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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Think you're better than pond scum? More evolved than household germs? Do you imagine a future in which technology triumphs over nature? Think again. In Symbiotic Planet, scientific rebel Lynn Margulis urges us to reconsider our lowly view of bacteria.
Margulis, now a distinguished professor in the department of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, has always had a rebellious streak. At 13, she ran away from her advanced laboratory school, and without informing her parents or school administrators, enrolled herself in a rowdy public school where she "enjoyed a far wider choice of boyfriends." Despite the uproar when parents and school administrators discovered her misdeed, she was accomplished enough to enter the University of Chicago at the very young age of 14. It was there that she fell in love with a "tall, handsome, exceedingly articulate" physics graduate student. His name was Carl Sagan. At 19, she received a B.A. and married the soon-to-be-famous astronomer but did not abandon her own love of science. "Although I was twenty-two years old, and already a mother of two persistently active boys, my enthusiasm for pursuing cell genetics and evolution overwhelmed any thoughts of becoming a full-time housewife." Once more, she rebelled, opting out of "whiskey and cigarettes, poker and bridge, gossip and golf" and immersing herself in "babies, mud, trees, fossils, puppies and microbes."
While in graduate school at the University of California, she set out to prove an "unsettling" thesis: "All life forms today arose from a single bacterium over3,000million years ago. We evolved from the first bacteria, not from apes or the hand of God."
Her theory, entitled SET (serial endosymbiosis theory), laid out the series of mergers that led to multicellular life forms. Initially labeled radical and extreme by leaders in the scientific community, it is now taught as truth in college and high school textbooks.
Yet our sense of "species superiority" still persists; we still believe that yeast, algae, and bacteria are beneath us, little more than "disease germs." Margulis finds this bias particularly troubling when it comes to popular culture's take on the future of the earth.
For example, she finds "Star Trek" to be "tasteless" and "hideous." "If people ever journey into outer space, the endeavor will never be as machinate and barren" as it is for Captain Kirk and crew. Symbiosis in space will create millions of new life forms beyond and inside our own skin — forms far more independent and strong than humans bearing phasers.
Similarly, Margulis takes issue with the recent upsurge of interest in Gaia. She agrees with the scientific belief that the regulated surface of a living earth creates new environments and organisms but is disturbed by the personification of the planet as a tender goddess. Gaia is not a damsel in distress; she is a "tough bitch, not at all threatened by humans." As we move into a new millennium, Margulis cautions us to consider how our careful environmental concerns might merely be hubris. "The human move to take responsibility for the living Earth is laughable. The planet takes care of us, not we of it. Our self-inflated moral imperative to guide a wayward Earth or heal our sick planet is evidence of our immense capacity for self-delusion."
In clear, convincing prose, Margulis shows how nonhuman life survived long before us and will survive long after. This book will appeal to both science novices and experts, for like the best professors, Margulis is not only passionate and engaged but constantly provoking and challenging us to see the world in a new light.
Margot Towne is a freelance writer living in New York City.