Monday, November 28, 2011

Cooperation


I want to take a break here to note the passing of Lynn Margulis, biologist, last week at age 73.

Margulis was married to Carl Sagan for something less than a decade back in the late-1950s and early-1960s. Sagan was and remains a superstar of science. Margulis is less well-known.

Too bad, because she was probably the more influential scientist and an equally prolific popularizer of science.

When I published Biography of a Planet in 1984 her theory of cellular evolution by symbiosis was still controversial. I wrote: "Her theory is a story of hard times and cooperation. According to Margulis, eukaryotic [multi-compartmented] cells arose by symbiotic combinations of single-cell prokaryotes, a partnership for mutual benefit." I illustrated her idea with the full-page drawing reproduced above. (Click to enlarge.)

An idea that was initially scorned by many biologists -- perhaps partly because of Margulis's gender -- eventually became orthodoxy. Natural selection, said Margulis, is not all about competition. Cooperation can also give organisms an edge. She developed this idea extensively in many publications.

I had a brief encounter with Margulis as a result of Biography of a Planet. I had previously published 365 Starry Nights and The Crust of the Earth, books I wrote and illustrated. She was about to begin her own adventure as a popularizer of science and got in touch seeking advice on working with mass-market publishers. I gave what I could.

But Lynn didn't need help from me. Her subsequent books far surpassed mine in their quality and production, and of course in the breadth and depth of her scientific knowledge. She was my teacher.

She'll be missed.

(The promised second part of the reflection on Lightman's essay will be here tomorrow.)