(Firstly published at SinPermiso.info, on January 18th. This review has been included as an additional prologue to the 2nd edition of Carlos de Castro’s book, to be published on the end of March. It has been slightly modified for its publication at 15/15\15. Translation: Pedro Prieto, reviewed by Amelia Burke – Fabricants de Futur and Manuel Casal.)
If symbiosis is as prevalent and important in the history of life as it seem to be, we must rethink biology from the beginning.
— Lynn Margulis
If God has died, then we have suffered from the disenchantment of the world. There is no magic, no mystery, no charm… everything is permitted and we find ourselves in a more or less active nihilism. Buddhism is the most severe case of passive nihilism.
However, the arrival of this book (Carlos de Castro: Reencontrando a Gaia. A hombros de James Lovelock y Lynn Margulis —Refinding Gaia. On the shoulders of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis—, Ediciones del Genal, Málaga, Spain, 2019) marks the appearance of a new enchantment; taking Gaia by the hand as we meet her again.
To talk about Gaia is to talk about Lovelock (1919- ) and Margulis (1938-2011)
Carlos talks about his rediscovery because he already made a preliminary work more than 10 years ago and has also published two Gaian novels; his concern and interest for Gaia are not new. Moreover, in Spain he is possibly one of the authors most interested and most passionate about Gaia, not only from a scientific point of view, but also from a philosophical and I would say, spiritual point of view as well.
Let’s take a look at our visions
I do not know if this also happened to Carlos, but I have to tell you that after 20 years of mulling over Margulis in particular, I recently had (at my respectable age), a vision like that of St. Paul. I made me fall off the horse and somehow told me: whether it’s by chance or not, you have found a cosmo-vision which has to be converted into good news to tell the World. It is unique and rabidly modern. I find myself delighted!
My vision considers that, without Margulis and Lovelock, from the 1960’s-70’s, it wouñld not have been possible to see Gaia, our planet Earth, as a living being. Nor would it have been possible to see the origin and the evolution of life, without the basic symbiosis contribution made by bacteria.
It could not have been seen before. Apart from the fact that the world of microbiology is a big unknown for most of biologists, except in the area of pathogens, because the electronic microscope, the device which allows us to see that micro-world with complete clarity, was not available until after WWII.
Margulis started to formulate her endosymbiotic theory at the end of 60’s, not forgetting, however, that the symbio-genesis and biosphere concepts had already been intuitively advanced at the beginning of the century. Nevertheless, it was not until Lovelock started to work for NASA at the beginning of the 60’s in order to analyse life on Mars, that it was not possible to get a sense of the Gaia hypothesis. Having instruments allowing to know the Mars atmosphere composition at distance and the vision of the Earth from the moon (sent by the Apollo 8, in 1968) helped Lovelock think on his hypothesis. That vision enlightened me to understand that, less than 50 years ago, several circumstances had coincided which would change our global cosmo-vision of life: the Gaia theory and the Margulis vision of the world of bacteria: from anthropocentric to bacteriocentric and gaiacentric. This instead of turning from animals into gods, which is being strongly advocated today (Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, 2014 and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, 2016).
A Revolution in evolution, as it declares the translated title of a Spanish book gathering selected texts by Margulis (Una revolución en la evolución, Universitat de Valencia, 2003). And also in the living world. Microbes, specially bacteria, are the highest beings in the hierarchy of life, apart from being also the majority regarding mass and variety. Dispensing with them is to ignore life in its origins, its beginning, as it is right now and in the future. It is like ignoring the basic essence of ourselves.
The big cosmo-vision of the 21st century
As a good physicist, Carlos develops a parallel between the revolution in the 20th century Physics and the necessary revolution in Biology (and other sciences), which have remained stagnant within formulations of the 19th Century, as in the case of Darwinism. Physics begins its big change at the beginning of 20th Century with Planck (in 1900) and Einstein (in 1905). They were the big revolutionaries of a science which, at the end of the 19th Century had assumed that it was all done and dusted. Through them some other big names developed the quantum theory, centred around the Danish school (Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, etc.) at a splendid second level.
Carlos points out that in Biology we already have the two big names and that the new researchers should appear in the second level, mirroring the Danish school. Carlos’ book already belongs to this second level school, that can go with the name of Vallisoletana (from Valladolid).
This is a demanding book, very trans-disciplinary, which is why it is addressed to academic, biologists, ecologists, philosophers, etc. It is not an easy book.
His Organic Gaia Theory
His big contribution is what Carlos calls the Organic Gaia Theory. As a good scientific work, it goes further, in some planes, from the initial formulations of his two masters. In effect, according to Margulis, the idea of “organicity” implies the need of the big super-organism to feed from its waste and that’s not possible. Carlos overcomes this difficulty by determining the total recycling in Gaia.
He formulates his theary by saying that the biosphere is an organism formed by a coordinated symbiosis of all living beings. Gaia —Mother Earth— is a homeostatic system emerging from the interaction of the Earth with the biosphere, resulting in the states which allow life its permanency. The basis of this emergence is the Margulis theory on the world of bacteria: a hegemonic world for life, in its origin, its history, present and future; a symbiotic world.
This entire holistic vision of life is also supported by the essential concept of autopoiesis, in all organisms and in Gaia herself. Autopoiesis, a contribution of Maturana and Varela, is the best definition of what life is. It is the capacity of some beings (organisms) to carry out their activity (metabolism) in a continuing form (self-maintenance). If autopoiesis ceases, all life ceases. Gaia self-maintains as a big organism and creates the conditions which make life possible for the organisms of which she herself is formed.
Exhibiting all the characteristics of a live being, Gaia recycles matter better than the majority of the organisms; she self-repairs, evolves and is teleological; is fully an organism, by any standard.
As Margulis and Lovelock noticed at the beginning, it is not so much that the Earth hosts the biota, forming a compatible compound, but rather that Gaia (the Earth plus the Biosphere) creates organically the conditions making it possible for the continued existence of life, and has been doing so for over 3,9 billion years. We could well say that the Earth is a living planet.
And not just in any form, but with bacteria playing an essential role in the origin and development of life, with an essential tendency towards symbiosis. The ideas on competition become then absolutely surpassed.
Carlos’ vision of this Gaia is much grander: it provides entropic realities and the reality of the dissipative systems of Prigogine. His additional notes in this chapter make reference to the trend towards increasing complexity; according to Carlos, this complexity continues an exponential curve wherever possible. These notes also refer to the teleological character of Gaia, previously mentioned.
Let’s imagine the human species as coming from a more than 3.9 billion years old world, with bacteria antecedents, of living beings in permanent autopoiesis and expansion, which have invented everything concerned with forms of life, and forming a totality called Gaia. And within this context of being the newcomers, we presume to be first, the more important, like gods. This has been our historic biggest mistake, what some have called our Fall.
As Carlos suggests, “it is possible that we may be facing a change of paradigm bigger than the one represented by Lamarck and Darwin” in the 19th Century. There can be no doubt, we are before a brand new and radical cosmovision, which could not have been drawn up before this time, not even by the ingenuity of Margulis and Lovelock. It supposes, for example, that besides a rigorous and open scientific theory, we also have a philosophical theory covering the anthropological needs of the human species to rely on an explanation beyond itself, and to take seriously our own life in relation to something superior.
The Gaian cosmo-vision makes the religious framework dispensable and the corresponding theistic hybris which has accompanied and preceded it. It inserts our own species, with all the humility, within a superior overall, which allows us a permanent resurrection. Nothing in Gaia dies completely; moreover, everything goes on to form a necessary part of the subsequent cycles of autopoietic regeneration of life.
And so, in the Gaia system, death is programmed (apoptosis). Without it, both the continuity of individual life as the macroorganism would be at risk. The resurrection, as in Saint Paul, for instance, which is the foundation of the Christian faith, has no original basis of its own (Letter to the Corinthians, 15). The Gaian resurrection is a part of the life of Gaia, and of each one of the individualities which compose her, but without any miraculous fantasies. Death stops being a tragedy and is converted into part of Gaian life.
As the poet says in his Canto a la Tierra (Song to the Earth):
We do not end here
in what happened and happens.
but to become something
new: in some way, in
everything that may happen
we will find ourselves present.
The Organic Gaia and the Symbiotic Planet have arrived to put humans in their place in the Cosmos; that aspiration, so long awaited: we are a talking species, a newcomer to this living Planet, one which is occupying a modest place in the hierarchy. Gaia is bacteria-centric. Incredible as it may appear to us, bacteria are the main life doers, of all past, present and future life and they are the best hope for all other species, humans included.
Within this cosmo-vision, so revolutionary and novel, our ranking in Cosmos is much closer to humus than to the celestial stratosphere.
Gaia will be our new subject of devotion and sacrality, with all of its consequences. It will be our joy for life.
Carlos’ book, annotated here, holds all the ingredients and make this cosmovision a rigorous scientific contribution.
And finally, Margulis comforts and warns us: “Recovering from Copernican insult and Darwinian injury, anthropocentrism has been dealt yet another reeling blow by Gaia. This blow, however, should not send us into new depths of disillusion or existential despair. Quite the opposite: we should rejoice in the new truths of our essential belonging, our relative unimportance, and our complete dependence upon a biosphere that has always had a life entirely its own.”
Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan, 1986: Microcosmos: four billion years of evolution from our microbial ancestors, Summit Books, New York (p. 124).
Dorion Sagan and Lynn Margulis: “Gaia and Philosophy”, p. 157, ch. 11, in Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan (ed.): Slanted Truths. Essays on Gaia, symbiosis, and evolution, 1997, Springer-Verlag, New York.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on April 26th to substitute the translation of quotes by Margulis for the original texts in English and add corresponding notes 1 and 3.