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Remembering Lynn Margulis: An Evolutionary Eulogy

When renowned scientist Lynn Margulis died last November, she left behind a vibrant legacy. Her inspiring, innovative work on evolution touched scientists, environmentalists, and nature writers alike. This winter, Chelsea Green is publishing a book to celebrate her memory, filled with essays by her colleagues, collaborators, and other thinkers who were influenced by her work. Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel, will be available in mid-October. Foreword Reviews recently wrote,

“In this thoughtful and expertly curated collection, Margulis’s son and long-time collaborator, Dorion Sagan, calls her ‘indomitable Lynn.’ A fearless and zealous advocate of her theories who could also display a loving heart, he writes, ‘[H]er threat was not to people but to the evil done to the spirit by the entrenchment of unsupported views.’

In other essays, Margulis’s complex personality beguiles, frustrates, charms, and elevates various writers, resulting in a stunning portrait that no single remembrance could have captured. Luminaries throughout the scientific world share their memories of her bulldog attitude and scientific contributions, showing that although she’s gone, her work definitely still resonates and informs evolutionary biology and other fields.”

The article below was written by her son, Dorion Sagan. For more information, click here.

Grandma Lynnie is dead. But what is life? Where do we go when we die?

It’s a funny thing: Death is the opposite of life. But so is birth. Your birth continues the life of your parents—here Zach, Jenny, Robin, and Jeremy—just as your parents’ lives continued the life of their parents.

What does this mean? It means that life and death are not so simple.  Although a body may disappear, its form—with some changes—continues. We are one of the changed forms of our parents.

Your grandmother studied an organism—it may look like a plant, but it’s a bryozoan, an animal—named Pectinatella magnifica—in this very pond. It is a funny-looking, puffy creature that looks kind of like a brain on a stick. And she made a discovery: it lives with other organisms, purple bacteria I think, that help it grow. She was still working on this when she died.

When a caterpillar becomes a butterfly it changes, and when a butterfly lays its eggs, it changes again: We say the butterfly dies when the body that lays the eggs dies, but, if you think about it, the cycle goes on. We could say that the caterpillar dies and the butterfly is born.

Focusing on this idea, we could say that her body died, but part of her—you and me—has already been born again: not in a religious sense but as your bodies and minds, which don’t know as much as her yet, but do contain some of the same thoughts and feelings.

So we should not be so sad. You are not just a grown up who is twenty or thirty or forty years old, or a kid who is 8 or 9 or 10 or 11 or 12 years old. You are part of a collection of microbes, including symbiotic bacteria that joined forces—fast ones and slow ones, oxygen breathers and those that could live in the mud, green ones and transparent ones—billions of years ago. Life on Earth is 3.8 billion years old and it has not stopped reproducing since it started. You may disappear but you may also become part of a new form—not a ghost, but a grandchild.

She and I wrote about this in What is Life?. We tried to show that life is not just a thing, a body, but a process—and that looking at it this way was not make-believe, but scientific.

“‘What is life?‘ is a linguistic trap. To answer according to the rules of grammar, we must supply a noun, a thing. But life on Earth is more like a verb. It is a material process, surfing over matter like a strange slow wave. It is a controlled artistic chaos, a set of chemical reactions so staggeringly complex that more than 4 billion years ago it began a sojourn that now, in human form, composes love letters and uses silicon computers to calculate the temperature of matter at the birth of the universe.”

Your grandmother was so smart, talked so fast, and about so many subjects that hardly anybody—maybe even not she herself—could always understand everything she said.

She said: “Evolution is no linear family tree, but change in the single multidimensional being that has grown to cover the entire surface of Earth. ”

She said: “The idea that we are ‘stewards of the earth’ is another symptom of human arrogance. Imagine yourself with the task of overseeing your body’s physical processes. Do you understand the way it works well enough to keep all its systems in operation? Can you make your kidneys function? . . . Are you conscious of the blood flow through your arteries? . . . We are unconscious of most of our body’s processes, thank goodness, because we’d screw it up if we weren’t. The human body is so complex, with so many parts. . . The idea that we are consciously caretaking such a large and mysterious system is ludicrous.”

She said: ‘The notion of saving the planet has nothing to do with intellectual honesty or science. The fact is that the planet was here long before us and will be here long after us. The planet is running fine. What people are talking about is saving themselves and saving their middle-class lifestyles and saving their cash flow.”

She said: “We are walking communities. . . Of all the organisms on earth, only bacteria are individuals.”

By that she meant that we are not who we think, just animals, but also bacteria, and other microbes. These bacteria help us make vitamins, they live in and on our bodies, and, though they sometimes make us sick, they also come together to make new forms of life. The amoebas and Paramecia and Pectinatella that Grandma discovered in this pond, which she swam across every day this summer, are examples of such creatures that bring together bacteria and other kinds of life in their bodies. They are connected. So are you. We are connected not only to the beings inside us, but also to the beings outside us, of which we are a part. So remember this—and when you think of grandma gone and are sad, remember also that her body is going back to the water and the ground, and that her memory is now part of you, and you are part of her, and that in a sense she is not leaving us but coming back to us in another form.

Related Links:

Image Notes: 1. Lynn Margulis on November 13, 2011, just nine days before her passing on November 22, 2011, at Uxmal Pyramids, Yucatan, Mexico. (Photo credit: Amarella Eastmond.)

Dorion Sagan is a science writer, essayist, and theorist. He is author of numerous articles and twenty-three books translated into eleven languages, including Death and Sex, and Into the Cool, coauthored with Eric D. Schneider. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Book Review, Wired, and the Skeptical Inquirer. Look for Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel, an anthology of essays about the late Lynn Margulis, from scientists and philosophers around the world, due out this fall.

Article originally published by Seven Pillars Press.

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