There’s a particular species or subspecies of reading in which you see a name or text referenced so many times you think you’ve actually read it. For a long time this was my experience of Lynn Margulis; in texts that had little to do with cell biology I kept coming across ‘symbiosis’ or ‘symbiogenesis’ with Margulis cited in the footnote, and I would internally salute those words, not really thinking but acting as though – through sheer accumulation – I had vicariously absorbed or understood their contents.
That, and I was also intimidated by making the jump from my humanities bubble to engage with a scientific text directly. But when I eventually sat down to read Margulis for myself, beginning with Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution, I realised a) there’s no substitute for reading her directly, b) that it was actually – who knew – hugely pleasurable, c) why so many writers and thinkers from different disciplines were so keen to cite her and d) that her theory (now proved) of symbiogenesis is paradigm shifting.
Symbiotic Planet describes symbiogenesis as ‘the formation of new organs and organisms through symbiotic mergers . . . All organisms large enough for us to see are composed of once independent microbes, teamed up to become larger wholes. As they merged, many lost what we in retrospect recognize as their former individuality.’ An immediate example is the mitochondria that exist in all animal cells, responsible for converting food into usable energy. In the 1960s, Margulis noticed that these organelles bore a resemblance to certain free-living bacteria, and hypothesised that through a series of symbiotic mergers (one bacterium engulfing another) they were incorporated into what we now know as animal cells.
This means that we are all mutants – hybrids of different life forms that joined together to create what Margulis refers to as a kind of ‘baroque edifice’. Many scientists were furiously opposed to Margulis’s theories because they seemed to threaten the sanctity of Darwinian evolution and its vertical, heritable, linear model of change and adaptation. By comparison, symbiogenesis is horizontal and anarchic, a frenzy of illicit fusions and mergers – energies coming together for mutual benefit. It foregrounds co-operation and collaboration as primary forces in evolution – cells working together, joining with a new organism to pool their abilities – as opposed to the ruthless, ‘survival of the fittest’ (mis)interpretation of Darwin that has become an apologist metaphor for capital and meritocratic individualism.
Part of Margulis’s popularity is due to her being unafraid of applying – or encouraging others to apply – symbiogenetic principles to human society and politics, highlighting how collaboration can eclipse competition as the impetus for change. I also find symbiogenesis invaluable for thinking about language and poetics. Darwin once compared languages to species, in that once a certain language or species has gone extinct, it will never appear again. The poet Eleni Sikelianos has described symbiogenesis as the ‘biological counterpart’ to Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation – a mode which rejects the access to origins – ancestral or etymological – as ultimate value. Instead of a linear progression from an origin, Glissant articulates an horizontal, co-constitutive ‘language of the related’.
Symbiogenesis as a poetics of relation is good news for anyone that doesn’t have an easy relation to the notion of origins. In Symbiotic Planet, symbiogenesis is scaled up to consider its compatibility with Gaia – the globe as a metabolic organism. The picture it paints is tentatively hopeful: a world full of fusions just waiting to happen.
Image © Bryan Jones