For The Someday Book


Posted on: July 15, 2010

I have just encountered the work of Dr. Lynn Margulis for the first time. She is an evolutionary biologist with two revolutionary contributions. First, she grounds her evolutionary theory in microbiological observation rather than observation of animals or fossils. I have no theological quandary with the theory of evolution, but much of evolutionary science seems far too speculative for my tastes. Scientists seem to simply look at the world and draw inferences based on their observations. This is great for theologians and poets, but I want biologists to try to create experiments that can affirm or deny their theories. Dr. Margulis does, because she operates at the level of microbiology.

That is my prologue of opinions about evolution and evolutionary biology. It is background for what follows, but not what is most important. What captivates me is what Margulis has discovered in her experiments. Margulis argues that cooperation and interdependence—rather than violence and competition—are the founding forces of life and evolution.

Single-celled bacteria, Margulis observed, form “bacterial confederacies,” which eventually develop a boundary and begin to act like a single organism. There is a complex process by which these “bacterial confederacies” become organelles as certain bacteria start to specialize,  act as mitochondria and nucleus, and form a cell. This development of a new organism as a result of cooperation and interdependence is called symbiogenesis.

Margulis projects that the entire system of life replicates this process of symbiogenesis. Cells cooperate with one another to form organisms, plant or animal. Imagine a group of cells cooperating and sharing responsibility until they realize that they can specialize to take care of unique tasks. Some become blood cells, others brain cells, others become skin or organs. This evolution is only possible because of the interdependence and mutuality. Trust and cooperation become the foundation of life—not the competition of “survival of the fittest.”

Organisms then continue to develop and specialize with other organisms in an increasingly complex system of interdependence, developing specialized functions to support the whole. We call this an ecosystem, where plants and animals collaborate to form a unique habitat capable of supporting and sustaining each other. The extrapolation continues to humans. We evolved as a species because we cooperated with one another, forming groups to hunt large game, sharing tools and technologies, collaborating for specialized duties for childcare, food gathering and protection.

I am captivated by this concept because it speaks science to my theology. As I said before, I do not believe there is a grand conflict between understanding God as the creator of the universe and recognizing the earth as multi-billion year evolutionary project. Margulis’ scientific theory takes it a step further—her science affirms a theology of creation that mirrors the image of God.

If God created the universe imago Dei, in the image of God, then the universe should be founded on the principle of love, just as God is. Instead, the common conception of evolution as “survival of the fittest,” popularized by Herbert Spencer’s reading of Charles Darwin, paints a picture of creation as brutal competition. Various species and variations fight over limited resources and hostile environments, and only the best and strongest survive. Spencer in particular extrapolated this to human beings, positing that humankind must push ahead its elite specimens and leave behind all “lesser” examples of human being. Spencer’s theories not only affirmed racial profiling and racial prejudices about which varieties of human beings are superior, but it spawned the eugenics movement, which resulted in the neglect of people with disabilities and the sterilization of thousands of women.

I can see nothing of the image of God as love in this version of evolutionary theory. The Bible describes a God who loves and cares for each thing in creation, who knows the hairs on the head of every human being, who forms all of us in our mother’s wombs, who uses the most weak and awkward and unlikely servants to accomplish the salvation of Israel, who seeks lost sheep and lost children with a fervent passion. Jesus preached love for the outcast and the sharing of all our wealth with the poor. He fed those who could not feed themselves and healed those who could not heal themselves. He urged us to build the kingdom of God, like a banquet table where the elites refused to show up and so the banquet was open to anyone off the streets.

However, that kind of God would create the kind of world Margulis describes, where cooperation and collaboration and care for one another is the foundation of everything. In my preaching, I often emphasize our work in the world as co-creators with God, charged with helping build the kingdom of God on earth. I describe that work of building the kingdom as finding ways to unite all people in common cause, living God’s love on earth, welcoming everyone, working for justice and peace, caring for the poor and the sick, reconciling broken relationships and practicing forgiveness.  In Margulis’ universe, this is kind of work really is co-creation. Cooperation and harmony further life on this planet.

Beyond just the imago Dei that is loving and cooperative, Margulis’ theory of evolution also affirms an image of God reflected in creation that is interdependent. All life depends on other life, both for its creation and its continued existence. We Christians believe God’s own self is equally interdependent. Our metaphor for God as Trinity, three-in-one, reflects a Being that does not exist without co-existing. To be created in the image of the Trinitarian God is to exist only in relationship, to exist only interdependently. Just like the universe in Margulis’ theory. If we human beings want to get closer to God (spiritual language), to evolve (scientific language), to mature (Pauline language), to be sanctified (salvation language), we must recognize our interdependence with the earth and each other, and seek to share more fully with one another.

I am captivated by this new idea, and further conversation with science and theology. Microcosmos by Dr. Lynn Margulis is now on my reading list. Stay tuned for a review in the coming months.

36 Responses to "Symbiogenesis"

very interesting article. I agree that many science projects are theological speculations.

I absolutely loved your article, it’s origins, it’s science and its basis for evolution in our society. There is no theological speculation here, there is commandment from scripture to live our lives in unity, and trinity.

“Imagine a group of cells cooperating and sharing responsibility until they realize that they can specialize to take care of unique tasks”. This sentence makes really no scientific sense as it assumes that cells have a goal (and a brain!) as humans can have. In many books, you will find similar non-sense sentences such as “tetrapods prepare to make to move to land”. Remember that the two key principles of the Darwinian theory are randomness and the lack of any goal. Due to a random event (such as the encounter of two bacteria), these two could merge: if their fitness is higher, they will reproduce faster and have more offspings. If you really need to see the hand of God in this event, this is your right… but it is in no way required. Science is also able to explain it with much more parcimony.

I just stumbled onto your blog, and I love it! I’m actually an anthropologist, albeit a cultural one. I think your post very well taps into an observation made by early cultural anthropologists- that in many ways science functions the same way as religion. The objectivity that science claims to make science more ‘real’, as well as its ’empirical’ evidence, are just as ‘invisibly’ existent (or non-existent, depending upon who you are) as the power of God, gods, etc. If we think of it that way, God never has to be incompatible with science, nor vice versa- it’s all about belief.

And not only does life lack a goal, like D.Marion points out, it doesn’t value its actions either. The system of plants, animals that eat plants, animals that eat animals that eat plants, organisms that eat dead animals and plants and turn them into nutritious soil to make new plants out of does not say that killing is bad or that helping each other is good, it just does it without valuing it. So, while you, as a human with concepts like love, can see love in nature, that’s just your interpretation. You might as well look at the world the same way Herbert Spencer did and you’ll both be equally wrong. Life has no other purpose than to live and it does not say that any way of doing this is moral or immoral. To life, the only wrongs and rights are what sustains life and what doesn’t. Whoever succeeds best at life, regardless of whether they do it by cooperation or parasitism will keep life going. As said above it is wrong to say that bacteria “realize” what to do. They don’t, they operate by chemical trial and error, they test cooperation and find that it works, they don’t plan to test it, it is a random mutation, the genes that work will stick around and in retrospect it will by described as if they had a plan, saw that it was good and chose to stick with it. See how I managed to quote the Christian’s book there?

dear Mr Enleuk

I completely agree with the author of this blog and strongly refute your obsrvations. As per you assertion existence of antagonistic forces and the forces of cross elimination drives tyhe evolutionry process and it is fittest who survive. Applying common sense you can observe that those species relying on killing are either extinct or are on the verge of extinction.
You can take the example of tigers and lions and compare their number with their herbivorous counterparts , you can come to the conclusion that it is the species who are violent are going to be eliminated first. It is for sure that humble ants will negotiate better with the environment and survive and complex organisms depending on violence to survive will be annihilated.

Really, satyaswarup?

Please consider that:

o The majority of all species of herbivores are already extinct, clearly preceding the extinction of lions and tigers. (The same applies to the majority of all carnivoric species.)

o The decline of tigers and lions are caused by man, not by natural order or an inherent superiority of the herbivore life-style.

Yes, there were fewer lions than zebras even to begin with; however, that is not a sign of things to come, merely a question of sustainable rates of predators and prey.

o Ordinary cats (and dogs) have thrived under human rule, despite being meat-eaters.

o Humans themselves are the arguably greatest success story in mammalian history—but are also one of the most violent and destructive species around (and eat their share of meat).

You are right to suggest it is all about interpretation. That’s exactly what the post was about–taking science and adding a theological interpretation and perspective.

Life could be all random, without purpose or Creator or inherent goodness. I choose to believe it is not. Not because I can prove it, or even because I “know in my heart it is true.” I believe in God and a created universe because it makes all the difference, because it inspires me to greater hope, love, justice and an appreciation of beauty. Because it’s the perspective and the life I want. If I get to the end and discover Christianity is all a big hoax, oh well. It made for a better life and hopefully inspired me to make a better world.

Thanks for the response.

Unfortunately, just because you want it to be true, doesn’t make it so. Today the world can be explained without God and that reduces gods, souls, after-lives et cetera to a desirable fantasy. Don’t fool yourself, you’re just a monkey, there is no magic.

As you said, any science projects always bring theological speculations.

Excellent article. Nice work.

Very well said!!!!!

My impression is that you have not understood the principle of evolutionary competition:

Evolutionists simple do not believe that “violence and competition” would build anything—they are used to make selections among that which has been built by other means. There are two mechanisms: Building and selecting. Competition deals with the selection part.

Further, obviously, not all forms of competition are destructive in nature (as e.g. a predator killing the weakest in the pack), but can certainly be constructive or cooperative: The bottom line is whether a certain physical characteristic, behaviour, whatnot, has a positive or negative effect on the likelihood of successfully generating a (sufficiently) large “next generation”, which in turn successfully generates yet another generation, etc. Wolves or lions hunting may be a very good illustration of evolutionary principles for a first exposure, but competition is about so much more, including using cooperation to mutually increase the chance of survival.

Thanks for the thoughtful and engaged response.

It is quite likely that I have misunderstood the science of evolution. I am a preacher and a theologian, not a scientist. While I read Darwin & Spencer, it was years ago, and I make clear in the post I have not yet read Margulis’ own work. I encountered a description in another book, and followed up with some Wikipedia and some playful engagement with theology. I expect to be clarified and challenged as I actually delve deeper into the science.

Thanks for your insights.

P.S. See my reply to D. Marion, which addresses similar issues to the ones you raise, and goes much deeper.

This post clearly evidences that science and theology work on very different basis. The methodological materialism of science (that is different from philosophical materialism) requires that one seeks first a natural explanation and possibly that which requires less ad hoc assumptions. I have the feeling that your understanding of endosymbiosis fits very well the the concept of “God of the gaps”: if something cannot be understood, then one assumes that this is an act of God. If Galileo Galilei would have taken this statement as granted, he would never have discover the heliocentric nature of our world.
Your discussion of mutual interaction between living creature would be fair if you would also consider parasitism and mutualism. If this two cases, you could not conclude as you did in your post that any interaction is always positive and thus the evidence of God. Parasitism is the clear evidence – at least for the species that is infected – that introducing moral values in science may lead to biased conclusions. Cancer is also another case of interaction between cells that get deregulated. If you could explain to me how cancer is compatible with “the image of God as love”, then I would probably change my mind!

I am going to respond to both of your comments together, since they are on a similar theme.

In fact, I think the opening of your second comment is my biggest response: science and theology operate by very different standards and for very different purposes. I am definitely a preacher and a theologian, not a scientist. I am interested in finding and understanding the way God works in the world—not to prove God exists, not to fulfill a need, but because I already believe in God and marvel at the beauty of the world as an experience of God. “God in the gaps” is not quite sufficient, because I don’t believe there is a competition between what humans can know or understand and the mysteries that are “acts of God.” We understand a great deal about the process of photosynthesis, for example. As a theologian, I can look with wonder at the whole process, not just the parts we can’t yet explain. Pursuit of more scientific knowledge, then, is not antithetical to theology. Scientific discovery can and should change and challenge our notions of God. Part of my intrigue at this post is the way Margulis’ theories actually affirmed my theology, which made for interesting reflection.

My task as a preacher is to bring people into an encounter with the Living God I believe in. I lean toward panentheism–a belief that God’s presence exists throughout creation. Examining creation, through science or poetry, can be an opportunity to encounter God.

Two other smaller notes:

1. You are right to challenge my ascription of agency to bacteria. Point well taken. Consider it poetic theological license to imagine bacteria doing anything with intent.

2. Your comment about violence and cancer is equally well taken. When I wrote the original post (not expecting nearly 2,000 people to read it), I had those questions in my mind, but did not take the time to grapple with them. I was concerned at the time that the portrait of the world I painted was far too rosy. There is much destruction in the world: sickness, natural disaster, even the violence of natural predators. Not to mention human violence and evil. Any decent theology must address the problem of evil. I have a complex understanding of theodicy, but did not bother to fully address it here.

For me, this post was a thought experiment, an attempt to play with the intersections of science and theology to see where it led. I think it raised interesting concepts, but it is not a fully-formed or bulletproof case.

Thanks for such an interesting and thoughtful conversation.

P.S. You may also want to see my reply to michaelerikkson, which is related.

I have no fundamental problem with theology… except when it starts to interfere with science or real life.

In your post, you said that “much of evolutionary science seems far too speculative for my tastes”. May I ask you why you accept the theory of gravity and why you select pieces in the theory of evolution? Evolution such as gravity belongs to the natural world that should be investigated by the means of science. From my point of view, if theology enters this field, it can only bias the interpretation. When you interpret the endosymbosis as an evidence of God’s love, you clearly overinterpret your data. This means that this conclusion – as well as the opposite – would equally valid or that your confidence interval is infinite in more scientific terms.

The major danger of the interplay of religion with the real world is that, when a supernatural answer is available, there is no need of seeking a natural explanation that can be tested using scientific methods. When a major earthquake has shaken Haiti in January, a number of Haitians who survived said that God save them. With this answer, no need to understand plate tectonics, no need to search for stronger concrete. If you assume that the earthquake has a divine origin, understanding geophysics or concrete stress is clearly a waste of time. Assuming a scientific point of view, one should rather suggest the haitian authorities to rebuild Port-au-Prince somewhere else (geophysical argument) and to avoid the use of salty sand from the beaches (mechanical argument).

This is only one example to emphasize that religion and science cannot constructively interact… Science has become independent of religion only during the last two centuries leading to the most innovative discoveries ever.

Thanks to all for reading, commenting and starting such a quality conversation. I have been busy with a funeral all day, and overwhelmed by the whole “Freshly Pressed” experience. I look forward to responding more thoroughly tomorrow–but I wanted to at least say thanks for taking the time to write such thoughtful and challenging comments.

From my perspective, science and theology are not combating ways of understanding the universe, but complementary. That is, they are two sides of the same coin, if you will. It is important to take into account spirit AND materiality in understanding our natural world. Bruce Lipton and Steve Bhaerman did a wonderful job talking about this in “Spontaneous Evolution.”

With Love and Gratitude,

The Intentional Sage

Amazing.Thank you.

Interesting. 🙂

Cheers, Niconica

Nice Read!

Check Us Out! A Little Place For Some Internet Traffic Road Rage!
Road Rage with A & A

Beautiful photo.

have you read any richard dawkins?

It’s been on my shelf for almost 5 years. I haven’t managed to dig into it yet. Maybe now…

This was a good read. Keep up the good work.

Cool, I love your blog”


Very good article and so well written- on a subject I knew absolutely nothing about. This is why I love visiting other people’s blogs. Fab post.

This post is very nice.because your post is given very nice very thankful to you.

Liked the post! You might enjoy the ‘docu-movie’ Expelled by Ben Stein. It explores the flaws in the theories of both evolution and creation.
Another minor and sad point – science doesn’t get to study whatever questions the investigator wants. To get funding, questions must comply with the funding agencies and/or corporate dictates of supporters. It seriously limits the lines of inquiry. And ultimately limits our ability to understand, well . . . anything.

[…] Here’s what intrigued me: In addition to creating a desire to reread Emerson and Whitman, Reece introduced me to Dr. Lynn Margulis, and I wrote extensively of my intrigue with her work in another post. […]

For those of you who have been following/subscribing to the comments on this thread, I wanted to share something I just came across: an interview with author Marilynne Robinson on The Daily Show, discussing the complexity of conversation between science and religion. I think she speaks (more eloquently) to some of the concerns I was trying to raise, that science and religion are not enemies and are not mutually exclusive. It’s an excellent way to spent five minutes of your time.

Christian Books is the stuff i like coz i alway read the bible and i am a very religious person .

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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