Utne Reader Visionary: Lynn Margulis

We need humility


| March-April 1996



This internationally renowned microbiologist, currently Distinguished University Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has spent a lifetime complementing the Darwinian idea of natural competition with a vision of how organisms “cooperate” in changing and sustaining life. She is co-developer (with British biologist James E. Lovelock) of the Gaia hypothesis—which claims that the earth is a single purposeful living system. And her controversial theory that biological cells evolved from symbiotic communities of protocells has led her to hypothesize that such “purposeful” gatherings-together, and not the blind chance of random mutation, have provided the new forms upon which evolutionary forces like natural selection work.

“Human beings need to be more humble. ‘Humble’ comes from dghem, which is an ancient Indo-European root meaning earth. It’s the root of humus and human and humanity. All of those things are, in that sense, of the earth and from the earth.

“The world is full of nonhuman splendor, and I think people are healthy insofar as they can interact with that splendor. The trends toward total human takeover of the environment are awful. We’re using 40 percent of net photosynthetic production for humans, and you’ve got to be out of your mind if you think we can use 80 percent. We are already at maximum, and yet people think they can go on having children and all those children are going to live.

“We think we’re exempt from species death, that we’re no longer subject to any kind of evolutionary rules and the species is going to go on forever. That’s a cultural myth. The tendency to exponentially grow all populations never lasts very long.”