Sciencewriters Archive

Impermanence: An Excerpt from Death & Sex

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

The following is an excerpt from Death & Sex by Tyler Volk and Dorion Sagan. It has been adapted for the Web.

(From Death by Tyler Volk.)

“Is this what it’s like to die?” I wondered. “Perhaps I really am dying.”

During the winter of 1996–1997, I had moved from New York City to a secluded place where I could concentrate on writing. The book in progress was about life and Earth, so a trailer perched a mile up in the mountains of a spectacular and remote corner of New Mexico seemed ideal. But the metal container nearly became my coffin.

The first signs seemed innocuous. The tip of my right thumb went numb. Then at odd moments electrical zings began shooting along my arm. A few weeks later I started waking at night with painful cramps in one hand or the other. Once I was jolted awake to find my toes in contorted positions and half my face feeling like a wooden mask. Next, my hands and feet started “falling asleep” in the middle of the day and would not wake.

Medical care was a problem. My regular New York doctor was thousands of miles away. The nearest town was across two mountain ranges, and its sole neurologist flew in but once a week, weather permitting. So initially I hoped that my troubles would just go away on their own. Then I happened upon what I thought must be the ultimate cause of my infirmities: poisoning from carbon monoxide, emitted from a wall-mounted propane oven that had been activated just that winter after years of disuse. With the help of a meter I purchased, I discovered that airborne molecules of the odorless, invisible, deadly gas had at times been accumulating halfway to levels that could cause death in four hours. While writing about the atmosphere’s CO2, I ironically had been oblivious to my growing exposure to a related airborne gas whose biochemical lethality derived from one less oxygen atom.

I immediately shut down the oven, of course. Yet even so, to my horror I kept having what my neurologist over the phone termed “relapses.” I grew more and more terrified as these “relapses” intensified. Soon I was barely able to write legibly. At night I found my mind trapped uncontrollably in inane obsessions. I imagined myself, for example, peeling an apple for hours, unable to cease or think of anything else. Coordination faltering, I had to steady myself when walking, one small step at a time. My chest would sporadically become the radiating center of body-filling pulsations, an uncontrollable drumming of rapid-fire vibratos that coursed along my arms and legs. Heartbeats pounded in my ears and set off reverberations all along my nerves.

Fearing that I could be fatally ill, I took to the outdoors and tried to make peace with myself during slow, clumsy walks in the valley that sheltered the trailer. On one cold, evening amble, with snow glossing the juniper trees and the shadows thickening, I relived my childhood and the ensuing pageant of my then forty-six years, trying to come to terms with my inner terror and the realization that, no matter what was going on, no guarantees had ever been given that I’d live to the standard life expectancy.

Over the following month I suffered several more “relapses,” and my despair increased. Then one morning I startled myself with a new possibility: Could it be the old car?

I put the carbon monoxide meter in the front passenger’s seat, started the engine, turned on the heating fan, and watched safely from the outside as the numbers surged into the danger zone. An exhaust leak! With every three-hour round trip to town I had been dosing myself with a second, independent source of carbon monoxide. I had come to the mountains for fresh air, but had found myself being poisoned twice over by defective technologies.

For more than a decade afterward I had to take an anticonvulsant drug to soothe what the doctors called “sensory distortions.” Eventually I was able to wean myself from the medicine, apparently healed. But my outlook on life had permanently shifted.

During the time of terror, during the evening walks, I found myself taking refuge, even embracing, a deep core of gratitude. How marvelous to have lived at all, I felt. Had the carbon atoms of my body been locked into, say, the calcium carbonate crystals of limestone rock, then the atomic arrangements would have had more permanence. In that case, what about an “I”? The transient configuring of carbon in my body allows a conscious self to exist: complicated and conflicted, to be sure, yet also joyous, curious, and loving.

Sure, death would come. Death, I came to realize, was inherent both in my humanness and in the evolutionary nature of our existence. Life and death were totally intertwined. Life, a flowering of the fortunate way my atoms were combined, was bound up with inevitable death. In fact, death made life possible.


WATCH: ‘Death and Sex’ Author, Tyler Volk, On The Big Think

Friday, March 26th, 2010

The full video interview, on The Big Think, features Tyler Volk covering topics like ‘Why We Die,’ ‘Fear of Death Is Immature,’ ‘Why Life Needs Death,’ and more.

Tyler Volk is a Science Director of Environmental Studies and Professor of Biology at New York University. He is the author of “Death & Sex” (with co-author Dorion Sagan), “CO2 Rising: The World’ Greatest Environmental Challenge,” “Gaia’s Body: Toward a Physiology of the Earth,” and “Metapatterns: Across Space, Time, and Mind.” Professor Volk is also lead guitarist for The Amygdaloids, a “heavy mental” band comprised of NYU scientists. He lives in New York.

Death & Sex Wins Big at the 2010 New York Book Show

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Hurrah! Our book Death & Sex (by Tyler Volk and Dorion Sagan) won first place in the 2010 New York Book Show in the general trade nonfiction category, one of the most competitive! This is a design and production award and apparently very unusual for a trade book to win without a jacket. Congratulations to our entire production team and to cover designer Kelly Blair.

Here are some scans of the book’s cover. It really is something you have to see and hold in your hands, but these scans do a pretty good job of simulating the experience. Check out those sexy embossed fig leaves!

Death & Sex Front Cover
Death & Sex Back Cover
Death & Sex Open
Death & Sex Wins


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Shedding Light on the Secretive Peer Review Process at the NAS

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

When scientists play politics with important scientific papers, suppressing, delaying, or killing them not because of bad science, but because of a perceived breach in established protocol, that doesn’t exactly advance the cause of science, nor is it in the best interests of the general public. Fortunately, Professor Lynn Margulis helped expose some of these secretive submission practices by the National Academy of Sciences.

From counterpunch:

Does a science peer review system based on secret submission policies benefit the American public who fund science? A review by this author of correspondence between the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America – the print weekly and online daily research journal (paid subscription) of the National Academy of Sciences – and the authors of several recent scientific papers, most eventually published by PNAS, reveals a nasty back story about submission procedures that in some cases work against the best interests of the public as well as sound science.

The uproar had to do with three papers submitted to PNAS several months ago by NAS member Lynn Margulis, a recipient of the US Presidential Medal for Science. One of them, “Destruction of spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi round-body propagules (RBs) by the antibiotic Tigecycline“, the authors say involves an excellent candidate antibiotic for possible cure of the tick-borne chronic spirochete infection Lyme Disease in the US, recognized as “erythema migrans” in Europe and elsewhere. However, the paper was held up because PNAS said it had issues about the way Margulis chose her reviewers on the first (unrelated) paper she presented, that is, Donald Williamson’s “Caterpillars evolved from onychophorans by hybridogenesis”. As a result, all three papers were stuck. The last of the three, also on spirochetes, which Margulis says was properly and favorably reviewed, has not yet been approved for publication as this story goes to press.

Margulis is one of 2,100 US members of the NAS. She does not receive government funding and has further distinguished herself by refusing to take DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) money. Margulis admits she is viewed by some within the NAS as “contentious” but says she “only wants to see that real science, open to those who want to participate, is well done, discussed critically without secrecy and properly communicated”.</p

Read the whole article here.


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Dorion Sagan and Tyler Volk Get Intimate About Their New Book, Death & Sex

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Tyler Volk and Dorion Sagan, co-authors of Death & Sex, tackle the big questions, the small questions, and the weird questions in this interview with Wild River Review. They describe the role of evolution in death and in sex and tell us what we can learn from ancient Greek philosophers and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Okay, I have to admit it. When I heard science writer and evolutionary theorist Dorion Sagan read the opening from Sex, his contribution to a double header co-written with biologist Tyler Volk, titled Death and Sex (2009, Chelsea Green Publishing), I was convinced that Sagan received the easier assignment.

The prolific Sagan, who has written and co-authored more than twenty books translated into eleven languages including Notes from the Holocene: A Brief History of the Future, read a witty introduction in which he appears in the midst of a group of teenagers gawking at a condom wrapper. Fun and games, I thought, until I dug in and received a thorough and fascinating lesson on why sex exists at all. Turns out that the cosmos is ruthless in its pursuit of reproduction, just ask a hyena.

 “When (the Marquis de) Sade claims there is no absolute morality, he is voicing an uncomfortable truth recognizable to scientists and religionists alike. Discussing the God-given rights of man and how they differ in number and content from nation to nation, comedian George Carlin has wondered whether we are supposed to assume that God, of all entities, is bad at math…” Dorion Sagan from Sex

Hmm, I thought, it might be easier, after all, to read about death.  And, while it seems a rather fruitless task to contemplate death when we’ve all got a lot of living to do, Volk, Science Director for Environmental Studies and Professor of Biology at New York University, has some very affirming things to say.

But students of the real Epicureanism know this philosophical school as one that has for good reason been likened to Buddhism, which had itself been born just a few centuries earlier. Both traditions emphasize a simple happiness based on the control of our desires…the anxiety inherent in constantly grasping to obtain and maintain that way of life creates a state of misery. Instead, happiness can best be reached by setting our sights just on the things that are really and truly needed which are few enough that they are not difficult to achieve…” Tyler Volk from Death

To say that sex feeds death and death feeds sex is to enter into a world of biology, chemistry, evolutionary science, philosophy, literature and poetry. What could be so bad about that? 

And so I sat down with Sagan and Volk to find out about two taboo subjects. As their book’s official title ­– Death and Sex – suggests, I first spoke with Volk about death and why it might not be so bad, after all, before moving on to teenagers, hyenas, randy bacteria, and condom wrappers.

Read the whole article here.


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LISTEN: Dorion Sagan on the Evolution of Human Sex

Monday, November 16th, 2009


It’s everywhere. You can’t avoid it. It’s in the media, magazines, TV, books, movies, on billboards, and of course, in your mind. And for the most part we just accept that the way it is is the way it is, and it makes perfect sense. But human copulation isn’t the only way to get down. Consider this: how exactly do bacteria knock boots?

Dorion Sagan, co-author of Death & Sex, talks about the evolutionary back and forth—the ins and outs, if you will—of sex, procreation, and what it all means in this interview with Jay Ackroyd, which originally aired as an interview on Second Life’s Virtually Speaking.

Dorion Sagan (b. 1959 in Madison, Wisconsin) is an American science writer, essayist, and theorist. He has written and co-authored many books on evolution, most recently Notes from the Holocene and Into the Cool, co-authored with Eric D.Schneider, on the subject of non-equilibrium thermodynamics. We will talk about his new book Death and Sex. (He wrote the Sex part.)

Listen Now


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The Last Pornographer: An Excerpt from Death & Sex

Monday, November 16th, 2009

The following is an excerpt from Death & Sex by Tyler Volk and Dorion Sagan. It has been adapted for the Web.

If we, as humans full of tall tales and musical dreams, can come up with all manner of story and associations, how are we ever to get to the bottom of the mystery of sex? Evolution, one avenue of solution, is certainly the main road taken in this book. But that, too, can be twisted. The mating mind is so full of sexual thoughts and erotic innuendo that it can see sex everywhere. Forget all the jokes that have double entendres and think of the more basic fact that the romance languages ascribe a gender to virtually every noun. In Spanish, the earth, la tierra, is feminine; the sky, el cielo, masculine. Never mind that the sun is male in some languages and female in others, or that in Ibiza and the Azores—and all Spain and Mexico and South America—coño, the vagina, takes the masculine article, el coño, like el toreador, the (male) bullfighter.

Sometimes the clearest example of a phenomenon is rendered not by the mundane version, but by the extreme case. Philosopher-novelist Samuel Butler said of Victorian society that there was nothing the English would like more than to see the fruitful union of two steam engines. American astronomer Thomas Chamberlin spoke of the sex-like merging of planets in collision. And comedian Lenny Bruce noted that men are not so picky; they will do it with mud or Venetian blinds.

Gendered thinking reflects our bodies. Even when we don’t think we do, we have sex on the mind, as Freud showed. But when it comes to coming to grips with the mundane omnipresence of thoughts sexual, few subjects are as strangely illuminating as the extreme case, that of French theorist Georges Bataille (1897–1962). Deeply influenced by the Marquis de Sade and Friedrich Nietzsche, Bataille was author of the infamous novella Histoire de l’oeil, The Story of the Eye. The book details the depraved adventures of a teenage farm boy and his girlfriend, Simone, who has a fetish for eggs and egg-like objects that leads her at one absurd point to insert bull’s testicles in her vulva and, still unsatisfied, replace them with the bleeding eye of a freshly killed matador. The founder of surrealism, Andre Breton, expelled Bataille, who also influenced the literary theorist Blanchot and the philosopher Derrida, from the ranks of the surrealists, in whose social circles he traveled in the 1920s.

Like himself in his theoretical excess, Bataille’s characters are exhibitionists. The young couple fornicate and urinate in front of the girl’s aged mother; they seduce a beautiful, deranged neighbor in an impressively narrated lightning-storm scene. The deranged neighbor is committed to a mental institution, from which they help her escape only for her to kill herself. With a compulsive, if demented, logic, they have sex next to her dead body. Then they flee to Spain, where they seduce a priest in a church, forcing him to use bodily rather than symbolic fluids in a mockery of the eucharist; it is also in Spain that they witness the goring of the matador, whose organs the demented Simone refuses to let go to waste.

Roland Barthes argued that L’histoire is not mere pornography. It does not just string together a series of sexual episodes, but is a symbolic realization of the transgressive, other-connecting sexual mind. Bataille, in a postscript to his tale, admits that parts of the book were autobiographical, that he was conceived by a blind father and jerked off naked at night next to his mother’s corpse.

Bataille’s sexualization of reality is a study in perversion (from the Latin per, “away,” and vertere, “to turn”—thus “turning away”); it is a perversion, for example, a turning away and application of sexual energy to the wrong objects, when, in one of Sade’s fictions a son-in-law who promises to be chaste with a virgin bride-to-be and stops short of satisfying himself in the one way he most wishes—a Sadeian joke as, given the groom’s desire for anal sex, the virgin will quite likely become pregnant even as he exercises his would-be erotic prudence. But it is also a perversion of a perversion: Bataille’s insistence on transgressing, overturning, sullying, and sexualizing everything, while it is an affront to society and the proper, is also a perversion of the hypocrisy of preached but disobeyed moral strictures. It is a turning away from society’s turning away from sex. Therefore it becomes an embrace of the sexual, of excess as the milieu of the sexual, as that which by nature does not keep its colors within the lines, does not stay neatly within its boundaries. For Bataille nothing was impregnable and everything was impugned. Sex, like death, was a pathway to transcendence, to the unveiling of artificial boundaries, including those of rational thought and the disciplinary boundaries of academia. He stepped through the doorway of excess to rub shoulders with the infinite. He used writing not to make deductive arguments but to make fun of them. He wanted to come, not to a conclusion, but to ecstasy.

In one of his essays he presents human evolution as a sexual phenomenon. Like an erection, primeval ape-man rises from a stooped to an upright posture, standing erect on Earth’s surface. But the process, says Bataille, has not reached its logical conclusion. Our eyes still face forward, looking out parallel to the ground. Logic (which, as a proto-postmodernist, he was making fun of ) dictates that for the process to culminate, our eyes should migrate to the top of our heads, merging to form an aperture through which we might ejaculate the contents of our bodies in an obscene cascade toward the true object of our desires, the sun.

Like the gendered articles of unsexual things in Latin-derived languages, Bataille’s extreme fantasy shows our tendency to project our own animal sexuality onto a more-than-sexual world. Yet as Barthes intimates, there is something more than sexual, something of literary merit, in Bataille’s depraved imaginings. It is as if he were showing us a real quality of the universe that we had somehow missed. As if we could only take in the philosophical ideas he had to offer by presenting them in the form of sexual imagery.

In the recent movie Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyle, a crew in 2057 is dispatched to space on a dangerous mission toward the sun. They must adjust a nuclear imbalance in the sun that, if left unaddressed, will lead to its death. As in Bataille’s evolutionary fantasy, the real focus of life’s desire is not other humans but the sun.

Bizarre as it sounds, there is some truth to this. Animal life’s activities are not random, but controlled activation of the stored energy of the sun, collected by photosynthetic life, for which sunlight is the source of energy no less than food is ours, and toward which the leaves of plants turn.

In the cosmic scheme of things, it is not sex that is life’s true aim so much as reproduction. And reproduction, scientifically viewed, represents the maintenance of a certain kind of complex system that uses available energy, spreading it in the process. Such systems, not confined to life, spread energy and are favored by a universe obeying thermodynamics’ second law. The second law, usually still construed as a tendency toward disorder, is really a more general principle easier to visualize as the spreading of energy, which in the chemical realm leads to complex molecules. But in some regions of matter, the path of least resistance is for the continuous construction of complex and ordered structures that more effectively dissipate energy. Thus tornadoes and other complex chemical systems—and life is nothing if not a complex chemical system—not only arise naturally but, if they’ve tapped into a reliable energy source, tend to expand until they’ve made use of all available energy.

As complex systems maintain and grow, differences, such as those between hot and cold, and high and low pressures, chemically concentrated and less concentrated adjacent regions tend naturally to even out. Complex whirling typhoons spreading above the Pacific, for example, reduce the difference, or gradient, between high- and low-air-pressure masses. If it can, nature will produce complex systems, such as convection cells, whirlpools, and repeating chemical reactions, that are better at dispersing energy than mere random arrangements of matter. In these terms, life belongs to a class of complex systems cycling matter to spread energy, finding where it is concentrated, using it and dispersing it, mostly as heat, in accord with the second law. Geophysicist-ecologist Eric D. Schneider points to satellite and airplane measurements above ecosystems that show life spreads energy and reduces gradients like other natural complex systems. Evolution itself is not random, but is naturally oriented to the depletion of energy reserves, the greatest of which is the sun. Stars would burn out anyway, but life on Earth is part of this process. Life measurably keeps itself cool as it dumps heat into space. It is thus no coincidence that life is focused on the sun. Sex only exists because of life, and life as we know it, on the vast scale we know it, only exists because of the colossal local energy concentration it is helping to spread out (to spend, as Bataille would put it) as it eats, grows, and reproduces—the sun.

Bataille was right to emphasize the sun as object of life’s evolutionary desire.

The entire energy we see in life—including the transgressive tangents Bataille’s teenagers take as they move through a series of unusual love objects ranging from liquids like cat’s milk, semen, urine, blood, and tears to relative solids like eyeballs and eggs—is a displacement, a permutation of the energy of the sun. The great educator and rebel Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic in the central Roman square of Campo de’ Fiori on February 17, 1600, for, among other things, believing that there were other living worlds besides Earth and that Mary was not a virgin. He also believed, correctly it turns out, in a sort of natural reincarnation where matter recycles to re-form the constituents of all living beings: “Don’t you see,” he wrote, “that that which was seed will get green herb and herb will turn into ear and ear into bread? Bread will turn into nutrient liquid, which produces blood, from blood semen, embryo, men, corpse, Earth, rock and mineral and thus matter will change its form ever and ever and is capable of taking any natural form . . .”

These material transformations are part of the natural cycling of matter in regions of energy flow. This orderly cycling is only possible because of external energy sources that power the maintenance and growth and, in life, the reproduction of complex systems in accord with the second law. Such cycling transformations come prior to meaning—whether beautiful music or Bataille’s theoretical cacophony—and the search for it. That Bataille is considered to be a source for postmodernism is no coincidence. Having read, in Paris, in 1929, La Biosphère, the book in which the author, Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky, for the first time regards life as a naturalistic energetic whole transforming solar energy, Bataille’s thought was infused by a powerful strain of science that had nothing to do with morality except by its conspicuous absence. Torn later between the competing ideologies of communism and fascism, Bataille anchored his thought in the theoretical bedrock of Vernadsky’s energy science. Life’s transformation of solar energy is beyond our morality, older than our species, and the source of our erotic energy and sexual obsessions.

Reflections on Death, #2: Denying Death (An Excerpt from Death & Sex)

Monday, November 9th, 2009

The following is an excerpt from Death & Sex by Tyler Volk and Dorion Sagan. It has been adapted for the Web.

From chapter 9: Tuning Longevity

The point is not that creatures with negligible senescence live so much longer than humans—they might or might not. The issue is that in these species the individuals who are longest-lived (so far as we know) do not degrade from internal causes that would make their chances of death increase as they age. Some species with negligible senescence maintain high reproductive output despite their increasing years. In fact, among lobsters, another candidate species with negligible senescence, egg laying can become more copious with age.

Birds are turning out to be flashy mentors to the biogerontologists who patiently seek answers to deep questions about the spectrum of longevity in animals. Here’s a perplexing finding that violates the general rule that large creatures tend to live longer than small creatures: A typical mouse of twenty grams lives about three years, while a canary of the same weight lives for twenty years, almost seven times as long. Limited data from wild birds show they live almost twice as long as same-weight mammals in captivity, while captive birds live about three times as long as captive mammals of the same weight. Some of the numbers are extraordinary. Scarlet macaws, for example, have been known to live more than ninety years, which is about four times the life span of average, similar-size birds and twelve times the mammal average at the same weight.

The explanation for avian longevity comes from what is known as the evolutionary theory of life span. Biogerontologist Steven Austad and his colleague Donna Holmes use the phrase Fly now, die later to describe it. The motto applies not just to birds but to bats, too. On average across a range of body weights, bats live about three times longer than other mammals of comparable weight. Austad and another colleague, Kathleen Fischer, hypothesize that the aerial abilities of birds and bats make them much less vulnerable to predators than are ground mammals. Austad and Fischer further reason that any mammal that can sail between trees should be better than ground dwellers at avoiding predation. They surveyed data for gliding species of mammals: three squirrels, five marsupials, and one flying “lemur.” Taken together, these species have life spans that average 1.7 times the mammalian average for their weights. In another study, all marsupial mammals were lumped into two groups: tree-dwelling or ground-dwelling (species using both habitats were ignored). For comparable weights, the average life spans of arboreal species beat terrestrial ones by nearly 60 percent, Austad and Fischer found.

The core concept in the evolutionary theory of life spans is that creatures that are less vulnerable to predators are more likely to have evolved a healthy dose of maintenance and repair abilities inside their bodies. This is a central tenet of the overall evolutionary logic that relates life span to lifestyle: The intrinsic capacity of an animal’s bodily metabolism to produce longevity is evolutionarily tuned to the odds that the animal will or will not be able to live long, on average, based on the relative kinds of advantages or disadvantages that its lifestyle confers on its survival.

From chapter 11: Death-Denying Defenses

What happens when people are reminded that they eventually are going to die, that they are mortal? Epicurus and Buddha encouraged their followers to remind themselves, as constant meditation. Thinking about mortality, they and many others have claimed, is a path to deep contentment, even happiness.

But do we need to remind ourselves? The world we live in seems to do a great job of that already. We are exposed to the fact of mortality all the time—movies (what’s a movie without death or near-death?), news (“if it bleeds, it leads”), the health problems of family and friends. Sometimes living within a death-soaked world can be disturbing. But after all, it is the state of nature with food webs and biogeochemical cycles. Almost inevitably, this state has been stepped up a notch by the ability of humans to symbolize, fantasize, and hypothesize, not to mention our recognition of real murder and genocide. What more can be known? In recent years some experiments in the field of social psychology called “terror management theory” have been yielding some fascinating insights on how the basic knowledge of our mortality affects us.

If you happen to be a student in an introductory psychology course at a college or university, you are usually required to participate in one or more experiments. Undergraduate psychology students are needed to form a large enough pool of “lab rats” to provide statistically relevant results. If your school was one that had experiments in terror management theory (among a large number of other types of experiments), you might find yourself in a room at a desk filling out a “personality questionnaire.” At least, that is what you are told.

You are told nothing of the true purpose of the overall experiment. Instead, you might be informed that the questionnaire is about personality traits and interpersonal judgments. Scattered among a range of questions to answer are the following: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you,” and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you when you die and once you are physically dead.” …

The Evolution of Lynn Margulis

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

How has Lynn Margulis (Luminous Fish: Tales of Science and Love, Dazzle Gradually: Reflections on the Nature of Nature) for decades summoned the confidence to plow ahead with her groundbreaking evolutionary theories and scientific papers on symbiogenesis and endosymbiosis in the face of establishment opposition, scorn, and even ridicule? Easy. It’s because… well… she just knows she’s right.

“It wasn’t confidence; I just know I’m right — I mean, I really do know I’m right.”

On Wisconsin magazine profiles Professor Margulis and her scientific career, which spans nearly half a century, in their Fall 2009 issue:

Four decades after being rejected by the scientific community, Lynn Margulis’s insights into evolution have become standard textbook fare and established her as one of the most creative scientific thinkers of our day.

Margulis, photographed while attending the World Summit on Evolution in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands in 2005, asserts that we have neglected the earliest stages of evolution that preceded animals — a period that represents seven-eighths of the history of life on Earth. Photo: Laura Katz

Lynn Margulis MS’60 is one of those rare scientists whose research fundamentally altered the way we view the world — in this case, the way we view evolution. With blunt language, she batters humanity out of its self-image as the pinnacle of life.

“Man is the consummate egotist,” Margulis has written. “It may come as a blow to our collective ego, but we are not masters of life perched on the top rung of an evolutionary ladder.” Instead, she likes to say that “beneath our superficial differences, we are all of us walking communities of bacteria.”

Margulis is a leading proponent of an evolutionary concept called symbiogenesis — a hypothesis that states that new adaptations do not arise primarily from random mutations, but from the merging of two separate organisms to form a single new organism.

Symbiogenesis theory flies in the face of an accepted scientific dogma called neo-Darwinism, which holds that adaptations occur exclusively through random mutation, and that as genes mutate in unpredictable ways, their gradual accumulation sometimes results in useful attributes that give the organisms an advantage that eventually translates into evolutionary change.

Read the whole article here.


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Reflections on Death, #1: Recycling of the Dead (An Excerpt from Death & Sex)

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

The following is an excerpt from Death & Sex by Tyler Volk and Dorion Sagan. It has been adapted for the Web.

From chapter 4: Recycling of the Dead

When carbon ends its “lifetime” in the biosphere, it doesn’t stop being carbon. It merely passes into a deeper zone. One is reminded here of ancient myths that feature souls, victims, or heroes descending into the underworld, as a dramatic moment in the story. Like those mythic souls presumed to continue to live but in a new form, so carbon transported downward and outside the vibrant biosphere, after “burial,” continues to be carbon but somewhere deep and dark, and often hot.

Carbon is buried as detritus from dead marine plankton when it fluxes out of the dynamic surface system in the form of tiny calcium carbonate shells. The coal we mine to burn for electricity is the dead and highly compressed remains of giant ferns and mosses from dinosaur-era swamps. Our precious, diminishing reserves of oil were long, long ago the sediments underneath some of the world’s most productive marine areas ever. Verdant patches of algae grew, then fell into the sediments at such rapid rates of death that even the voracious bacteria alive there could not keep up with the rain from what was their heaven. The sites and rates of death that led to the fossil fuels upon which modern civilization came to depend were historically unique burial traps.

More commonly, carbon that was buried from organic tissue in the form of the bodies of plankton was finely dispersed. Today we see it as the black tincture in rocks such as shale, in contrast with the pervasive white of limestone rock that entombs once-living carbon in a paler shade.

All these buried forms of carbon can eventually spring back up, like the ancient Greek myth of Persephone emerging from the underworld to bestow life to the surface. She was said to rise up annually, as a rite of spring. But carbon’s stay below is typically millions to hundreds of millions of years. Its ports of reentry are the volcanoes and surfaces of rocks that dissolve when exposed to soil, rain, and weather, thereby returning carbon to the surface circulation of active cycles.

How dependent is life in the sunny biosphere upon this resurrected carbon? In the long run, very dependent. Without the reemergence—a kind of biogeochemical reincarnation, if you like—all carbon would slowly and surely exit from the interconnected surface system of life, air, soil, and water. Emergence would be limited to only truly primordial carbon that comes up as a portion of volcanic activity.

From chapter 7: Built from Death

Surpassing in some ways the wonders of death within the living animal body are the roles of the functional dead in sculpting the towering lives of trees. If you go inward from the bark, past a thin layer of cells called the phloem and another narrow layer of cells that are actively reproducing, you come to a notable layer called the xylem.

The xylem consists of tubular columns of dead cells that function to move mineral-laden water gathered by the roots up to the needles or leaves. Its special, dead cells are called tracheids. Tracheids (or, when grouped into units, tracheid elements) not only provide water and mineral circulation but also support the entire tree in its climb upward against gravity. Without tracheids there would be no forests or grasslands, no green life on land, except for some ground-hugging tiny mosses and a paltry soil coat of photosynthetic bacteria and algae. For not only do trees contain tracheids, so do all nonwoody herbaceous plants. Tracheids are in all stems, branches, and trunks of trees, in the shoots of grasses, in flower stalks (usually in their centers), and even in the veins of leaves. In all these instances, the dead are part of the living.

Without the evolutionary invention of tracheids just inside 400 million years ago, the land today would be virtually deserted. For more than 90 percent of Earth history, neither land plants nor their vital tracheids existed. And because tracheids are dead, in them we have an ideal example of how nature turns death into life to create organisms from cells.

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