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Society & Ecology
Sunday, September 07, 2003  
Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis, one of my favorite scientists, was interviewed on NRK recently. She is the main (nearly the only?) proponent of the importance of symbiogenesis in evolution of life.

Symbiogenesis is the emergence of a new species through the combination (symbiogenesis) of two other species. The cells in all plants and animals have evolved through symbiogensis (this is one of Margulis' theories that met immense resistance when it was first launched, and today is widely accepted).

I thought the program did a good job in explaining symbiogenesis, and in emphasizing that it does not replace natural selection in explaining evolution. Symbiogenesis explains the emergence of some species, while natural selection explains the continuation (or not) of the species. The question - and here is where Margulis' views differ from that of most of biologists - is how important and frequent symbiogenesis is. How many species, and which ones, have evolved through symbiogenesis. Is it as common as she says, or infrequent - an aberration - as others assume. One thing is for certain, none of us would be here was it not for symbiogenesis. All life we see around us is the direct consequence of symbiogenesis (all eukaryotic cells originated through symbiogenesis). It cannot be seen as an aberration.

The program also mentioned the other main theory promoted by Margulis: The Gaia theory - the Earth seen as a living system.

Again, there is a general agreement that the Earth is indeed a living system. It is, after all, a seamless whole, and it is undeniably living. And again, the disagreement is to what extent and how (processes, mechanisms). Is it self-organizing (self-regulating)? Is it self-transcending (evolving)? Is it self-healing? I believe that all the data points to a "yes" to all those questions. The Gaia Theory does fulfull most or all commonly used criteria used to define a living system. It is just difficult for us, still living in an outdated reductionistic and mechanistic worldview, to accept the idea. It is also difficult for us as it is so much larger than us - we are just one small part of it. (Note that the Gaia theory says that Earth is a living system, not living organism).

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