Sunday, May 24, 2020

3373. Cuba Has Sent 2,000 Doctors and Nurses Overseas to Fight Covid-19

Ed Augustin, The Nation, May 22, 2020
Cuba has sent more than 2,000 doctors and nurses to 23 countries since the crisis broke.
As the novel coronavirus encircled the globe, tearing through health care systems, heavily affected countries sent out pleas for doctors. One small, downtrodden island answered the call.
Cuba has sent more than 2,000 doctors and nurses to 23 countries since the crisis broke.
Emergency medical response teams from the island have touched down in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and—for the first time—Europe. In March, the first batch of 51 Cuban doctors and nurses arrived in Lombardy, Italy, at the time the epicenter of the pandemic, to cheering crowds.
They join the 28,000 Cuban health professionals who were working in 59 countries prior to Covid-19.
No other country has sent large numbers of doctors abroad during the pandemic. The radical intellectual Noam Chomsky last month described the island as the only country to have shown “genuine internationalism” during the crisis, and the women-led anti-war organization Code Pink is now leading calls for the island’s emergency medical response teams to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But these medical brigades have received little media attention in the United States. When they are commented on at all, coverage is usually negative.
In fact, for the last three years, the Trump administration has described doctors participating in these missions as “slaves” and has accused the Cuban government of “human trafficking.” At the same time, Trump officials have suggested that tens of thousands of those “on mission” are not doctors at all but regime henchmen deployed to “sow political discord” and spread the virus of communism. Cast in this light, Cuban doctors are at once victims and oppressors.
Stories in major media outlets paint a similar picture. Cuba’s medical collaboration is portrayed as Machiavellian, reduced to a PR ruse to deflect attention from Cuba’s internal human rights violations, a means of projecting soft power, or a way of meddling in other countries’ affairs.
And while it is sometimes granted that the medics themselves improve health outcomes in poor countries, the Cuban government is alleged to exploit these doctors by “pocketing” most of their earnings.
Such depictions never include the voice of the Cuban doctors who work in these missions. Over the last couple of months, I’ve spoken to dozens of doctors before their departure. Their words cut sharply against this picture.
“How can I be a slave if I receive a free education from my country?” asked Dr. Leonardo Fernández, who has served in Nicaragua, Pakistan, East Timor, Liberia, and Mozambique. “How can I be a slave when my family receives my full salary while I’m abroad? How can I be a slave when I have constitutional rights?”
Dr. Gracilliano Díaz, a veteran of the campaign against Ebola in Sierra Leone in 2014, dismissed with Caribbean cool the idea that he is a victim of trafficking. “We do this voluntarily,” he said with a lilt. “It doesn’t matter to us that other countries brand us as slaves. What matters to us is that we contribute to the world.”

Saturday, May 23, 2020

3372. Poetry: Rising (In Honor of World Turtle Day)

By Jamie K. Reaser, May 23, 2020
Photo of the poet in 1985 while working with the Caretta Research Project on Wassaw Island, off the coast of Savannah, Georgia

Rising (In honor of World Turtle Day)
Paddling upward through layers of sand
with no knowledge of where to,                                  
crazed, or mightily faithful,
I don’t know and I refuse to judge
these hundreds of tiny flippers
in a frenzy to meet the Great Mystery,
and possibly their death, imminently.
I prefer to crouch here in awe.
What they don’t know, I know:
Ghost crabs, raccoons, birds, big birds,
fish, big fish. They, many of these
little naïve ancient ones, will be snacked upon
like salted popcorn. Nab, swallow, and gone
from this world they barely entered
and could not name.
Look how they rush to their destiny,
risking everything because that’s
what it is to live, though, yes, that’s the terrible secret
that we keep shushing back into the underworld,
and look how they, bellies skidding, go forward to reach
the one world they are made for, and how,
like an equal lover, that world, that mighty crashing world,
is reaching back to them in waves. And, they are met.


Isn’t this what you want?
The perfect fit. The equal lover. 

These precious scrambling things have got it right.
Standing in the sea oat-waving dunes, I’m absolutely sure of it.

How can the body, this body, any body
refuse to take the risk to rise?

3371. Book Review: Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction Under Late Capitalism

By Steve Knight, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, May 22, 2020

Yanacocha, a complex of four open-pit mines and four processing facilities stretching over more than 500 square miles in the Northern highlands of Peru, is Latin America’s largest gold mine and the second-largest in the world.  Operating since 1993 as a joint venture of U.S.-based Newmont Mining, a Peruvian mining firm and the International Finance Corporation, Yanacocha has produced millions of ounces of gold, silver, and copper for international export.  At the same time, Yanacocha has brought forth a nearly endless stream of lawsuits, blockades and other protests by indigenous groups over the mine’s pollution of their water supply with mercury and cyanide, both by-products of the mining process.

Mega-mining operations like Yanacocha – combining the extraction of vast wealth with negative externalities for surrounding communities – have become increasingly common throughout Latin America over the past forty years, following on the post-Allende “Chicago Boys” wave of neoliberal economics that opened formerly state-owned resources to widespread multinational investment. In Planetary Mine, Chile-based author Martin Arboleda makes a compelling case that mines have been transformed into the loci of simultaneous, interconnected revolutions in relations of technology, labor, and financialization.  In his introduction, Arboleda defines the planetary mine as a new, twenty-first century “geography of extraction” that merges two world-historical shifts: an industrialization no longer circumscribed by the West, and a leap forward in the robotization and computerization of the labor process.

It should be stated near the outset that “Planetary Mine” succeeds on two levels simultaneously, for two different cohorts of potential readers.  First, it is an illuminating description of how over the past generation Latin American extractive industries have integrated with the emerging “tiger economies” of East Asia, China in particular; indeed, trade between Latin American and Asian states is rapidly replacing trans-Atlantic commerce as the world’s preeminent trading relationship. Second, Planetary Mine draws upon the insights of numerous Marxian theorists to show that resource extraction in Latin America is best understood as a flow of worldwide value creation that depends, in the author’s words, on “networks of relations” (22) among people and communities to create spaces of extraction.  At one point Arboleda (123) quotes Marx from the Grundrisse: “The tendency to create the world market is inherent to the concept of capital itself”; this is an apropos choice of quotation, the narrative of Planetary Mine illustrates this statement.

Arboleda makes an especially adept use of one Marxian thinker, Henri Lefebvre, who in works such as The Urban Revolution and Critique of Everyday Life developed the notion of “totality” as a set of dialectically interconnected levels of social practice: global, urban, and local.  While the author draws upon Lefebvre’s trope of totality most explicitly in Chapter Six, “Debts of Extraction”, to show how a globalized financial system creates financialized “geographies of extraction” that subsume both urban and local communities in the circuit of capital, “totality” is actually a concept that suffuses every section of “Planetary Mine.” The book’s chapter topics – Empire, Labor, Circulation, Expertise, Money, and Struggle – are meant to be understood as co-equal constituents of one totality. As the author writes to underscore the importance of totality, “Marx intended the idea of the world market to express the primacy of the concrete corporeality of the sum total of the vast multitude of labors living under the geographies of capitalist society, before it assumes distorted forms in international political relations and inter-capitalist competition” (52).

Key to understanding this “vast multitude of labors” powering the worldwide network of the planetary mine is the theory of “global depeasantization” propounded by Farshad Araghi and other Marxian theorists.  Arboleda shows that depeasantization has operated with increasing speed since the 1990s at both ends of the resource extraction value chain: Latin American peasants, along with millions of their Chinese counterparts, have been systematically separated from subsistence-based, agrarian-oriented communities and fully proletarianized. The author also draws upon the notion of the “collective laborer” described by Marx in Volume 1 of Capital (with considerable assistance here from Moishe Postone’s landmark study Time, Labor, and Social Domination) to suggest that the twenty-first century may produce the world’s first truly global proletariat, where a combination of cross-border migration and racialization of the workforce make available an always-ready reserve army of industrial labor.

No discussion of the modern mining industry would be complete without mentioning the huge leap forward in recent decades in extractive technologies: robotized trucks, GIS systems to locate new mineral sources, engineered microorganisms to break the resistance of recalcitrant ores, computerized port facilities, massive container ships, to name just a few.  Arboleda skillfully places these technological advances in the context of a “fourth machine age”, an extension of Ernest Mandel’s three previous machine-driven ages of production from his study Late Capitalism. He points out that these technological changes have increased the material footprint of mineral extraction, according to one geophysicist, by a factor of around 1,000, with a concomitant increase in ecosystem degradation near mining sites (49). In addition, however, the increased organic composition of capital in the mining industry, with technology often reducing the size of the workforce while at the same time placing downward pressure on value creation for the owners of capital, has created an opening for revolutionary praxis among mining’s proletariat. “Alongside job destruction and instability,” Arboleda (234) writes, “the computerization and mechanization of resource extraction has also underpinned renewed processes of knowledge production in formal settings as well as in the course of workers’ practical interaction with technological infrastructures.” Communities of resource extraction workers throughout Latin America have acquired cellular phones, computers and internet access as they have been drawn into the proletariat, all of which have increased their ability to organize collectively.

This leads into the book’s penultimate chapter, “Struggle: Plebeian Consciousness and the Universal Ayllu”, where Arboleda presents numerous possibilities for workers’ revolutionary action at all stages of the planetary mine’s value chain.  The author wisely foregrounds this discussion with a consideration of Marx’s late writings, where he escaped the narrow Eurocentrism of his earlier work and began delineating revolutionary potentialities in non-Western societies.  Latin American Marxism, Arboleda notes, offers one excellent opportunity to rethink the global working class outside of a Eurocentric bias. The former Bolivian vice-president Garcia Linera, for example, envisions the ayllu (a network of Andean indigenous communal associations) as a potential vector for ethnic- and class-based opposition to the extractive industry’s dominance. Moreover, the simultaneous depeasantization of both Latin American and East Asian workers mentioned earlier is another force for proletarian revolt, as conditions for workers’ dissatisfaction are strikingly similar at both ends of the commodity cycle: dispossession of peasants’ land to create industrialized agriculture; environmental degradation from changes in land use caused by infrastructural modernization; corruption of local government officials; and – perhaps most important – a massive increase in the use of subcontracted, contingent labor. “More than being merely oppositional,” Arboleda (222) writes, “these struggles are concerned with inventing new territorial configurations in which value relations are overthrown and replaced by renewed modes of sociality”, a sociality potentially rooted in the ethos of Linera’s “universal ayllu.”

Arboleda ends the narrative of “Planetary Mine” on an optimistic note, in an epilogue that devotes much of its space to how some resource extraction workers are bridging the divide between intellectual and manual labor (“science” and “life,” in Marx’s terms) that is endemic to capitalism.  The key to bringing together intellectual workers with their indigenous and campesino comrades, the author maintains, is endowing intellectual workers with class consciousness, a sense that their ideas should be grounded in the material struggles of those who supply living labor.  Some Latin American scientists, for example, have trained indigenous activists in the use of drones to monitor extractive firms’ destruction of ecosystems: surely an example of turning the tables on surveillance capitalism!  It is this creative interplay between indigenous knowledge, technology, and class consciousness that perhaps offers the best chance of effective resistance for all types of workers to the totalizing value relations of resource extraction.

Planetary Mine should be considered essential reading for anyone interested either in Latin America’s signal contributions to Marxian thinking, or in understanding commodity extraction and export from a historical materialist point of view.  The author avoids the trap of methodological nationalism that limits many studies of extraction, offering instead a lively account of the globalized, sociometabolic processes underlying the extractive industry’s production and reproduction. As Arboleda (6) states in his introduction, “the manifold determinations that produce landscapes of extraction in historically and geographically specific ways necessitates a dialectical theory of praxis, one that sets out from the material conditions in which life itself is produced and reproduced”. Planetary Mine succeeds admirably in showing this dialectical process at work.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

3370. America’s Obsession With Cheap Meat

By Jane Ziegleman, The New York Times, May 15, 2020
To the slaugtherhouse...

In the hierarchy of essential things in America, it appears, cheeseburgers rank near the top. The president’s recent declaration that meatpacking plants are “critical infrastructure” and meat is “essential” under the Defense Production Act speaks volumes about this country’s attachment to an abundant supply of beef and pork even amid a pandemic.

That President Trump rushed to issue an executive order that aims to keep meat processors on the job, while hesitating to take similar action to ramp up the manufacturing of protective gear for medical workers, no doubt reflects the influence of lobbyists for the meat industry. But there’s something else to consider. The perceived essentialness of cheeseburgers (and other meat products) is also a function of certain distinctly American food habits and beliefs.

Both have deep roots. Though strongly influenced by Britain, 19th-century American cuisine differed from the motherland in at least two important respects. In her 1832 travel book, “Domestic Manners of the Americans,” the English writer Frances Trollope describes the breathtaking quantities of food on American dinner tables. Even tea, she reports, is a “massive meal,” a lavish spread of many cakes and breads and “ham, turkey, hung beef, apple sauce and pickled oysters.”

Equally impressive to this foreign observer were the carnivorous tendencies of her American hosts. “They consume an extraordinary amount of bacon,” she writes, while “ham and beefsteaks appear morning, noon and night.”

In the hierarchy of essential things in America, it appears, cheeseburgers rank near the top. The president’s recent declaration that meatpacking plants are “critical infrastructure” and meat is “essential” under the Defense Production Act speaks volumes about this country’s attachment to an abundant supply of beef and pork even amid a pandemic.

That President Trump rushed to issue an executive order that aims to keep meat processors on the job, while hesitating to take similar action to ramp up the manufacturing of protective gear for medical workers, no doubt reflects the influence of lobbyists for the meat industry. But there’s something else to consider. The perceived essentialness of cheeseburgers (and other meat products) is also a function of certain distinctly American food habits and beliefs.

Both have deep roots. Though strongly influenced by Britain, 19th-century American cuisine differed from the motherland in at least two important respects. In her 1832 travel book, “Domestic Manners of the Americans,” the English writer Frances Trollope describes the breathtaking quantities of food on American dinner tables. Even tea, she reports, is a “massive meal,” a lavish spread of many cakes and breads and “ham, turkey, hung beef, apple sauce and pickled oysters.”

Equally impressive to this foreign observer were the carnivorous tendencies of her American hosts. “They consume an extraordinary amount of bacon,” she writes, while “ham and beefsteaks appear morning, noon and night.”

Americans were indiscriminate in their love for animal protein. Beef, pork, lamb and mutton were all consumed with relish. However, as pointed out by the food historian Harvey Levenstein, it was beef, the form of protein preferred by the upper class, “that reigned supreme in status.” With the opening of the Western frontier in the mid-19th century, increased grazing land for cattle lowered beef prices, making it affordable for the working class.

Dietary surveys conducted at the turn of the 20th century by Wilbur Atwater, father of American nutrition, revealed that even laborers were able to have beefsteak for breakfast. As Atwater was quick to point out, a high-protein diet set American workers apart from their European counterparts. On average, Americans ate a phenomenal 147 pounds of meat a year; Italians, by contrast, consumed 24.

“Doubtless,” Atwater wrote, “we live and work more intensely than people do in Europe.” The “vigor, ambition and hopes for higher things” that distinguished the American worker, he argued, was fed by repeated helpings of T-bone and sirloin steak.

During World War I, the idea that American vitality was tied to a meat-heavy diet dictated how the troops were fed. To give them a fighting edge, tremendous quantities of beef and pork were shipped overseas, enough to provide soldiers with 20 ounces of beef a day or 12 ounces of bacon. The cost was staggering, but the Army refused to trim meat rations. As one newspaper reported: “There will be no meatless days in the army. The Huns are going to find themselves up against beef-eaters and pork-fed fighters full of that savage strength that come from fried steak and boiled ham and crisped bacon.”

It’s no coincidence that the archetypal American hero, the cowboy, is a cattle herder, or that we claim hamburgers as the quintessential American food. Or that when Mr. Trump welcomed the 2019 football college champions to the White House, he offered them Big Macs and Quarter Pounders. Much of what has defined us as Americans is expressed through our meat consumption.

When the coronavirus began sweeping through meat plants in Colorado, South Dakota and Pennsylvania, Mr. Trump acted quickly. The specter of meat shortages and higher prices — along with some friendly persuasion from groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association — prompted him to open the way to, in effect, forcing slaughterhouse employees to show up for work in a patently unsafe environment.

Mr. Trump’s move places inexpensive meat over the health and safety of the workers who produce it. Ever since the publication of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” in 1906, we have known about those perils, and too often left them unchecked, our way of keeping meat prices down and profits up.
In more ways than one, our access to cheap meat has worked to our disadvantage. With a large piece of protein in the center of the plate, most often cooked in a frying pan, Americans never had to test their powers of culinary creativity.

We never developed preparations, so common in other cuisines, that turn humble, plant-based ingredients into high culinary art. A meat-rich diet also meant that Americans were disproportionately plagued by what people used to call “dyspepsia,” what we know today as indigestion.

For the benefit of all concerned, both workers and consumers, we should take this as our cue to rethink old eating habits and look at alternative traditions. We don’t have to look far for inspiration. In fact, it’s all around us, in the many immigrant cuisines that rely chiefly on vegetables, starches and legumes, and use meat strategically, as a kind of condiment.

Think, for example, of Chinese-American stir fries in which a few ounces of beef, a one-person serving for some of us, is cut into bite-size morsels, flash-cooked with snow peas and used to feed a family of four. Or consider the magic that Italian-American home cooks produce with a handful of beans and some macaroni. We have options that don’t require making workers risk their health.

Is a well-stocked meat freezer really more “essential” than a human life? Unfortunately, Mr. Trump’s decision suggests that for Americans, it is.

3369. The End of Meat Is Here

By Jonathan Safran Foer, The New York Times, May 21, 2020
Meat piled in a delivery truck in Manhattan on May 9.Credit...Andrew Kelly/Reuters
Is any panic more primitive than the one prompted by the thought of empty grocery store shelves? Is any relief more primitive than the one provided by comfort food?

Most everyone has been doing more cooking these days, more documenting of the cooking, and more thinking about food in general. The combination of meat shortages and President Trump’s decision to order slaughterhouses open despite the protestations of endangered workers has inspired many Americans to consider just how essential meat is.

Is it more essential than the lives of the working poor who labor to produce it? It seems so. An astonishing six out of 10 counties that the White House itself identified as coronavirus hot spots are home to the very slaughterhouses the president ordered open.

In Sioux Falls, S.D., the Smithfield pork plant, which produces some 5 percent of the country’s pork, is one of the largest hot spots in the nation. A Tyson plant in Perry, Iowa, had 730 cases of the coronavirus — nearly 60 percent of its employees. At another Tyson plant, in Waterloo, Iowa, there were 1,031 reported cases among about 2,800 workers.

Sick workers mean plant shutdowns, which has led to a backlog of animals. Some farmers are injecting pregnant sows to cause abortions. Others are forced to euthanize their animals, often by gassing or shooting them. It’s gotten bad enough that Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has asked the Trump administration to provide mental health resources to hog farmers.

Despite this grisly reality — and the widely reported effects of the factory-farm industry on America’s lands, communities, animals and human health long before this pandemic hit — only around half of Americans say they are trying to reduce their meat consumption. Meat is embedded in our culture and personal histories in ways that matter too much, from the Thanksgiving turkey to the ballpark hot dog. Meat comes with uniquely wonderful smells and tastes, with satisfactions that can almost feel like home itself. And what, if not the feeling of home, is essential?

And yet, an increasing number of people sense the inevitability of impending change.

Animal agriculture is now recognized as a leading cause of global warming. According to The Economist, a quarter of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 say they are vegetarians or vegans, which is perhaps one reason sales of plant-based “meats” have skyrocketed, with Impossible and Beyond Burgers available everywhere from Whole Foods to White Castle.

Our hand has been reaching for the doorknob for the last few years. Covid-19 has kicked open the door.
At the very least it has forced us to look. When it comes to a subject as inconvenient as meat, it is tempting to pretend unambiguous science is advocacy, to find solace in exceptions that could never be scaled and to speak about our world as if it were theoretical.

Some of the most thoughtful people I know find ways not to give the problems of animal agriculture any thought, just as I find ways to avoid thinking about climate change and income inequality, not to mention the paradoxes in my own eating life. One of the unexpected side effects of these months of sheltering in place is that it’s hard not to think about the things that are essential to who we are.

We cannot protect our environment while continuing to eat meat regularly. This is not a refutable perspective, but a banal truism. Whether they become Whoppers or boutique grass-fed steaks, cows produce an enormous amount of greenhouse gas. If cows were a country, they would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.

According to the research director of Project Drawdown — a nonprofit organization dedicated to modeling solutions to address climate change — eating a plant-based diet is “the most important contribution every individual can make to reversing global warming.”

Americans overwhelmingly accept the science of climate change. A majority of both Republicans and Democrats say that the United States should have remained in the Paris climate accord. We don’t need new information, and we don’t need new values. We only need to walk through the open door.

We cannot claim to care about the humane treatment of animals while continuing to eat meat regularly. The farming system we rely on is woven through with misery. Modern chickens have been so genetically modified that their very bodies have become prisons of pain even if we open their cages. Turkeys are bred to be so obese that they are incapable of reproducing without artificial insemination. Mother cows have their calves ripped from them before weaning, resulting in acute distress we can hear in their wails and empirically measure through the cortisol in their bodies.

No label or certification can avoid these kinds of cruelty. We don’t need any animal rights activist waving a finger at us. We don’t need to be convinced of anything we don’t already know. We need to listen to ourselves.

We cannot protect against pandemics while continuing to eat meat regularly. Much attention has been paid to wet markets, but factory farms, specifically poultry farms, are a more important breeding ground for pandemics. Further, the C.D.C. reports that three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic — the result of our broken relationship with animals.

Monday, May 18, 2020

3368. Creating Abundance By Occupying Your Plate

By Kamal Prasad, People Powered Peace, No date

Occupy Your Plate
The Occupy Movement came about partly because we realized that we had given away too much power to government and industry that do not always have the best interest of the people in mind in their actions. Once power is given away, it can be very difficult to get back.  That is why we have yet to see the one percent pay their fair share. There is one power, however, which we all have that hasn’t been taken away from us and that is what we put on our plates to nourish our bodies every day. Here is why it matters.
The largest receiver of farm subsidies in the U.S. is the corn industry. However, according to the USDA, over 95% of the corn grown is fed to cows, pigs and chickens. In fact, majority of the edible grains grown are fed to livestock, which if they were fed to people directly would feed over 800 million people. Taking these factors into account, the livestock industry is the largest receiver of government farm subsidies.
We are told that we need GMOs because they can be made pesticide and drought resistant to produce larger yields to feed a growing population. If we weren’t using the food we grow now to feed animals who return only a fraction of that food back with even lower nutritional value, we would have enough food to feed everyone without the need for GMOs.
Instead of subsidizing raising foods that promote heart disease, diabetes and cancer, why don’t we support those same farmers to grow vitamin, phytonutrient, and antioxidant producing foods that enhance life, fight diseases and increase longevity?
Animal agriculture is also responsible for a large portion of world’s environmental problems, emitting more greenhouse gases than all modes of transportation combined. As can be deduced from the food grown to feed animals, animal agriculture is a huge consumer of fossil fuels. The livestock industry is also responsible for the largest use of farm land and water as well being the largest polluter of these resources.
If one were to take a poll, almost everyone would condemn cruelty to animals, including farm animals. Yet, by US Dept of Agriculture’s own account, over 95% of all animal products that we consume daily come from factory farms; where sentient beings are intensively confined, suffer both physical and mental abuse before meeting a horrible death. Even so-called humanely raised animals are typically sent to the same inhumane slaughterhouses that also process factory-farmed animals.
There isn’t one good reason to give up eating animals, there are several. The details of each of the things listed above could fit volumes. I encourage you to do your own research, to empower yourself against the industries and the government beholden to them, that use our tax-dollars to exploit our land, water and living creatures capable of loving and feeling. Perhaps you will come to the same conclusion I came to 4 years ago.
Giving up eating animals is not about deprivation; it is about creating abundance, an abundance of resources, an abundance of food to feed the hungry, an abundance of health, for people and the planet, and an abundance of compassion. And when there is abundance, there is sharing, and sharing makes it a better world to live in, for us, them, our children and generations yet to come.
One of the easiest way to be a part of the Occupy Movement is by occupying your plate. You still have this power, so be powerful.


3367. Lynn Margulis, Biological Rebel

By John Horgan, Scientific American, November 24, 2011
Credit...Paul Hosefos/The New York Times

The biologist Lynn Margulis died on November 22 at the age of 73. I adapted the following essay about her from my 1996 book The End of Science.
Lynn Margulis was among the most creative challengers of mainstream Darwinian thinking of the late 20th century. She challenged what she called "ultra-Darwinian orthodoxy" with several ideas. The first, and most successful, is the concept of symbiosis. Darwin and his heirs had always emphasized the role that competition between individuals and species played in evolution. In the 1960's, however, Margulis began arguing that symbiosis had been an equally important factor--and perhaps more important--in the evolution of life. One of the greatest mysteries in evolution concerns the evolution of prokaryotes, cells that lack a nucleus and are the simplest of all organisms, into eukaryotes, cells that have nuclei. All multi-cellular organisms, including humans, consist of eukaryotic cells.
Margulis proposed that eukaryotes may have emerged when one prokaryote absorbed another, smaller one, which became the nucleus. She suggested that such cells be considered not as individual organisms but as "composites." After Margulis provided examples of symbiotic relationships among living microorganisms, she gradually won support for her views on the role of symbiosis in early evolution. She did not stop there, however. Like Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, authors of the punctuated equilibrium hypothesis, she argued that conventional Darwinian mechanisms could not account for the stops and starts observed in the fossil record. Symbiosis, she suggested, could explain why species appear so suddenly and why they persist so long without changing.
Margulis's emphasis on symbiosis led naturally to a much more radical idea: Gaia. The concept and term (Gaia was the Greek goddess of the earth) were originally proposed in 1972 by James Lovelock, a British chemist and inventor. Gaia comes in many guises, but the basic idea is that the biota, the sum of all life on earth, is locked in a symbiotic relationship with the environment--the atmosphere, the seas and other aspects of the earth's surface. In fact, the biota chemically regulates the environment in such a way as to promote its own survival. Margulis was immediately taken with Gaia, and she joined Lovelock in promulgating the idea.
I met Margulis in May 1994 in the first-class lounge of New York's Pennsylvania Station, where she was waiting for a train. She resembled an aging tomboy: she had short hair and ruddy skin, and she wore a striped, short-sleeve shirt and khaki pants. She dutifully played the radical, at first. She ridiculed the suggestion of Ernst Mayr, Richard Dawkins and other ultra-Darwinians that evolutionary biology might be nearing completion, in terms of not requiring any major additions or revisions. "They're finished," Margulis declared, "but that's just a small blip in the 20th century history of biology rather than a full-fledged and valid science."
She emphasized that she had no problem with the basic premise of Darwinism. "Evolution no doubts occurs, and it's been seen to occur, and it's occurring now. Everyone who's scientific-minded agrees with that. The question is, how does it occur? And that's where everyone parts company." Ultra-Darwinians, by focusing on the gene as the unit of selection, had failed to explain how speciation occurs. Only a much broader theory that incorporates symbiosis and higher-level selection could account for the diversity of the fossil record and of life today, according to Margulis.
Symbiosis, she added, also allows a kind of Lamarckianism, or inheritance of acquired characteristics. Through symbiosis, one organism can genetically absorb or infiltrate another and thereby become more fit. For example, if a translucent fungus absorbs an alga that can perform photosynthesis, the fungus may acquire the capability of photosynthesis too and pass it to its offspring. Margulis noted that Lamarck has been unfairly cast as the goat of evolutionary biology. "We have this British-French business. Darwin's all right and Lamarck is bad. It's really terrible." Margulis acknowledged that symbiogenesis, the creation of new species through symbiosis, is not really an original idea. The concept was first proposed early in this century by the Russian biologist Marachovsky. Similar ideas were set forth in the 1920's by Ivan Emmanual Wallin in a book called Symbioticism and Origins of Species. "An absolutely beautiful, wonderful book that was totally ignored," Margulis declared.
Before meeting Margulis, I had read a draft of a book she was writing with her son, Dorian Sagan, called What Is Life? The book was an amalgam of philosophy, science and lyric tributes to "life: the eternal enigma." It argued, in effect, for a new holistic approach to biology, in which the animist beliefs of the ancients are fused with the mechanistic views of post-Newton, post-Darwin science. Margulis conceded that the book was aimed less at advancing testable, scientific assertions than at encouraging a new philosophical outlook among biologists. But the only difference between her and biologists like Dawkins, she insisted, is that she admitted her philosophical outlook instead of pretending that she didn't have one. "Scientists are no cleaner with respect to being untouched by culture than anyone else."
Did that mean that she did not believe science can achieve absolute truth? Margulis pondered the question a moment. She noted that science derives its power and persuasiveness from the fact that its assertions can be checked against the real world--unlike the assertions of religion, art and other modes of knowledge. "But I don't think that's the same as saying there's absolute truth. I don't think there's absolute truth, and if there is, I don't think any person has it."
Then, perhaps realizing how close she was edging toward postmodernism, Margulis took pains to steer herself back toward the scientific mainstream. She resented depictions of her as a scientific feminist, who was trying to replace masculine concepts of nature with feminine ones. She conceded that, in comparison to such concepts as "survival of the fittest" and "nature red in tooth and claw," her symbiosis views might seem feminine. "There is that cultural overtone, but I consider that just a complete distortion."
She rejected the notion--often associated with Gaia--that the earth is in some sense a living organism. "The earth is obviously not a live organism," Margulis said, "because no single living organism cycles its waste. That's so anthropomorphic, so misleading." Lovelock encouraged this metaphor, she claimed, because he thought it would aid the cause of environmentalism, and because it suited his own quasi-spiritual leanings. "He says it's an okay metaphor because it's better than the old one. I think it's bad because it's just getting the scientists mad at you, because you're encouraging irrationality."
Both Gould and Dawkins have ridiculed Gaia as pseudo-science, poetry posing as a theory. But Margulis is, in at least one sense, much more hard-nosed, more of a positivist, than they are. Gould and Dawkins each resorted to speculation about extraterrestrial life in order to buttress his view of life on earth. Margulis scoffed at these tactics. Any proposals concerning the existence of life elsewhere in the universe--or its Darwinian or non-Darwinian nature--are sheer speculation, she said. "You have no constraints on the answer to that, whether it's a frequent or infrequent thing. So I don't see how people can have strong opinions on that. Let me put it this way: opinions aren't science. There's no scientific basis! It's just opinion!"
She remembered that in the early 1970's she had received a call from the director Steven Spielberg, who was in the process of writing the movie ET. Spielberg asked Margulis if she thought it was likely or even possible that an extraterrestrial would have two hands, each with five fingers. "I said, 'You're making a movie! Just make it fun! What the hell do you care! Don't try to confuse yourself that it's science!'"
Toward the end of our interview, I asked Margulis if she minded always being referred to as a provocateur or gadfly, or someone who was "fruitfully wrong," as one scientist put it. She pressed her lips together, brooding over the question. "It's kind of dismissive, not serious," she replied. "I mean, you wouldn't do this to a serious scientist, would you?" She stared at me, and I finally realized her question was not rhetorical; she really wanted an answer. I agreed that the descriptions seemed somewhat condescending.
"Yeah, that's right," she mused. Such criticism did not bother her, she insisted. "Anyone who makes this kind of ad hominem criticism exposes himself, doesn't he? I mean, if their argument is just based on provocative adjectives about me rather than the substance of the issue, then..." Her voice trailed off. Like other mavericks I have met, Margulis could not help but yearn, now and then, to be a respected member of the status quo, whose work merely confirmed the prevailing paradigm. But without courageous rebels like her, science would never achieve any progress.