Evolutionary Biologist Lynn Margulis on the Spirituality of Science and the Interconnectedness of Life Across Time, Space, and Species
By Maria Popova
“Our origins are of the earth,” marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote in contemplating science and our spiritual bond with nature. “And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.” In the same era, the anthropologist, philosopher of science, and poet Loren Eiseley — a great admirer of Carson’s — offered a consonant sentiment in his lovely meditation on reclaiming our sense of the miraculous in a mechanical age: “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”
The biological, geological, and ecological nature of that miracle is what evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis (March 5, 1938–November 22, 2011) reflects on a generation later in a passage from Jonathan White’s wonderful interview collection Talking on the Water: Conversations about Nature and Creativity (public library), which also gave us Ursula K. Le Guin on art, storytelling, and the power of language to transform and redeem.
Margulis is known as the co-creator of the Gaia hypothesis, which holds that all life interacts with its inorganic environment to form a complex, self-regulating, symbiotic system responsible for sustaining and propagating life on Earth. Through the Gaia lens, Margulis considers the intricate interleaving of life across time and space:
The past is all around us. Darwin’s biggest contribution was to show us that all individual organisms are connected through time. It doesn’t matter whether you compare kangaroos, bacteria, humans, or salamanders, we all have incredible chemical similarities…. [The pioneering Russian geochemist Vladimir] Vernadsky showed us that organisms are not only connected through time but also through space. The carbon dioxide we exhale as a waste product becomes the life-giving force for a plant; in turn, the oxygen waste of a plant gives us life. This exchange of gas is what the word spirit means. Spirituality is essentially the act of breathing. But the connection doesn’t stop at the exchange of gases in the atmosphere. We are also physically connected, and you can see evidence of this everywhere you look. Think of the protists that live in the hind-gut of the termite, or the fungi that live in the rootstock of trees and plants. The birds that flitter from tree to tree transport fungi spores throughout the environment. Their droppings host a community of insects and microorganisms. When rain falls on the droppings, spores are splashed back up on the tree, creating pockets for life to begin to grow again. This interdependence is an inexorable fact of life.
Two centuries after the polymathic naturalist Alexander von Humboldt insisted that “in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation,” Margulis adds:
The fact that we are connected through space and time shows that life is a unitary phenomenon, no matter how we express that fact. We are not one living organism, but we constitute a single ecosystem with many differentiated parts. I don’t see this as a contradiction, because parts and wholes are nestled in each other.
Complement this particular portion of Talking on the Water with Terry Tempest Williams on our responsibility to the web of life, then revisit Carl Sagan, to whom Margulis was once married, on how chemistry illuminates our belonging to the universe.
Published April 19, 2018