Saturday, January 28, 2012


Notwithstanding Chris Matthew's comments this week referring to Republicans who believe in Creationism as "Troglodytes" (a view with which I share some sympathy) the arguments waged between biologists about the true nature of evolutionary processes are vastly more intriguing (and relevant) than the abstract arguments between science and religion. In some ways the disputes between biologists resemble the friction between religious factions, but in more important ways they represent the very manner in which science progresses toward new conclusions, which then lead to new discoveries and new arguments, ad infinitum. 

One of the most important arguments being waged is between the selfish gene theories of neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and theories of symbiogenesis pioneered by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock. It is important because it challenges scientists to think beyond the conventional linear boundaries of simple cause and effect and to embrace much wider possibilities of complex systems involving interactions on a multitude of levels where cause and effect become so enmeshed as to be indistinguishable. This view requires that our approach to knowledge comes against traditional boundaries between disciplines and thus it has met resistance from those who hold those boundaries sacred.

A recent essay discussing the life and work of Lynn Margulis appears in the Lindisfarne Cafe section of The Wild Rivers Review. An eminent biologist and wife of the late Carl Sagan, her theories and experiments into the mysteries of life's origins challenge the conventional views of natural selection. She died on November 22, 2011.

From the essay: 

Lean Forward, Stand Back:

The Worldview of Lynn Margulis (Scientist)

by Andre Khalil 
Many neo-Darwinist concerns circled nervously around words like “Gaia” and “cooperation” (which Margulis did not like to use). They were, perhaps rightly,concerned that these terms were ripe for religious appropriation. But Margulis herself was outspoken against such mishandling of her research. 
Some new-agers love to grasp symbiosis as signifying “altruism” between organisms. But it’s much more complex than that—there is something “in it” for every symbiont, just as a state beneficial in some way arises out of each symbiosis.  Terms like “altruism” had no scientific value, because they are too single-minded to describe the phenomenon.
New age thinkers also use Gaia as a blanket term. They’ve appropriated it to mean that the Earth is a living organism. Or they refer to Gaia as a “goddess.” This turns Gaia into a sort of Stepford planet by containing its complexity in a simple and inadequate metaphor. This no more grasps reality than “selfishness” does our genes.
Margulis expressed her solution to the error once by saying, “Gaia is not merelyan organism.”
The Earth is beyond stale conception. It is more magnificent and active than we can imagine. Gaia is object and process. Gaia houses volcanos and every book, every word on volcanos ever written, and at the same time is those volcanos. It is where our greatest loves live, and where every human heartbeat has ever rhythmically pulsed.  In this new understanding, that something can pulse with life and yet be beyond our concepts of living, those concepts begin to change.
If Gaia is conscious, it possesses a consciousness of a different magnitude, probably of a different order all together.
Richard Dawkins and his pre-cursors like John Maynard Smith, as well as other neo-Darwinist thinkers, could not and cannot understand this lesson: this complexity is impossible to incorporate in a linear and reductive understanding.
Part of their failure lies in a misunderstood version of cause and effect that plagues science.  At a certain level of complexity, somewhere just above a billiard ball clanking into a another billiard ball, cause and effect begins to change its shape.  This change may be real—that is, it may actually shift in its laws and patterns in nature—or it may be imagined. In other words, it may demand a different sort of thinking.  Effectively it doesn’t matter, since we need to contend with the shift in our thinking. To encompass complex systems with our thinking, we must imagine a model that is less like “cause-effect” more like “being-manifestation.”  That is, multiple layers and numerous agents of forces unconsciously conspire together, and their conspiring is so intermingled, that it is simultaneously cause and effect, and thus beyond both.  For example, the being, or process of Gaia manifests itself as an unstable, constantly correcting level of oceanic salinity.  One cannot be said to cause the other, since the oceanic salinity interacts so deeply with the beings and environs from which it arises. Symbiosis and biological forms demand the same sort of thought.


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