With Gaia theorist Lynn Margulis and posthumanist Bruce Clarke, Diana Leong argues against the fetishizing of genes and seeks an alternative to the modern synthesis of Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian inheritance. These amodern, posthumanist approaches instead offer a gradual accumulation and transmission of mutations, and a coevolutionary embeddedness within diverse environments and the socio-political structures responsible for them.
On July 1, 2018, comedian John Oliver devoted his weekly HBO news program, Last Week Tonight, to the popular gene editing technique known as CRISPR (i.e., Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). "It's like cut and paste in Microsoft Word," he says. "If there's something that you want to fix on a strand of DNA, with CRISPR you can theoretically find it, cut it out and paste in a fix – at which point presumably Clippy shows up and says, 'Hi, looks like you're trying to play God and alter the basic building blocks of life. Need some help'" ("Gene Editing")? Oliver's analogizing of CRISPR to the functions of word processing programs relies on the widespread notion that genes are self-contained depositories of information. Like words on a (electronic) page, they can be re-configured to generate new meanings, or, as his reference to "playing God" implies, new forms of life. While the episode offers a simplified and even misleading description of gene editing, it also provides a fascinating snapshot of how our conceptions of nature and life are too-often reduced to genetic activity.
As Oliver notes, this fetishizing of genes has produced a near-hysterical atmosphere, one in which only two possible consequences of the manipulation of life exist. Gene editing, it seems, "is either going to cure all disease or kill every last one of us" ("Gene Editing"). Undoubtedly, any and all genetic experimentation gives rise to real ethical concerns. Even a cursory review of the history of eugenics would confirm as much. But after cataloguing the possible impacts of gene editing on ecosystems, epidemiology, and the creation of hybrid creatures like "pig-Hitlers" (a fitting reminder that Last Week Tonight is a comedy show), Oliver concludes that to address these concerns adequately, we must first align public expectations with scientific reality. Nothing captures the urgency of this necessity more than the PBS interview he cites, in which Harvard geneticist George Church is asked: "Could CRISPR give us unicorns" ("Gene Editing")? However, what these scenarios suggest is that our various approaches to life are the result of more than a simple incongruity between lay and scientific understandings of the genome.
Oliver's allusion to Germany's eugenic programs (i.e., "pig-Hitlers") situates these approaches within a particular genre of humanist and more-than-human speculation, wherein genes provide a point of articulation between configurations of race and power and visions of the future. More precisely, what philosopher Susan Oyama calls a "circuit of genecentrisms" maintains the fantasy that something like an essential, autonomous, and knowable nature exists (212).1According to Oyama, "genecentrisms" adhere to three principles: "(1) heredity is narrowly defined as transmission of genes; (2) development is their 'expression'; (3) evolution is change in their frequencies" (212). Taken together, these principles support a narrative of evolution that doubles-down on the presumed distinctions between "nature" and "nurture." This fantasy has been most recently associated with neo-Darwinism, or a form of "mainstream evolutionary thought" that builds on the modern synthesis of Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian inheritance to establish the gradual accumulation and transmission of mutations as the fundamental motor of evolution (Clarke 6). Within this framework, genes are truly the "basic building blocks of life," a metaphor that positions genes as discrete objects functioning independently of their environs ("Gene Editing"). As Oliver's segment demonstrates, one of the most significant consequences of this thinking is the prioritization of an organism's genetic "nature" over the systems and processes that contribute to the material conditions of its being. Despite their obvious differences, PBS' pursuit of a hypothetical unicorn and Germany's eugenic programs share this prioritization, one that discourages closer scrutiny of how and why certain projections of life become legitimized. Beyond its status as a scientific heuristic, genecentrism wards against the realization that life is an effect of both our "coevolutionary embeddedness within diverse…environments" and the socio-political structures responsible for them (Clarke 173).
Although Oliver's segment is not a definitive representation of contemporary scientific discourse, it neatly summarizes some of the most salient conversations around life, evolution, and ecology: How should we conceive of the relations between the micro- and macro-level scales of the planet? What are the roles of human societies in mediating these relations? How do we navigate scientific theories and technologies that exceed their immediate scope? And, as always, what constitutes life? It is with these questions in mind that Bruce Clarke's edited collection, Earth, Life, and System: Evolution and Ecology on a Gaian Planet, appraises the legacy of Lynn Margulis' groundbreaking contributions to our understandings of the earth. Emerging from a 2011 symposium on her scholarship, this collection features ten essays inspired by some of Margulis' most well-known scientific and philosophical insights. As a preeminent evolutionary biologist, the late Margulis played a vital role in uncovering the significance of microbial symbiosis to evolution (i.e., serial endosymbiotic theory or SET). In addition, her support of James Lovelock's Gaia theory made her an early proponent of Earth system science and posthumanist thought. As Clarke writes in his introduction, "In its broadest strokes, Margulis' science offers a compelling cosmic-evolutionary view of processes that couple solar energy and the material Earth together with the integrated operations of all living systems" (1).
Along with Clarke, the contributors – Dorian Sagan, Sankar Chatterjee, James Strick, Jan Sapp, Susan Squier, James Shapiro, Susan Oyama, Christopher Witmore, and Peter Westbroek – range across Margulis' various spheres of influence to respond sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely to her work. Drawing from the natural and physical sciences, cybernetic and systems theory, and literary and cultural studies, the essays remain attentive to the historical and political contexts of her scholarship, including the many disagreements that transformed Margulis into one of the most controversial figures in and beyond the sciences. Certainly, her search for a more inclusive planetary imagination rendered her a lifelong critic of genecentrism and its larger implications. And in taking this criticism as its point of departure, the collection suggests that the very factors that designated Margulis a scientific "outsider" – her interdisciplinarity, her rejection of anthropocentricism, and her commitment to speculation as a scientific method – are the same factors that make her work invaluable for meeting our current environmental and techno-scientific challenges.
As a scholar working at the intersections of black literature and environmental justice, I am especially intrigued by the collection's treatment of power and race. More specifically, I am interested in how it attends to a question raised by Oliver's episode: how and why do certain projections of life become legitimized? Outside of a general acknowledgment that cultural issues shaped the reception of Margulis' theories, the commentators seem to agree that a proper planetary imaginary could and should reveal the relative insignificance of human categories of identification. Westbroek, for example, claims that "at the scale of Earth, even the great conflicts of interest – between social classes or nations – are no more than a shifting of funds. We look at the deep structure of civilization: the modernist world does whatever it does, but what counts is its relationship with the Earth" (262). So too, Sagan mentions with disdain the need to negotiate "language games, postmodernism, and the fashionable academic critique of power" (28), and Clarke describes Gregory Bateson's "edict not to get hung up on hasty activisms to the point of losing touch with the primary vision of planetary participation" as "bracing" (160). I sympathize to a degree with their skepticism, considering that proponents of the cultural turn (i.e., post-structuralism, social constructivism, critical race studies) occasionally reduce the sciences to their most deterministic, teleological, and imperialistic iterations. In this respect, the collection shares with recent theories of new materialism the "sense that the radicalism of the dominant discourses which have flourished under the cultural turn is now more or less exhausted" (Coole and Frost 6). And yet, because the "conflicts of interest…between social classes or nations" and "academic critique[s] of power" include the fundamental concerns of people of color, to denigrate these as "fashionable" or "no more than a shifting of funds" is to misunderstand how and why any "vision of planetary participation" must proceed through an account of power and race.
People of color in general, and black communities specifically, have a long history of confronting the same consequences of scientific and technological development that the collection seeks to dismantle. Many of these, including genecentrism, human exceptionalism, and an unrelenting focus on competition over cooperation, have been and continue to be disproportionately borne by people of color.2For examples, see Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington, Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts, and The Social Life of DNA by Alondra Nelson. Indeed, an entire aesthetic and philosophical movement – Afrofuturism – arose to counter this history by exploring how black experiences might ground a more collective and ethical inhabitation of the earth. The growing popularity of Afrofuturism also highlights the extent to which people of color have been overlooked or tokenized within more conventional discussions about the planet's future.3The critical and commercial success of recent Afrofuturist films like Jordan Peele's Get Out, Marvel Studio's Black Panther, and Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You are just a few examples of how Afrofuturism speaks to a broad desire for visions of the future (and present) that are centered on people of color. But rather than simply faulting the collection for its inattention to matters of race, I instead approach the essays in the spirit of Oyama's observation that "sustaining particular ecological relationships requires defining, adjusting, or sustaining social ones as well, but recalling systemic ambiguity and redundancy might keep us at the bargaining table; many routes seem blocked, but there may be more ways forward than we think, and there are sometimes alternate paths to a given end" (222). How, in other words, does the collection help us to think race, Gaia theory, SET, and planetary imaginaries together?
It's a Microbial World and We're Just Living in It
Across the essays, Margulis' SET emerges as foundational to the project of situating the human within environmental networks. Although now widely accepted, her thesis that eukaryotic or nucleated cells evolved from prokaryotic bacteria was met initially with more than a little skepticism. According to her theory, organelles like mitochondria and chloroplasts were once free-living microbes that were absorbed by proto-eukaryotic cells. Over time, microbes and host cells developed a symbiotic bond that resulted in the microbes dividing along with the host cell. "This meant," Strick writes, "that the emergence of the eukaryotic cell – arguably the greatest breakthrough in evolutionary novelty in the history of life on Earth – was not created by tiny, cumulative mutations, but by large leaps involving acquisition of an entire microbial genome at once, contradicting a fundamental tenet of neo-Darwinian evolutionary thought" (94). The idea that complex organisms owe their existence to prokaryotic symbionts not only granted microbes a new significance, it also opposed theories of evolution that privileged the sexual transmission of genes. Unlike neo-Darwinism, which views competition as a definitive factor in natural selection, Margulis proposed that cooperative relations are more likely to be the driving force behind genetic variation. As Chatterjee posits in his essay, "The RNA/Protein World and the Endoprebiotic Origin of Life," even at "the lowest hierarchical level during the emergence of life…molecules began to foster partnerships among their components, and to communicate with each other, circulating information in complex feedback loops" (69). For Margulis, this meant that human bodies "result from what, observed in a time machine, could be characterized as a pathological infection…We have not recovered from this infection; we will never recover. We are this infection" (Sagan 15, emphasis in the original). While the posthumanist and materialist connotations of SET were never fully integrated into mainstream science, they did open space for additional forms of "out of the box" scientific thinking.
In "The World Egg and the Ouroboros," Squier examines how embryologist C.H. Waddington's pursuit of a general theoretical biology betrayed a "philosophical empathy" that also subtended his breakthroughs in epigenetics (133). While hosting the symposia charged with crafting a "unified biological theory," Waddington divulged that two metaphysical images (i.e., the World Egg and the Ouroboros) stimulated the experiments that indicated "embryonic development was guided not merely by the DNA in the nucleus of the cell but also by the interaction between the cell nucleus and is surroundings, both the cytoplasm and the extracellular environment" (Squier 129; 134). Even though the symposia participants eventually settled on a model of language for understanding these interactions, Waddington's visual metaphors continued to guide his attempts to formulate an alternative model. His 1970 volume on painting and modern science, Behind Appearance, was not only a novel exploration of "whether words or images are the foundation of scientific thought," it was also a call to "move beyond conceptual categories, including the literature/science divide" (Squier 143; 147). As Squier suggests, when read alongside Margulis' legacy, Waddington's imaginative and interdisciplinary research can be re-contextualized as part of a nascent, mid-20th century movement towards systems theory.
Oyama's essay, "Sustainable Development," expands on Squier's contribution to detail how contemporary Developmental Systems Theory (DST) builds on Waddington and Margulis' interrogations of genecentrism. In a fascinating exegesis of the field, Oyama contends that DST "allows us to frame ontogeny (development) more expansively, explicitly incorporating the temporally and spatially extended ensembles involved in bringing an organism into being, helping it grow, change, make its way" (203). Against traditional notions of development that preserve strict divisions between the "nurture" of external environments and the "nature" of autonomous and gene-driven organisms, DST instead asserts that "developmental contexts, organic and inorganic, multifarious and in transition, are implicated in the ontogenetic formation of natures" (Oyama 205). Telescoping out from individual organisms, Oyama then argues for incorporating DST into our broader concepts of sustainability. Noting that "one generation influences what happens in the next, not by 'transmitting' traits, but by affecting the interactants (symbionts, DNA, status, epigenetic marks, wealth) that will be available for construction, at the moment or down the line," she effectively links developmental conditions to the health of environmental and social systems alike (Oyama 219). Taken together, Squier and Oyama's essays illustrate how Margulis provided early inspiration for our current investments in microbe-human-environment relations. In doing so, they also gesture toward another major element of her intellectual labor – speculation.
Prior to the development of molecular phylogenetics in the 1980s, Margulis' interest in cellular origins was dismissed as "evolutionary speculation" because "the only way to prove that organelles were derived from free-living microbes was to show their genealogical relationships" (Sapp 118; 117). Once molecular DNA sequencing confirmed the validity of SET, Margulis' theory was quickly moved from the margins to the center of evolutionary biology. Nevertheless, Margulis was consistent in her support for speculation as the "'itching enmities of unsteady truce…I hypothesize that all the phenomena of mind, from perception to consciousness, originated from an unholy microscopic alliance between hungry swimming killer bacteria and their potential archaebacterial [archaen] victims'" (qtd. in Sagan 24). Here, she joins scholars of the nonhuman turn (i.e., New Materialisms, Posthumanism, Animal Studies) in situating consciousness as an effect of entanglements between human and nonhuman actors. In this register, speculation is both a consequence of the pluriform constitution of the human mind and a way to actualize the "multiplicity of all eukaryotic genomes" (Sagan 24). We might then say that for the collection's contributors, SET is best conceived of as a material and speculative tie between organisms and communities, especially when those communities are experienced largely as imaginary. Like Waddington's "philosophical empathy" (133) and Oyama's request to "[frame developmental processes] amply rather than restrictively" (221), SET is a much an imaginative exercise as it is a scientific one. It is therefore hardly surprising that Margulis' early work with SET catalyzed her longstanding collaboration with Lovelock (Sagan 19).
One of the collection's central objectives is to produce a more generous reading of Gaia theory. Described by Sagan as a "planetary physiology," it elaborates how "our planetary biota has had a regulatory effect on the chemical composition of the atmosphere, on the Earth's global mean temperature, on the salinity and pH of the oceans, and on other would-be solely physical factors of our global environment" (19). In this regard, the earth functions like a living organism, in which biotic and abiotic components are linked through feedback systems that indicate "'life is a property of planets rather than of individual organisms'" (Morowitz, qtd. in Strick 90). Despite the fact that Lovelock's views laid the groundwork for Earth systems science, Gaia theory has provoked objections that are similar to those leveled against SET. For instance, in naming his theory after the Greek goddess of the earth, Lovelock opened himself to complaints of anthropomorphism and New Age mysticism. Accused of "assigning agency to a natural process and therefore secretly slipping a supernatural Creator back in through the back door," Gaia theory appeared to smuggle into the sciences the very paradigms – teleology, panpsychism, the "Great Chain of Being" – that they were at pains to expel (Strick 88). As Clarke points out, these accusations were in part a reaction against Gaia theory's "immediate and sustained chorus of moral if not always intellectual support from spiritually-oriented readers" ("Gaia Matters"). Yet as Strick implies, these accusations likewise reflected a resistance to seeing non-human organisms "as potent forces, shaping conditions on Earth just as powerfully (or perhaps more so) as they were being shaped by those external conditions" (88). Just as SET required us to re-configure our relationships to microbes, Gaia theory increased the agential range of non-human organisms from the local or regional to the planetary. And for many of the collection's writers, it is this aspect of Gaia theory that has encouraged the most potentially transformative responses.
In addition to supplying the sciences with a holistic model of the earth, Gaia theory facilitated the creation of new forms of planetary thought and representation. Clarke maintains that unlike global imaginaries that emphasize political, economic, and/or social processes, planetary imaginaries "readjust the view of the human towards its common relation to the Earth as an ultimately incalculable and uncontrollable system" (154). This more sustained reckoning with the finitude of human power and knowledge, he infers, better equips us to oppose the "instrumental humanism" that "[drives] commodity extraction amidst political and economic consolidations" and "[negotiates] corporate and cultural differences and the mobility of their interrelations relative to a humanity splintered into feudal or ideological tribes" (153-154). In the collection's final essay, Westbroek similarly argues for "[regarding] civilization as a late acquisition of this planet's long-term dynamics" (252). Writing against the tradition of treating civilization as a human phenomenon, he takes a cue from Margulis to advocate for a "symbiotic world view" that locates the foundations of civilization in the systems of the earth rather than the combined histories of human action (260). Clarke and Westbroek's embrace of the planetary is undergirded by the hope that "changes in the prevailing power structures," in terms of either human exceptionalism (Clarke) or the modernist exploitation of fossil fuels (Westbroek), will lead to the "[suppression of] unchecked impulses" (Westbroek 253; 267). With respect to Norbert Elias' study of civilizing processes, Westbroek implies that Gaia theory is a likely catalyst for such changes, which, like other civilizing processes, would promote new standards of behavior.
A Gaian Abolitionism
By way of a conclusion, I would like to return to the question I posed earlier in this review: How does this collection help us to think race, Gaia theory, SET, and planetary imaginaries together? While I agree with Clarke's claim that a "Gaian ethic" confronts us with the realization that "we will remain systematically coupled to the ecological conditions of our own mundane and Earthbound situation," we rarely experience our everyday lives as "mundane and Earthbound" organisms (174). Frequently, such experiences are either overwhelmed by the demands of economic survival, or overdetermined by race-related concerns. As I have argued elsewhere, blackness has long structured our engagements with nature, conditioning both their social and political possibilities and their representations within our wider cultural imaginaries.4See Leong, Diana. "The Salt Bones: 'Zong!' and an Ecology of Thirst." ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 23, no. 4, 2017, pp. 798-820. Environmental justice scholars and activists have likewise identified the naturalization of the color line as essential to the asymmetrical distribution of environmental risks and rewards. Certainly, in (re)defining the human as an order of embeddedness within the earth's physical and bio-chemical systems, SET and Gaia theory attempt an end-run around the material and explanatory powers of race. But even if planetary imaginaries were to successfully transform this embeddedness into a baseline for future action, the "we" and "our" of their assumed collective humanity merely displaces these effects rather than replacing them. How, for example, would a planetary imaginary bear on the disproportionately high rates of police violence and maternal death suffered by black populations in the US?5On racial differences in police fatalities and maternal death rates, see "The Relationship Between Structural Racism and Black-White Disparities in Fatal Police Shootings at the State Level" in the Journal of the National Medical Association, and Linda Villarosa's 2018 article, "Why America's Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis," in The New York Times Magazine. To be sure, Westbroek is correct that from a planetary perspective, "the modernist world does whatever it does, but what counts is its relationship with the Earth" (262). Given the recent and unprecedented increase in human-mediated ecological disaster, his observation is a necessary reminder that we have a "greater ethical responsibility…for the problems our activities create that might destabilize Gaia" (Strick 101). Nonetheless, such reminders do little to counteract the fact that our "relationship with the earth" remains grounded in the "metaphysical question of race" and in "blackness in particular as race's status-organizing principle" (Jackson 217).
I therefore propose that realizing the vast potential of planetary imaginaries requires us to amplify and then align their abolitionist impulses with those of Afrofuturism. Indeed, as a cultural, philosophical, and speculative movement that reconfigures the past, present, and future through the lens of the African diaspora, Afrofuturism mounts a direct challenge to the ecological consequences of the Anthropocene. In his 1994 essay, "Black to the Future," journalist and cultural critic Mark Dery declares that "African Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees. They inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done to them; and technology; be it branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, or Tasers, is too often brought to bear upon black bodies" (180). Dery's description of African Americans as "descendants of alien abductees" recasts modern racial slavery as a series of otherworldly encounters that launched the modern processes of world-making. Or, as this collection establishes, the modern processes of a Gaian unmaking. Out of these encounters arose the imperial standards of science, technology, and Western metaphysics that, Clark avers, "[respond] not to planetary matters of processes and their interrelation but to maps, grids, and lines of control" (153). Consequently, emancipating these "planetary matters" from the restrictions of "maps, grids, and lines of control" would entail the attainment of a radical and comprehensive freedom, the very same freedom that Afrofuturism prescribes. In this way, Gaia theory can join Afrofuturism in its pursuit of a planetary abolitionism.
Clarke, Bruce, editor. Earth, Life, and System: Evolution and Ecology on a Gaian Planet. Fordham University Press, 2015.
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Coole, Diana and Samantha Frost. "Introducing the New Materialisms." New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Edited by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, Duke University Press, 2010, pp. 1-43.
Dery, Mark. "Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose." Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Edited by Mark Dery, Duke University Press, 1994, pp. 179-222.
Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman. "Outer Worlds: The Persistence of Race in Movement 'Beyond the Human.'" GLQ. 21.2–3 (2015): 215–18.
Mesic, Aldina et. al. "The Relationship Between Structural Racism and Black-White Disparities in Fatal Police Shootings at the State Level." Journal of the National Medical Association, vol. 110, no. 2, 2018, pp.106 – 116.
Nelson, Alondra. The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.
Oliver, John, executive producer. "Last Week Tonight: Gene Editing." Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. HBO, 18 Jul. 2018.
Roberts, Dorothy. Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century. New York: The New Press, 2011.
Villarosa, Linda. "Why America's Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis." The New York Times Magazine, 11 Apr. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/11/magazine/black-mothers-babies-death-maternal-mortality.html. Accessed 1 Aug. 2018.
Washington, Harriet A. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Harlem Moon, 2006.