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No More Enemies #1

Deb Reich
August 5, 2012

SET (Serial Endosymbiotic Theory) and No More Enemies (NME)

by Deb Reich MIT PROFESSOR Lynn Margulis is my hero in the world of biology for insisting (for decades, and despite widespread resistance among most mainstream biologists) that competition as an explanation for how things work in general, and how species evolve in particular, is highly overrated. Beginning in the late 1960s, she also championed the idea that discrete micro-organisms must have joined together symbiotically to create certain more complex organisms at crucial points in biological history, an idea first proposed by Konstantin Mereschkowsky in 1926. Margulis and her students have since demonstrated in the laboratory most of the processes that she predicted would be involved, as described in her Symbiotic Planet: A New View of Evolution (1998). Margulis provides a lucid and rather entertaining account of what she termed SET: serial endosymbiotic theory. Endosymbiosis means mutual cooperation internally, within an organism. Early proto-cells, she hypothesized, may have originally become endosymbionts (interdependent partners with one inside the other) via either failed ingestion or failed sexual congress. This means either that one microscopic critter tried to eat another and, having swallowed it, failed to digest it, or that one such critter tried to mate with a different kind and got in, so to speak, but then got stuck there. Either way, the organisms had to somehow function together or die in their new joined state. I am not a biologist and there is no point in trying to portray at length here what Margulis describes so much better in her own books. If this interests you, go look at the original. Symbiotic Planet has the further attraction of using bits of Emily Dickinson’s poems as chapter epigraphs. Margulis is also the co-developer, along with fellow biologist James Lovelock who first proposed it, of the Gaia theory — suggesting that planet Earth is a self-organizing, sentient entity and hence, in some sense, at least, is alive. But that’s another story. FOR NME PURPOSES what is most crucial about the SET work of Lynn Margulis is her unshakeable orientation to the importance of cooperation alongside, if not instead of, competition. “The tendency of independent life,” she writes in Symbiotic Planet, “is to bind together and re-emerge in a new wholeness at a higher, larger level of organization." She adds, in an article co-authored with her son Dorion Sagan in Resurgence magazine: “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.” How different this is from the old mainstream thinking among biologists and others who are still wedded to the evolution-as-combat approach. In our time, science has acquired tools to help confirm what mystics have been saying for centuries: To evolve to a higher level, we humans must work together. Insofar as we resist evolving new partnerships, we hold back our own evolution. The enemies paradigm is obsolete. No More Enemies. Deb Reich is an American-Israeli Jew who lived for several years in Muslim Arab Palestinian communities in Israel. She trained in cross-cultural mediation and group facilitation at Wahat al Salam-Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace), the shared Jewish/Arab village near Latrun founded in the 1970s. Deb has freelanced widely for civil society organizations in Israel, and was a staff translator with Haaretz-International Herald Tribune. When her book No More Enemies was published (2011), Deb was living in Jerusalem/Al Quds.