Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis rocked the boat and started a scientific revolution

IN PRODUCTION.  A documentary by John Feldman, part of the Global Film Network (a not-for-profit company).   Our previous working title was: Lynn Margulis: The Revolution is in Progress.

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James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in front of Gaia statue

Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis rocked the boat and started a scientific revolution is a feature length documentary which presents a portrait of the great scientist and teacher Lynn Margulis who was at the helm of a significant paradigm shift in biology that affects how we look at ourselves, evolution, and planet Earth. Lynn Margulis traveled extensively, networking with collaborators in the sciences and humanities on ideas that stress the importance of symbiosis among all living things from bacteria to Gaia. Filmmaker John Feldman has interviewed many of these world famous scientists and thinkers. His film will bring to the general public these revolutionary ideas.Lynn Margulis, a courageous evolutionist and geoscientist, died unexpectedly of a stroke in November of 2011. A lively, personable, and down-to-earth scientist, her pioneering ideas cast doubt on accepted scientific “dogma” and challenged the establishment.  She triumphed over ridicule, scorn, and chauvinism.

From the Frontlines

More than a biography of a great scientist, more than a look at the history and politics of science, and more than an explanation of current scientific theories, this documentary offers a coherent look at a contemporary paradigm shift that affects decisions we make on a daily basis about health, nutrition and the environment. The revolution it describes is as important and far-reaching as those of Copernicus and Darwin. This story needs to be told and disseminated widely.

Our “world views” incorporate the science we learned in school plus what we pick up from the media. But what happens when the science changes?  This film addresses this challenge by telling stories from the frontlines of contemporary science that follow the development of new theories. It is designed so that a general audience can understand the science, “see” in a new way and “get-it.” Many of the ideas explored rely upon common sense notions that are already in popular culture and hark back to older, often ancient, ideas.

“This is a very important project because the science is moving very fast, and people deserve to be made aware of all the progress.”  Dr. James Shapiro, Univ. of Chicago

Lynn Margulis inspired, worked with, and was inspired by colleagues from different disciplines, cultures, and generations. We visit universities and laboratories around the world, interview scientists who are thinking “outside the box” and learn about revolutionary and enlightening ideas.  Archival footage, detailed and explanatory cinematography of the natural world (including the microbial world), animation, and original music enhance the drama.


Lynn Margulis

Looking at forests instead of just trees. 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 scientists are also using an holistic approach – systems thinking – which is 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.  “There is no Truth,” Margulis said, “but science is the best way of knowing.”  She would remind us that after all these years of investigating, we still know very little about life.





British Soldiers lichen — this was Lynn’s favorite example of a permanent symbiotic merger

Things work together more than they work apart. The evolution of life is as much – if not more – about joining and cooperation than it is about competition.  Scientists are discarding the “selfish gene” idea. What does this mean for a society which has incorporated the metaphors “survival of the fittest” and “selfish genes” into its culture at many levels?   Although we were all taught that random genetic mutations cause the variations on which natural selection acts, molecular biologist James Shapiro explains that this is not the case. Variation comes about because cells have the cognitive ability to actively change their own genome. In his words:  What’s happened is we’ve gone from random mutations or accidents – which was the default assumption in the absence of any real knowledge of how these things work – to understanding that genetic change is an active process that cells carry out on their genomes.  He also explains that hybridization is a major source of variation in plants and animals.  Donald Williamson tells us that his hypothesis of larval transfer explains, among other things, that caterpillars and butterflies were once independent adult organisms that hybridized.


Ant tending its herd of aphids

We are more than our genes.  Much of our popular understanding of inheritance is based on the mid-twentieth century idea that our genes determine who we are, they were called “blueprints” or “the book of life.” Scientists are now finding that this gene-centered approach is far too simplistic.  Instead of being a read-only memory system, our genes are a read-write system that is continually in touch with – and responding to – its environment.   This idea is significant and relevant as we recall that the medical-industrial establishment is now offering “personal genetic profiles” as a way to predict future illnesses, yet the science behind these industries is increasingly being seen as overly simplistic, if not erroneous.


The microbial world.  While many people still think of bacteria as “germs” and a plague on humanity, scientists now know that bacteria – our ancestors – are Earth’s primary producers and recyclers and that we couldn’t live without them. Indeed, it turns out that each of us is not the independent individual we think we are, but a community of organisms living together through complex symbiotic relationships.  We contain more bacterial cells in our bodies than we do “human” cells.  A better understanding of the role of bacteria in our bodies and in the environment is essential to understanding our health and the health of the environment.

It’s alive!

The Environment is a Process. Next we look at the environment and the origins of the Gaia hypothesis. The environment is not a place, but a complex system of which we are a part.  Once ridiculed, but now accepted as Earth Systems Science, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’s Gaia idea holds that collectively all of life regulates the temperature and chemical composition of the soil and atmosphere. Understanding this system is crucial as we come to grips with climate change and the growing demands our increasing population is putting on the soil, water, and atmosphere.  Lynn Margulis often quoted Chief Seattle, “The Earth does not belong to us.  We belong to the Earth.”   


John Feldman

Director John Feldman’s Statement.  I am the filmmaker to make this film because of my understanding of the science, my personal relationship with Lynn Margulis and some of the other scientists, my ability to explain complex material to a lay audience, and my many years of experience as a filmmaker and as a naturalist.  I take the responsibility seriously and have a deep respect for science and for the way that science matters in providing us with a way to respond intelligently, effectively and ethically to our responsibilities as citizens of the Earth.


Funding – How you can help

We are actively seeking financial support for this project through our not-for-profit partner Global Film Network, a 501 (c) (3) charitable organization.  You can help by donating now and passing this website onto  friends and colleagues.   All donations are fully tax deductible.  Checks should be made out to Global Film Network and mailed to Hummingbird Films, PO Box 292, Spencertown, NY 12165.   You can also donate through PayPal with the link below, but we would prefer you to use the old-paradigm check and postal service method because it puts 3% more of your contribution toward the film.

Mosses and Lichens on rocks (the chipmunk, on the other hand, can’t even make its own food)


It is our expectation that this film will be distributed in theaters, on television, on DVDs, museum kiosks, on the internet and to high school and university libraries.  We are also developing an innovative network distribution  plan.

Bacterial sex (exchanging chromosomes

Bacterial sex — exchanging DNA









For more information please contact jfeldman at  

For a sample of EVO: Ten Questions Everyone Should Ask about Evolution, go to our Screening Room. To learn more about EVO, click here.


The Scholars and Scientists (partial list)

Lynn Margulis (1938-2011), the late Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983. She received the National Medal of Science in 1999 from President Clinton. The Library of Congress, Washington, DC, announced in 1998 that it will permanently archive her papers. Margulis was president (2005-2006) of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society from which she received the Proctor Prize for scientific achievement in 1999. Before her move to the Botany Department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1988, she had been a biology professor at Boston University for 22 years.  For much more information click here for the Margulis Lab website.  For a wonderful and insightful article on Lynn Margulis (which includes her views on her marriage to Carl Sagan) entitled Evolution Revolution by Eric Goldscheider click here, but don’t forget to come back to this website.  A brilliant scientist, teacher and mentor Lynn inspired this film and continues to do so.

Mary Catherine Bateson is a writer and cultural anthropologist. She has taught at Harvard, Northeastern University, Amherst College, Spelman College and abroad in the Philippines and in Iran. In 2004 she retired from her position as Clarence J. Robinson Professor in Anthropology and English at George Mason University, and is now Professor Emerita. Since the Fall of 2006 she has been a Visiting Scholar at the Center on Aging & Work/Workplace Flexibility at Boston College. Her books include Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom (Knopf), Composing a Life, Our Own Metaphor, Peripheral Visions, and a memoir, With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. (Wikimedia: Photo by Dennis Finnen)

Martin BrasierMartin Brasier is Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He has been on NASA panels exploring the possibility of life on Mars. His books include Darwin’s Lost World (2009) and Secret Chambers: the inside story of cells and complex life (2012). In 1970 while Ship’s Scientist aboard HMS Fawn during its cruise across the reefs and lagoons of the Caribbean, he saw that the analysis of interconnections between and within systems might provide a key for decoding the early history of life. Since then, he has sought to expand his understanding of big transitions in the fossil record, exploring: patterns and processes in the Cambrian explosion; origins of the animal phyla; the dynamics of reefal and foraminiferal symbioses through deep time; phosphorus and the carbon cycle in deep time; origins of terrestrial ecosystems; the earliest fossil record; and the origins of life itself. He was secretary and then leader of the International Geoscience Programme, UNESCO.

FritjofCapra2_smallFritjof Capra is a scientist and science writer, as well as an environmental educator and activist. He co-founded the Center for Ecoliteracy in 1994 and often teaches at Schumacher College, an international center for ecological studies in the UK. He was trained as a physicist and from 1965-85 did research in theoretical high energy physics. In his first book, The Tao of Physics (1975), he discussed the change in our worldview that was brought about by the conceptual revolution in physics — a change from the mechanistic worldview of Descartes and Newton to a holistic and ecological view. Subsequently, his research interests shifted from physics to the life sciences, and over the past 30 years he has developed a conceptual framework that integrates four dimensions of life: the biological, the cognitive, the social, and the ecological. He summarizes these ideas in The Web of Life (1996), The Hidden Connections (2002), and The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (2014, co-authored with Pier Luigi Luisi).  photo credit: Karl Grossman

Betsey Dexter Dyer is the Chair and Professor of Biology at Wheaton College. She was introduced to the microbes of the termite hindgut by Lynn Margulis in the autumn of 1976. Thereafter, she was a part of Lynn’s lab through 1984, when she earned her PhD.  She is author of  A Field Guide to Bacteria (Cornell University Press) and coauthor of Tracing the History of Eukaryotic Cells and coeditor of The Origin of Eukaryotic Cells, both with Robert Obar.  Professor Dyer will lead the filmmakers on field trips to observe bacteria and share her enthusiasm for these important organisms.

J. Andre FortinJ. Andre Fortin is a Canadian biologist who was the founding director of the Research Institute in Plant Biology at the University of Montreal.  Radio-Canada awarded him the title of Scientist of the Year in 1990 for his contribution in creating the Institute. His research on mycorrhizal fungi which spans over 50 years has brought him international recognition. As one of the pioneers in this field, he has helped highlight the fact that living in symbiosis is the rule rather than the exception for members of the plant kingdom – in fact, for virtually all organisms. He has also been involved in the development of novel commercial and industrial uses of fungi.

Scott GilbertScott Gilbert is a Professor of Biology at Swarthmore College, where he teaches developmental genetics, embryology, and the history and critiques of biology. He received his B.A. in biology and religion from Wesleyan University and his M.A. in the history of science and PhD in biology at the Johns Hopkins University. He is a fellow of the AAAS and the St. Petersburg Society of Naturalists. His books include Developmental Biology, Bioethics and the New Embryology, and Ecological Developmental Biology, co-authored with David Epel. He is currently researching how the turtle forms its shell and continues to do research and write in both developmental biology and in the history and philosophy of biology

Ricardo Guerrero is a full professor of Microbiology at the University of Barcelona.  Previously he’s been the professor and chairman of the Department of Microbiology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and Professor of Graduate Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Dr. Guerrero is a member of the Institute for Catalan Studies and a fellow from the American Academy of Microbiology.  He is also author or co-author of 250 publications on genetics, biochemistry, bacterial ecology and environmental microbiology and he’s the Editor in Chief of International Microbiology (Springer-Verleg) the official journal of the Spanish Society for Microbiology.

Stephan Harding is author of Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia and resident ecologist and head of the Holistic Science program at Schumacher College in Devon, England. In 1990 Harding helped found Schumacher College whose first teacher was James Lovelock, with whom Stephan has maintained a long-lasting friendship and scientific collaboration that culminated in their joint appointment as chair holders of the Arne Naess Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo. Stephan holds a doctorate in ecology from Oxford University.

Morten Laane is an expert microscopist and the world’s expert on spirochete
infections. He has studied the Lyme spirochete’s (Borellia burgdorferi) life
pathways. One of the last things Lynn Margulis did was go to Norway to work
with Professor Laane on an English version of his papers in Norwegian. Laane
is a retired professor from the Institute of Molecular Biosciences at the
University of Oslo, Norway and has published many papers on microbiology.


Tim LentonTim Lenton is Professor and Chair in Climate Change/Earth Systems Science at the University of Exeter, UK. He built a simple coupled carbon cycle and climate model, and coordinated the development of the GENIE family of Earth system models. He co-authored “Revolutions that made the Earth” (2011) with Andrew Watson. He and his group at the University of Exeter are focusing on understanding key events in the coupled evolution of life and the planet and on early warning of climate tipping points. They are developing an evolutionary model of the marine ecosystem. Tim is a Fellow of the Linnean Society and a Fellow of the Geological Society.


James Lovelock, is an independent scientist, environmentalist and futurologist who lives in England. He is best known for originating the Gaia Theory. He is the author of multiple books including The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning: Enjoy It While You Can and The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity.  (Wikimedia: photo by  Bruno Comby)



Margaret McFall-Ngai is considered an international leader and expert in the study of interactions between microbes and their animal hosts. One of the foremost life scientists encompassing the fields of immunology, symbiosis and marine biology, she is a professor of medical microbiology and immunology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an affiliate professor at the University of Hawaii.



Denis Noble is Professor Emeritus of Cardiovascular Physiology and Director of Computational Biology at the University of Oxford. He is the President of the International Union of Physiological Sciences (IUPS). In 2006 he published The Music of Life (Oxford University Press), a popular book on Systems Biology that challenges many ‘dogmas’ of 20th century biology.  This book has now been translated into 7 other languages. He chaired the 2009 debate in Oxford, Homage to Darwin, featuring Lynn Margulis, Richard Dawkins, Martin Brasier and Steve Bell.


Sir Richard J. RobertsSir. Richard J. Roberts is the Chief Scientific Officer at New England Biolabs.  He obtained a B.Sc. in Chemistry and a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry at the University of Sheffield in England. His postdoctoral research was carried out in Professor J.L. Strominger’s laboratory at Harvard, where he studied the tRNAs that are involved in the biosynthesis of bacterial cell walls. From 1972 to 1992, he worked at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, becoming Assistant Director for Research under Dr. J.D. Watson. He began work on the newly discovered Type II restriction enzymes in 1972 and in the next few years more than 100 such enzymes were discovered and characterized in his laboratory. In 1993 he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and in 2008 he was knighted.


Dorion Sagan, son of Lynn Margulis and Carl Sagan, worked closely with Lynn Margulis as coauthor of many books including Microcosmos, What is Life? and Dazzle Gradually. What is Life? was called “A masterpiece of science writing” in Orion magazine, and included on a list of “Mind-Altering Masterpieces” by Utne Reader. His own works include Death and Sex – winner of the Bookbinder’s Guide of New York 2009 award for best nonfiction hardcover – and Into the Cool, a sustained track on the thermodynamics of life. His most recent projects are Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel and Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science.  His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, The Skeptical Inquirer, Wired, Cabinet, Natural History, The Sciences, and other magazines.


Jan Sapp is an historian of biology at York University in Toronto, Canada. His writings focus especially on evolutionary biology beyond the traditional neo-Darwinian framework, and emphasize the fundamental importance of symbiosis and horizontal gene transfer in heredity and evolution. He is author of many books including Beyond the Gene, Genesis the Evolution of Biology, and The New Foundations of Evolution: On the Tree of Life. Sapp earned his doctorat at the Institut d’histoire et de sociopolitique des sciences, at L’Université de Montréal. He has taught at the University of Melbourne and l’Université du Québec à Montréal and was Andrew Mellon Fellow at the Rockefeller University. He has been a professor at York University since 1992.


James A. Shapiro, author of the recent book Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, is Professor of Microbiology a the University of Chicago. He has a BA in English Literature from Harvard (1964) and a PhD in Genetics from Cambridge (1968). He grew up in the same Chicago neighborhood as Lynn Margulis. As an American Cancer Society fellow in Jonathan Beckwith’s laboratory at Harvard medical School, he and his colleagues used in vivo genetic manipulations to clone and purify the lac operon of E. coli, an accomplishment that received international attention. Since 1992, he has been writing about the importance of biologically regulated natural genetic engineering as a fundamental new concept in evolution science. He is editor of DNA Insertion Elements, Episomes and Plasmids (1977 with Bukhari and Adhya), Mobile Genetic Elements (1983), and Bacteria as Multicellular Organisms (1997 with Martin Dworkin).


Don Williamson is a retired Reader in Marine Biology, University of Liverpool, UK. He founded the crustacean order Amphionidaceae and the larval transfer hypothesis that transforms ideas on the origins of larvae with far-reaching implications for evolution. His alma mater was King’s College, Newcastle- upon-Tyne, UK, formerly part of the University of Durham but now a separate university. He is, therefore, PhD (Durham), DSc (Newcastle-upon-Tyne).



Federico Mayor ZaragozaFederico Mayor Zaragoza is a Spanish scientist, scholar, politician, diplomat and poet. He served as Director-General of UNESCO from 1987 to 1999. He is founder and Chairman of the Foundation for a Culture of Peace as well as the Honorary Chairman of the Académie de la Paix. He was a professor in biochemistry at the Autonomous University of Madrid and co-founded the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Centre at the University. He is a member of the World Academy of Art and Science. 


Douglas Zook is a professor of Science Education and Global Ecology at Boston University.  He teaches the graduate Symbiosis course there, a course that Lynn Margulis passed on to him more than 20 years ago.  He served as President of the International Symbiosis Society for ten years and is now a Vice-President.  He received his PhD in Biology, specializing in lichen symbiosis, from Clark University and conducted research on the origins of plastids at the University of Tuebingen, Germany.


The Filmmakers

John Feldman (Filmmaker) met Margulis at the World Summit on Evolution in 2005 when making EVO: Ten Questions Everyone Should Ask about Evolution.  Lynn took an active interest in EVO, but when it was done she strongly urged Feldman to go further and make a film about ideas on the cutting edge of biology. Feldman has been making films for nearly 40 years – including dramatic feature films, educational science films, documentaries, and films for business.  His films have won numerous awards and received critical acclaim.  “Who the Hell is Bobby Roos?” won the New American Cinema Award from the Seattle Film Festival in 2002; “Alligator Eyes” won a first prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 1990; “EVO” won a CINE Golden Eagle award in 2011.  He has a BA in biology from the University of Chicago, an MFA in filmmaking from Temple University, and is an avid environmentalist and cinematographer.  More information click here.

Susan Davies (Hummingbird Films Producer) produced EVO: Ten Questions Everyone Should Ask about Evolution and several other films for Hummingbird Films including Energy and You: Renewable Resources and Innovative Solutions for the San Diego County Office of Education.  She has a MA in Film Studies from San Francisco State University.

James MacAllister (Associate Producer) was Margulis’s videoographer, archivist, colleague graduate student, and close friend. He brings to the project a deep understanding of her ideas and connections with her colleagues (many of whom we will interview). MacAllister has spent three decades engaged in all aspects of technical and artistic video production.  As a freelance producer and consultant, he made documentaries for PBS and earned honors from the Health Science Communications Association, The Society for Technical Communication, and The New England Chapter of the American Medical Writers Association.

Alex Marlow (Assistant Editor & Researcher) has been working on the Symbiotic Earth project since early 2014. Pursuing his passion for environmental films, he took a course in Screen Studies and Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester and then went on to complete a  BA (Hons) Environmental Management from the University of Leeds,  School of Earth & Environment. Alex comes to the project with a keen interest and understanding of Gaia theory and the work of Lynn Margulis.