the Gaia hypothesis which Dr. Margulis formulated, along with James Lovelock, in the 1970s. In wrestling with the puzzles posed by NASA’s first effort to design experiments to detect life on Mars, they proposed that we should focus not on finding organisms, but on the perhaps more obvious signs of what life does to its environment. In exploring the nature of that relationship they realized that the distinction between the “living” and “nonliving” parts of Earth are not as clear-cut as we might have thought. By focusing on the organismal qualities of Earth’s biosphere, and recognizing a kind of global creature they named Gaia, Lynn provided one of many insights that challenged our notions about the relationship between animate and inanimate, and between the parts and whole of living systems ranging in scale from planets to the organelles that band together to make up cells.
In doggedly pursuing unpopular ideas that turned out to be right, she turned our notions of evolution inside out. Her theory of endosymbiosis, controversial at first and now enshrined in biology textbooks, showed that radical cooperation is just as potent a force of evolution as deathly competition. Survival of the fittest still applies, but sometimes the fittest are those assemblages of organisms who creatively band together to form new individuals.
Margulis, champion of the smallest and largest (super)organisms was also, in her own way, quite the Earth mother. She was an increasingly active and engaged Mom to four gifted children and a gaggle of beloved grandchildren. Her son Dorion Sagan, an accomplished science writer (also, I would say, a natural philosopher), became her long-time collaborator on several clever and important books that dazzle with literary and scientific brilliance.
I had the pleasure of knowing Lynn for most of my life. Both Dorion and I had parents involved in the Bostonian scientific community, and we became fast friends at an early age, so I also got to experience some of Lynn’s style of mind-nurturing. She was awfully busy, and not always around, but occasional outings to places like science museums were thrilling. She spoke to kids as if they could understand adult concepts, which they generally can, and I still remember puzzling over something she said about metabolism when I was, oh probably 10.
Later I learned how actively she mentored scores of grad students. Now a vast army of her former students, many of whom also consider her an invaluable friend, populates the halls of biology and exobiology.
As a grad student I attended the AGU Chapman Conference on the Gaia Hypothesis in April 1988, where Margulis and Lovelock’s theory enjoyed its most mainstream debate up to that time. Lynn, typically, had a flock of students with her and, in between lectures, panel discussions and interviews with Mexican TV stations, she also made sure we all got fed.
Recently, at NASA’s celebration of the first 50 years of exobiology, Lynn was honored as a founding mother of the field. And I can’t help but notice the auspicious timing of her leaving this Earth days before the most sophisticated spacecraft ever sent to search for habitable environments on Mars.
Did Gaia ever have a little brother on Mars? Lynn believed that Mars is dead. The gaian perspective notes that Mars is lacking the flagrant signs of atmospheric disequilibrium that Gaia brings to Earth. Now, there is controversial evidence for wisps of methane gas, which just might be a life-sign, but only if life doesn’t need to evolve into, and remain, a dominant planet-altering beast as it has on Earth. Is the Martian version of Gaia slumbering underground? Was it stillborn? Or did it die young when, despite its best effort to wrest control of Mars for its biosphere, the planet became too cold, dry and geologically senescent to support a Martian Gaia? With these questions we, the eyes of the world, the young hands of Gaia, continue Lynn’s quest to understand planetary biology.
Our global mind, our noosphere, has lost one dazzling neuron which, during its time, sparked great thoughts that linger. She would be the first to tell you that one person matters little and that anyway humans are not the masters of this Earth that we think we are – it’s the microbes, stupid. They run everything and they will persist long after the Earth coughs up the hairball that is arrogant humanity. But Lynn Margulis, who taught us so much about life, also mattered greatly to those whom she loved, inspired, mentored, and mothered.
Throughout her long and distinguished career, she challenged us to re-think our cozy established ideas, definitions, narratives and categories of living things. And she changed the way we see life, evolution, our planet, ourselves.