“Symbiotic Earth” challenging our concept of evolution

A screening and discussion of the film “Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis Rocked the Boat and Started a Scientific Revolution” was presented as part of the Duty and Disobedience Series in DPAC on Thursday, April 19.

Director John Feldman and Margulis’ son and long-time writing partner Dorion Sagan facilitated the discussion following the film screening.

The film tells the story of Lynn Margulis, who as a young scientist in the 1960s was ridiculed for positing the theory that symbiosis is a key driver of evolution. This went against the Darwinian view that life evolved only through random genetic mutations and competition. Margulis instead presented a symbiotic narrative in which bacteria joined together to create the complex cells that formed animals, plants, and all other organisms.

Margulis was always attracted to what was considered outlandish, according to Feldman.

“What really started Lynn down this path was being a young student at the University of Wisconsin, one of the only female students at the time, and being largely dismissed by her colleagues,” Feldman said, adding that Margulis was driven to prove them wrong.

The documentary offers a coherent look at Margulis’ theory and also extensive interviews and feedback from various scientists around the world that Margulis collaborated with on this theory of symbiotic evolution.

Traditionally, science has viewed living organisms as machines, and in order to study them has used a reductionist approach, which breaks things down into their component parts.

Now, thanks to Margulis’ research, scientists are beginning to use a holistic approach – putting the world back together again, exposing properties that emerge from the system itself, and challenging our delusions that we can control and subjugate nature, according to Feldman.

Sagan stressed the importance of applying these ideas to our current issues with medicine, nutrition, and the environment, which he believes we are not addressing under the correct scientific lens.

“The real objective is to get people talking about these things. In some cases, particularly with evolution, people have been hesitant to latch on to these beliefs because they fear their views will be seen as unscientific. However, a lot of these ideas have scientific validity,” Sagan said.

One issue that the film seeks to address is the way we view organisms, particularly bacteria, as being foreign agents in our bodies. However, as the film suggests, these bacterial organisms play a crucial role in the formation of our evolution as humans and the maintenance of our health.

“We anthropomorphize so much, place value judgments on bacteria – categorizing ‘bad’ bacteria and ‘good’ bacteria, but there is a bigger picture. When you’re healthy you have more, not less, bacterial diversity, and our habits as a species are contributing to the decline in species diversity,” Sagan said.