Evolution Helps Those Who Help Their Selves

American biologist Lynn Margulis at work in a greenhouse, circa 1990. (Photo by Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images)
American biologist Lynn Margulis at work in a greenhouse, circa 1990. (Photo by Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images)

Right now you have a chance to help the late evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, one of the most important scientists the United States has ever produced, help us all a little bit. If you enjoyed Terrence Malick's film The Tree of Life, a bit of gossip is that Lynn offered her expertise in pre-Cambrian biology as a consultant for the movie, in return for help from Malick in rescuing a series of films in developmental biology, considered by Lynn and others to be a treasure of science but now fading and in dire need of digitization.

Malick and his assistant Nick Gonda did indeed help, but this only covered about half of the full series, and there is currently a Kickstarter campaign, begun by some assistants and friends of Lynn Margulis, to help save the rest, such that all the films will be preserved at the Library of Congress, as well as online for your enjoyment and edification. (The 38 films Malick helped Margulis with are now preserved at the Library of Congress.)

The National Science Foundation (NSF) spent the equivalent of about $8 million in today's dollars making these films, and it would only cost about $15,000 to digitize the remaining ones. Lynn noted that at least one Nobel Prize was awarded in part for discoveries based on phenomena first observed in these films. Let's explore why following Lynn's lead would be so worthwhile.


Just this past week the NSF issued a press release suggesting that the application of evolutionary principles could "help save our world," promoting a new paper (the full paper can be found here) published in Science, timed to be in sync with the upcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, and advocating the use of the emerging field of applied evolutionary biology to achieve sustainable development goals in the face of our Anthropocene dilemma.

This might already convince you of the importance I am suggesting. But right after the introduction, the paper states:

Evolution, defined as the change in genetic makeup of a population over successive generations, requires genetic variation, which arises from mutation and recombination. Most important for adaptation is genetic variation that affects variation in functional traits, such that alternate genotypes produce alternate phenotypes.

While perhaps an adequate definition for describing many temporally local changes observed in given populations, this is clearly not an adequate definition of evolution, and clearly not the evolutionary understanding we need to survive the vast "punctuated equilibrium" that the Anthropocene menaces us with. It is precisely what Lynn Margulis was so often fighting against, and the inherent problems in this thinking span from cellular structure (i.e., by those mechanisms alone the eukaryotic cell could never have evolved) to that of the planet: Richard Dawkins, one of the most vocal proponents of the neo-Darwinism this definition encapsulates, for decades made fun of the very idea of a self-regulating planet, although this concept is now foundational to all of Earth-system science (and see here), of which climate science forms one leg. Indeed, such errors remind us why Margulis' work will be so important if we do intend to survive.

The conclusion of the new Science paper wisely states, "Successful governance of living systems requires understanding evolutionary history as well as contemporary and future evolutionary dynamics." Yes, and that makes following the lead of Lynn Margulis all the more important, since, as The New York Times noted when she passed away a few years ago, Margulis transformed the study of evolution. Behind my whimsical title is the sense that one great problem for Anthropocene humans will be deciding what their "selves" are. With little question, the biologist who most radically challenged conventional notions of the self in modern times was Lynn Margulis, with her lifelong emphasis on the role of symbiosis in evolution, and recognition that all biological activity involves some degree of symbiosis (i.e., the "living together" and interactions of different species). Even Dawkins, who Margulis frequently criticized, acknowledged that her life's work on the symbiotic nature of eukaryotic cells was "one of the great achievements of twentieth century evolutionary biology."

The greatest weakness in the new Science paper and the NSF's claim of saving the world through such techniques is revealed in considering coming climate change. A week ago it was announced that CO2 rose by some 2.9 parts per million last year, placing us on the highest track of the most recent IPCC report's scenarios, and thus currently in line for something like 4 or more degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century, if we are foolish enough to continue on this path (and in the fine print of the new report, there are "Extended Concentration Pathways," or EPCs, suggesting that if we are that dumb, slower feedbacks plus continued emissions could make that swell beyond 12 degrees Celsius by 2300). Essentially, the kind of defensive measures proposed -- like intentionally planting non-native species in anticipation of coming climate change -- have little meaning in such dire scenarios and could only become important in what one might call "Anthropocene Light."

It is psychologically interesting that this paper, in promoting the importance of "applied evolution" for climate change, only considers its use to adapt to climate change, never to mitigate or avoid it. Margulis' view of evolution focused more on what might be called the "environmental agency" of organisms -- their capacity to adapt their environment, not just adapt to it. Only when and if such a view of evolution becomes more widely accepted does society seem likely to fight warming successfully -- with emissions changes and geoengineering mixed together judiciously, and humanity then adapting to the combined result.

These developmental biology films feature a great variety of microbial phenomena that tend to overturn conventional notions of neo-Darwinism. One of the films -- one that is unfortunately lost -- concerned an organism called Dictyostelium discoideum, an amazing critter that completely dashes our common sense of an organism: Under environmental stress, 100,000 individuals of this species come together to form a single new organism, and then this new slug shuffles off in search of a better environment for the next generation. It is safe to say that Lynn loved this little "Dicty," and, indeed, this is just the kind of model we need today. Indeed, some of us are hoping it might get realized, metaphorically speaking, this coming weekend here in New York City, with 100,000 converging as one in the People's Climate March.

While less grandiose than saving the world, saving the rest of these films will be saving a little bit of the inspiring microbial phenomena that make up our world, expertly recorded by us humans for the organized study that we call science. That's helping our truer selves, and if we keep doing that, perhaps evolution will help us.