On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 13 —Ursula K. Le Guin and Lynn Margulis

“The unexpected is what makes life possible.” —Estraven in The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is about the necessity of perspective. In it, Genly Ai, an envoy from an association of worlds populated by the Hainish progenitor race, has traveled to an icy planet of androgynes to recruit them to share in humanity’s knowledge. He joins with a political exile, Estraven, and the two must transcend their ethical boundaries in order to not only survive, but to save Estraven’s people from themselves. Like many of Ursula K. Le Guin’s books, it’s a gorgeous and thoughtful study in anthropology, politics, and philosophy which challenged ideas about gender at a time when second-wave feminism was entering the public consciousness. 

Previous installments of this column have dealt solely with the work of men, despite science fiction’s feminist roots. Feminism, speculative fiction, and biology all grew out of Enlightenment thinking, which held that knowledge derived from reason; its highest values were liberty, progress, and tolerance. In the late 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft, a foundational feminist philosopher, drew from Enlightenment utopian thinking to critique traditional ideas of femininity and advocate for women’s equality, influencing Victorian first-wave feminists in Britain and America to fight for (and eventually win) the right to vote, to own land, to education and employment. Furthermore, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was an Enlightenment thinker who was an early proponent of the evolutionary connection of all life on earth. Together, Wollstonecraft and Erasmus Darwin had a profound impact on Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley, a feminist and political writer who wrote the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein (1818). 

But prior to the 1960s, the overwhelming majority of science fiction writers were men writing linear, conflict-driven stories about men. If there were women characters, they were largely shallow stereotypes, and a woman’s reality hardly ever made it to the page. That’s not to say there weren’t women writing SF: C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Alice (Andre) Norton and Judith Merrill were early pioneers, but their stories followed male-focused conventions and made up only 15% of published stories. The New Wave saw more women join the ranks to shift Golden Age paradigms, including Joanna Russ, Kate Wilhelm, C.J. Cherryh, and Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr). Their work was of such remarkable high quality that Harlan Ellison declared, “[t]he best writers in SF today are the women.” Perhaps the most enduring and influential of these has been Le Guin.

Biology is similarly vulnerable to staid paradigms. Just as Charles Darwin’s work challenged Christian ideas on the origins of life, the Modern Synthesis overcame bickering between Mendelian evolution driven by mutation, and naturalists smoothly varying traits in populations, to merge under Neo-Darwinism. The confirmation of their paradigm by the Central Dogma in the 1960s not only strengthened the paradigm, but also demonstrated the interconnectedness of life. Just as things seemed tied up with a neat evolutionary bow, a dissenting voice arose. While biology had been mainly the purview of men for many years, it was a woman with a Darwinian knack for synthesis who would break this new paradigm: Lynn Margulis.

Le Guin (née Kroeber) was born in 1929 in Berkeley, California. A bright but shy child, she grew up immersed in a broad range of perspectives. Her father, head of the Berkeley Anthropology department, studied native Californian cultures, and her mother was the author of Ishi in Two Worlds (1961). There was a constant stream of native people, artists, scientists, and academics—including Jung, Oppenheimer and Huxley—in her early life, and she internalized the value of understanding other points of view. An avid bookworm, she adored Romantic poetry, the Tao Te Ching, and science fiction magazines, and saw writing as her way of being in the world. She dreamt of becoming an academic and a poet, studying Renaissance French and Italian literature at Radcliffe, then French at Columbia. All the time she wrote, and all the time she was rejected for not fitting literature’s realist paradigm. In 1953, while traveling to France for a PhD in medieval French poetry, she met Charles Le Guin, a doctoral history student. Two weeks later they were married, and Le Guin abandoned her studies to write full-time. Le Guin had always wanted to be a mother, and by the time Charles got a faculty position in Portland, Oregon they’d had three children. Charles, always her first reader, shared childcare duties to help her keep a disciplined writing schedule. 

Margulis (née Alexander) was born in Chicago in 1938. A willful child, she questioned everything and acted out, and despite lackluster academic performance, she attended the University of Chicago at fifteen and earned a Liberal Arts degree in 1957. In college, she met a nineteen-year-old Carl Sagan, whose scientific enthusiasm was infectious. She said, “Science itself, as in some gothic or science fiction novel, was unveiling the secret of life.” After the two married, they moved to Wisconsin in 1958 where she enrolled at UW Madison for a Masters in genetics. She was strongly influenced by her mentors, Hans Ris and Walter Plaut, whose work on chloroplasts in single-celled eukaryotes led to her first publication. Margulis and Sagan moved to Berkeley in 1960 where Margulis began her PhD on single-celled eukaryotes. Unwilling to compromise on her research or make childcare duties her first priority, she and Sagan divorced in 1964 when she finished her doctorate, and she moved with their two sons to Massachusetts to start a lab at Boston University.

Le Guin’s own stubbornness sustained her until her stylistic breakthrough came with Orsinia, a fictional eastern European city that provided a way to write about Communist repression and McCarthy-era persecution and led to her first literary sales. But when a friend lent her Cordwainer Smith’s “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” she had a revelation: science fiction had evolved away from its Golden Era limitations into a genre welcoming to her imaginative style. In 1962, she sold her first story to Cele Goldsmith at Fantastic; Goldsmith, an influential editor, had first published Roger Zelazny and brought J.G. Ballard to American readers. Over the next five years, Le Guin published six more stories with Goldsmith, as well as her first three novels in her future history Hainish Cycle, where she inventively blended science fiction and fantasy with anthropology. A publisher soon approached Le Guin to write a children’s book, which led her to write A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). She had already established the Taoist cost of magic in her short stories, and with The Tombs of Atuan (1970), and The Farthest Shore (1972), she told the life story of Ged, who starts out as a bright (but foolish) young man who must first make himself whole, then make the girl Tenar whole, and finally make Earthsea whole at the cost of his power, and the series soon became a beloved landmark of fantasy.

In the realm of science, Margulis’ first step to making biology’s perspective on the origins of life whole came when she learned of endosymbiotic theory from Ris, and it immediately appealed to her cosmic infatuation with the microscopic. It was first suspected in the 1880’s when botanist Andreas Schimper thought dividing chloroplasts resembled dividing cyanobacteria, and soon after mitochondria gained a suspected bacterial origin. However, Neo-Darwinists dismissed it, assuming the behavior was a function of nuclear genes. In the 1960s, Ris found structural similarities between cyanobacteria and chloroplasts using electron microscopy, and others discovered that they contained their own DNA. In 1967, Margulis combined an exhaustive review, saving many papers from obscurity, with recent experimental evidence from cytology, biochemistry and paleontology in her paper titled “On the Origin of Mitosing Cells.” It told the story that two billion years ago, different bacteria evolved different mechanisms for metabolism when a slow, acid-loving bacteria couldn’t digest a quick, flagellated bacterial meal, resulting in the first eukaryotic cell. Meanwhile, cyanobacteria evolved to make energy from sunlight and filled the atmosphere with toxic oxygen, causing other bacteria to evolve a way to use oxygen for energy. Eventually, the speedy eukaryotic cell incorporated an oxygen-metabolizer (precursor to our own cells), and a subset of those incorporated a cyanobacteria (precursor to plants). She got fifteen rejections before it was published, but Margulis was persistent, knowing symbiosis offered the most complete view of evolution.

Le Guin too, found herself moved to portray more complete perspectives, and in reaction to Vietnam, she imagined how worlds could evolve without war. Her readings of early feminist thinkers, including Wollstonecraft, drew a connection between violence and gender, so Le Guin created the genderless Genthenians who instead experienced periods of sexual dimorphism, with conflicts centering on interpersonal aggressions rather than sexual violence or discrimination. Genly was a lens through which male readers could examine their gender biases, which was groundbreaking in SF, and The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Continuing her theme in The Dispossessed (1974), she constructed the first anarchist utopia and put it in conflict with its materialistic neighbor in a world in which one man’s invention of a faster-than-light drive sparks a revolution. It too won the Hugo and Nebula awards. But both books drew feminist criticism—Left Hand for her use of he/him pronouns for the androgynes, and The Dispossessed for its depiction of female sexuality as submissive and its objectivization of women. Le Guin was at first defensive, but soon accepted that her depictions of women were lacking, and when she sat down to work on a fourth Earthsea book about Tenar from Tombs of Atuan, she found she couldn’t write. 

Margulis’ revolutionary paper also hit at a time when it was most impactful, but also had to deal with intense criticism. Neo-Darwinists balked, holding that organelles arose from stepwise mutations and deeming symbiotic theory neo-Lamarckianism. Furthermore, its “feminine” implications of mutual cooperation flew against dominant survival-of-the-fittest narratives. Margulis detested this kind of narrow thinking and was not shy about debating her critics publicly, armed with a growing body of evidence in her favor. Microbes had a bad reputation thanks to Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, dating from the 1960s; they weren’t even classified as their own kingdom until the 20s, when they were lumped together into a single category. Only in the 1950s was the distinction was made between eukaryotic fungi and prokaryotes. But Margulis’ paper offered testable hypotheses, and cell biologists saw endosymbiosis as an explanation of the bacterial traits of plastids, with their bilayer membranes, circular DNA, and reproduction by fission, and the theory that microbes were ancestors of life gained traction. In 1978, it was experimentally shown that protein and nucleic acid sequences of chloroplasts and mitochondria were more similar to bacterial molecules, and by the 1980s, their DNA was shown to be substantially different than nuclear DNA. Throughout, Margulis continued to publish new findings and defend endosymbiosis against Neo-Darwinist attacks until it became part of accepted evolutionary paradigms in the ’80s.

By 1974, Le Guin also needed evidence to accept feminist critique. Second-wave feminism was a social revolution that had grown from the civil rights movement with the aim of waking women up to the reality that oppression that still existed, made prominent through works like The Feminine Mystique (1963) and Sexual Politics (1970). Initially, Le Guin perceived it as an exclusionary movement of anti-male middle-class white women hostile to the kind of life Le Guin had as a housewife and a mother, but as she explored feminist theory, she found it full of people recovering women’s writing from obscurity, discussing if differences between men and women were biological or social in origin, examining the impact of language on gender perception, and even discussing whether female storytelling was inherently different from male stories and perspectives. Le Guin embraced these ideas and discussions, and her work in the ’70s and ’80s reflected this change. In The Eye of the Heron (1978) she wrote her first female protagonist and examined pacifism and social constructions of gender, but her most profoundly feminist work of this period was Always Coming Home (1985). Set in a post-apocalyptic California, the story of a native utopian matriarchy under attack from patriarchal aggressors was told within the context of ethnographic research that included recipes, songs, poems, and other errata. She also used her platform to write more frankly about women’s lives in the essays “Is Gender Necessary?”, “Dancing at the Edge of the World,” and “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter.” On feminism, she said, “It’s liberated me from ways of thinking and being that I didn’t even know I was caught in.”

When liberated from her own defensive position, Margulis wrote about endosymbiosis’ broader implications. In the 1960s, NASA approached atmospheric scientist (and Olaf Stapledon fan) James Lovelock to figure out how to tell if there was life on Mars. He knew our atmosphere only contained reactive gases, like oxygen, because it was constantly refreshed by life, and he wrote to Margulis to ask about sources of other gases, ultimately producing 1974’s “Gaia theory,” which says the earth is a planet-sized ecosystem, and its homeostatic atmosphere is an “emergent property of interaction among organisms, the spherical planet on which they reside, and an energy source, the sun.” This theory, incidentally, made a splash with science fiction writers, including Le Guin, informing her eco-feminist story, “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow.” Margulis also believed symbiosis is a driver of speciation among higher organisms, like insects, cows, and legumes, and their obligate symbionts. Margulis also fought for accuracy in the phylogenetic tree (it is more of a web), writing The Five Kingdoms (1982)—a landmark text on the subject. While gender parity in biology has caught up significantly in recent years, recognition of female scientists still lags behind. Margulis never won a Nobel Prize, but did receive the National Medal of Science in 1999. She died in 2011 from a massive stroke, leaving behind an influential body of work and a paradigm-shifting perspective on the mutual and interconnected nature of life.

In 1990, Le Guin surprised fans by releasing the fourth Earthsea novel, Tehanu. Though Tombs of Atuan’s main character was a woman, the story existed in men’s shadows. Tehanu is both told by Tenar and shows us the unseen lives of women in Earthsea, something on which Le Guin further expanded in The Other Wind (2001) and Tales from Earthsea (2001). She also returned balance to her Hainish universe, exploring how FTL travel could build a consensus reality in Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994), and The Telling (2000). Her final work of fiction was Lavinia (2008), a retelling of part of Virgil’s Aeneid from a woman’s perspective. In her final years, Le Guin focused on essays and poetry until she passed away at home at the age 88. Throughout her life, she fought for recognition for SF in the mainstream, was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction, and won the National Book Award, the Library of Congress Living Legend Award, and the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. She raised SF into literature, upended genre conventions, and supported scholarly endeavors into the genre. It seems significant and worthy of nothing that between 1953 and 1967, there were no Hugos awarded to women; but between 1968 and 1982, there were 13, and the trend continues towards parity to this day. 

Next up, we’ll look at Octavia Butler—a writer who never shied away from difficult topics—and how biology began tackling its own increasingly difficult problems. 

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