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In Memory of Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis died in late November 2011. She was a longtime friend of Chelsea Green Publishing, and collaborated with us on the Sciencewriters Books imprint to develop outstanding science books for the general public.

A recent article in Orion (“State of the Species”) by Charles C. Mann, captured some of Lynn’s unbending scientific mind matched by an equally caring and playful spirit. Mann lives in Amherst and would often encounter Lynn while walking through town.

What follows is a brief excerpt from the article, but if interested you can also listen to Mann talk about Lynn in this Orion podcast interview about the article.

Bacteria and protists can do things undreamed of by clumsy mammals like us: form giant supercolonies, reproduce either asexually or by swapping genes with others, routinely incorporate DNA from entirely unrelated species, merge into symbiotic beings—the list is as endless as it is amazing. Microorganisms have changed the face of the earth, crumbling stone and even giving rise to the oxygen we breathe. Compared to this power and diversity, Margulis liked to tell me, pandas and polar bears were biological epiphenomena—interesting and fun, perhaps, but not actually significant.

Does that apply to human beings, too? I once asked her, feeling like someone whining to Copernicus about why he couldn’t move the earth a little closer to the center of the universe. Aren’t we special at all?

This was just chitchat on the street, so I didn’t write anything down. But as I recall it, she answered that Homo sapiens actually might be interesting—for a mammal, anyway. For one thing, she said, we’re unusually successful.

Seeing my face brighten, she added: Of course, the fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out.

Pure Lynn.

When Lynn died, she left behind a groundbreaking scientific legacy that spanned decades and inspired thousands of scientists, environmentalists, writers, and thinkers around the world. This unique anthology, collated by her son Dorion Sagan, includes essays that cover her early collaboration with James Lovelock, her critique of neo-darwinism, her support of David Griffin’s critique of the official account of 9/11, her love of Emily Dickinson, her inspiration of young scientists, especially women, and much more.

The book includes contributions from Dorion Sagan, Jorge Wagensberg, Moselio Schaechter, Andre Khalil, James Lovelock, Bruce Clarke, Niles Eldredge, Michael F. Dolan, Jan Sapp, Michael J. Chapman, Martin Brasier, Denis Noble, Josh Mitteldorf, Stefan Helmreich, William Irwin Thompson, David Ray Griffin, John B. Cobb Jr., David Abram, Peter Westbroek, Rich Doyle, Joanna Bybee, Terry Y. Allen, Penny Boston, Emily Case, David Lenson, Betsey Dexter Dyer, and Lynn herself.

Below are some early reviews, and praise, for this tribute to Lynn’s lasting legacy.

“Margulis’s complex personality beguiles, frustrates, charms, and elevates various writers, resulting in a stunning portrait that no single remembrance could have captured.” — ForeWord Reviews

“Her insistence that most evolution involves symbiogenesis led to a lifetime of debate. It also leads to some inspired writing in this book of essays. This is a captivating read for anyone interested in what powers great scientists.” — Publishers Weekly

“I can’t imagine what the world of biological science in the twentieth century would have been had Lynn Margulis not come along. In this volume, we can read about some of the vast range of intellect she influenced.” — Wes Jackson, president, The Land Institute

“Lynn and I often argued, as good collaborators should, and we wrangled over the intricate finer points of self-regulation, but always remained good friends, perhaps because we were confident that we were right.” — Dr. James Lovelock, contributor, and author of The Vanishing Face of Gaia

“It was life—profligate, teeming life in all its weirdness—that held the magic for her, not this featherless biped with its confused aspirations. Lynn intuited and doggedly gathered evidence to show that most anything we two-leggeds take special pride in—our capacities for cogitation, conviviality, and culture—had been invented, eons before, by the microbial entities that compose us.” — David Abram, contributor, and author of Spell of the Sensuous

“It’s the ideas that really matter—and Lynn certainly had hers. They were novel and profound, and she simply wanted all the rest of the world to adjust their thinking to accommodate and embrace what she saw were the simple, beautiful truths that she had uncovered.” — Dr. Niles Eldredge, contributor, and author of Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life

“I hope that in due time she will be recognized as one of the greatest scientific thinkers of our time.” — Ernest Callenbach, author of Ecotopia

To see “indomitable Lynn” for yourself, watch this video of her debate with Richard Dawkins at Oxoford.

And for sense of the reverence and love the book contains, read Dr. James Lovelock’s essay, On Lynn.


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