Thank You Dr. Margulis

Posted by: Sara on Wednesday, November 30, 2011.



Jennifer Margulis, my brilliant, funny, demanding, cheerleading, writing coach and editor (who would hate this opening sentence because there are way too many adjectives; “Show don’t tell!” she’d admonish) is a published author and expert on Mothering. When she first read and critiqued my manuscripts on ecological sustainability, I was surprised by how knowledgeable this woman with a PhD in English Lit was on the sciences of the natural environment.

“Oh,” she said casually, “I learned a lot from my step-Dad, Carl Sagan.”

Then the significance of her last name hit me.

“Margulis, your mom is Lynn Margulis the author of the Gaia theory?!”


Lynn Margulis, a rock star in my world. The Gaia theory which she, an acclaimed professor of Micro-biology, co-articulated with the scientist James Lovelock makes the radical claim that the Earth is not just a bunch of dead rock, but is a living, breathing organism in and of itself. Inspiring scores of champions for the Earth with this insight. When Gaia is alive, the original commandments “Thou shalt not kill, and “Honor thy Mother,” take on a whole new meaning.



Margulis was also considered radical for her challenge to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Where Darwin saw a dog-eat-dog world of brutal competition where only the fittest survive, Margulis – a National Science Award winning microbiologist -- described a completely different scenario. Microorganisms evolved over billions of years through symbiotic, co-creative partnership. It turns out interdependence, not competition is the rule of law.

Here’s how the New York Times described Dr. Margulis’ insights this week:
(Beyond Darwinian theories of Evolution,)  Dr. Margulis argued that a more important mechanism was symbiosis; that is, evolution is a function of organisms that are mutually beneficial growing together to become one and reproducing.
And if you’re like me, and are tempted to give up when your radical ideas are dismissed, catch this:
The manuscript in which Dr. Margulis first presented her findings was rejected by 15 journals before being published in 1967 .  . . A revised version, “Symbiosis in Cell Evolution,” followed in 1981, and though it challenged the presumptions of many prominent scientists, it has since become accepted evolutionary doctrine.
Here’s the lesson: go out on a limb, challenge contemporary dogma, get dismissed for a couple of decades and then find your work celebrated as the accepted standard in the field.

Dr. Margulis died this week, too young at 73. She’d been teaching down the road for the last couple of decades at the University of Massachusetts. As a UMass alum, I was proud that she was “one of ours” and thought I’d meet her some day, take a class, inquire more deeply into her theory, bask in her wisdom. I’m sorry now that I never did. We never know how much time we have with.

I imagine Margulis enjoying the next world now, with another celebrated mentor or ours, Donella Meadows. They are toasting each other, smiling and cheering us on. These two courageous, visionary, smart, impeccably-credentialed, spokes-women for life, (Jennifer’s got the red pen out big time at that sentence) who dared to risk their reputations and careers to name what they knew was right and just, even though it veered sharply away from conventional wisdom. They inspire me to do the same.

Though Lynn is gone, her daughter Jennifer is still very much alive. With her focus on the written word, Jennifer seems to have strayed from the family business of science, yet I experience Lynn’s feisty, “To hell with conventional wisdom, tell the truth,” voice live on in her with joyful abandon. Perhaps in the best spirit of her mother, Jennifer’s blesses me with a loving, generous, firm, push to get my GAIA-inspired radical writing voice out there too. In gratitude for Jennifer and in honor of the memory of Lynn Margulis, I commit to do just that.

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