Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution

Rate this book
Microcosmos brings together the remarkable discoveries of microbiology of the past two decades and the pioneering research of Dr. Margulis to create a vivid new picture of the world that is crucial to our understanding of the future of the planet. Addressed to general readers, the book provides a beautifully written view of evolution as a process based on interdependency and the interconnectedness of all life on the planet.

304 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1986

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Lynn Margulis

87 books167 followers
Lynn Margulis (1938-2011) was a Professor of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
380 (46%)
4 stars
292 (35%)
3 stars
111 (13%)
2 stars
28 (3%)
1 star
11 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 45 reviews
Profile Image for Brian Griffith.
Author 6 books222 followers
March 4, 2021
A great exploration of the greatest force in the evolution of life, namely synergy between creatures, which accounts for the great leaps between sub-cellular life forms and cells with organs, the leap to multi-cellular organisms, and all the advances in synergy among communities of plants or animals, and the synergy of humans in families, communities, nations, and beyond. This is an understanding of the positive force in evolution that Darwin anticipated in his "Descent of Man," and it puts "realism" in a whole new light.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,630 reviews329 followers
January 15, 2023
No doubt this book is now somewhat of date, and the author is deceased -- but when I read it, her idea of endosymbiosis in early microbial life was still gaining acceptance. Now it's received dogma, and Margulis would have received a Nobel prize had she lived a few more years. She lived an interesting life:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynn_Ma... She died too young, at age 73.
Profile Image for Bob Nichols.
889 reviews292 followers
April 29, 2019
The book reads like a summing up of her (she co-authored with her son) long work as a pre-eminent biologist. (1) Life, Margulis writes, is autopoietic, by which she means that it actively maintains “itself against the mischief of the world. Life responds to disturbance, using matter and energy to stay intact. An organism constantly exchanges its parts, replacing its component chemicals without ever losing its identity. This modulating, ‘holistic’ phenomenon of autopoiesis, of active self-maintenance, is at the basis of all known life….”

For many, life’s beginnings start more or less 500 million years ago during the Cambrian period in the Paleozoic era when the first (hard-shell, bone) fossilized evidence of life appeared. But Margulis takes it back to 4 billion years ago, at that transition between life and non-life (she titles Chapter 2 as “The Animation of Matter”), when molecules began self-replication. (2)

Then she moves to the Age of Bacteria (3.5 billion years ago) and this is her focus. For the longest time in this period, prokaryotes (organisms composed of cells with no nucleus) dominated. “In their first two billion years on earth,” she writes, “prokaryotes continuously transformed the earth’s surface and atmosphere. They invented all of life’s essential, miniaturized chemical systems.” Some bacteria were able to breath oxygen that was toxic to other bacteria. Other bacteria were able to take light energy from the sun and “put it to use.” This is photosynthesis which is “undoubtedly the most single metabolic innovation in the history of life.” Sun energy was converted to ATP energy that was “used for movement and synthesis, such as conversion of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the food and replicating carbon compounds needed to self-maintain and grow.” And those bacteria that “could move to maximize their exposure had an advantage. Behavior began. Even in these very ancient times, a combination of movement and simple systems of chemical sensing developed for detecting foods and avoiding poisons.”

Because of the sun’s damaging ultraviolet radiation, bacteria developed “mechanisms for repairing sun-damaged DNA” by borrowing “DNA from their neighbors.” Bacteria invented sex, she says, which is “a mixing or union of genes from separate sources…. when a bacterium replaced some of its sun-damaged genes with fresh ones from a virus, a live bacterium, or even the old, discarded DNA of a dead cell.” Then, she adds, that “at the beginning of the bacterial sex act there are two partners. At the end there usually is only one sexually produced offspring: the parent itself – the recombinant bacterium that now carries genes from two sources. The bacterium, without even reproducing, may now carry 90 percent new genes.” This is not the reproductive, meiotic sex seen in our world as “bacterial sex preceded animal sex by at least 2,000 million years.” (3)

About 2.200 million years ago, a new kind of cell emerged from the prokaryotes. This was the eukaryotic cell with a nucleus. The “difference between nonnucleated bacterial cells,” she states, “and cells with nuclei is far greater than that between plants and animals” and “the division between bacteria and the new cells is, in fact, the most dramatic in all biology.” She goes on to say that “All cells either have a nucleus or do not. No intermediates exist. The abruptness of their appearance in the fossil record, the total discontinuity between living forms with and without nuclei, and the puzzling complexity of internal self-reproducing organelles suggest that the new cells were begotten by a process fundamentally different from simple mutation or bacterial genetic transfer.” This she believes was “symbiosis. Independent prokaryotes entered others. Inside them they digested cellular wastes; their waste, in turn was used as food. The outcomes of such intimate sharing were permanent relationships, cells reproducing offspring well adapted to life within other cells. With time, these populations of coevolved bacteria became communities of microbes so deeply interdependent they were, for all practical purposes, single stable organisms – protists. Life had moved another step, beyond the networking of free genetic transfer to the synergy of symbiosis.”

Margulis highlights three of these confederated symbiotic units that, in particular, are central to life as we know it today. Unicellular eukaryotes (protists) perform photosynthesis, which is the role of plant life and the food chain that we are familiar with. The bacteria formed 3 billion years ago to breathe oxygen exists “now in our bodies as mitochondria” where they provide waste disposal and oxygen-derived energy in return for food and shelter.” And the undulipodia, the tiny cell whips on cells with nuclei originated, she believes (she admits this is a more controversial argument), through a merger with bacteria. These cell whips were crucial to the development of life as cells could move to food, or move food to themselves.

Stepping back from all of this, Margulis believes this view of life fundamentally challenges the idea that “evolution is a bloody struggle in which only the strong survive.” Darwin, she argues, used Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” language to mean not that the strong survive via competitive battles, but was rather about organisms that leave the most offspring. “Fit, in evolution, means fecund,” she states, and fitness occurs through symbiosis as well as through competitive struggle. (4) “Competition in which the strong wins has been given a good deal more press than cooperation,” she writes. “But certain superficially weak organisms have survived in the long run by being part of collectives, while the so-called strong ones, never learning the trick of cooperation, have been dumped onto the scrap heap of evolutionary extinction.” This, not the Spencer formula, explains the origin of reciprocal altruism in human life where there is cooperation for mutual benefit. This is consistent with her view “that all large organisms came from smaller prokaryotes that together won a victory for cooperation, for the art of mutual living.”

Margulis is not an easy read. Her prose is an intermixture of lay-friendly and scientific descriptions. While the overall organization of her book is good, I found that key pieces of her argument jumped around and she often buried her most insightful comments in the middle of dense prose. While this made the book a challenge to follow, her primary arguments - that the microcosmos of the past lives on in life and us today, and that evolution is more than mutation and natural selection - eye-opening.

(1) Margulis had prominent scientific standing (she was a member of the National Academy of Sciences). She also reportedly denied the airplane attacks on the twin towers on 9-11, saying that their collapse had all the hallmarks of a programmed implosion.

(2) “The flexibility of carbon is one of the secrets of life on Earth,” she writes. “In their highly agitated states during the hot, wet, and molten Archean conditions, carbon atoms combined rapidly with hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur to generate a vast diversity of substances. This collection of carbon-containing molecules has continued to exist, interact and evolve. Those six elements are now the chemical common denominator of all life, accounting for 99 percent of the dry weight of every living thing.”

(3) “Indeed,” she comments, “the vertebrate, mammalian form of sex is a rarity in the living world.” Later she writes that “with genetic exchange possible only during reproduction, we are locked into our species, our bodies, and our generation. As it is sometimes expressed in technical terms, we trade genes ‘vertically – through the generations – whereas prokaryotes trade them ‘horizontally’ – direction to their neighbors in the same generation. The result is that while genetically fluid bacteria are functionally immortal, in eukaryotes, sex becomes linked with death.”

(4) “Symbiosis leads abruptly to new species,” she writes. “These new species…did not evolve gradually by accumulating mutations over a long period of time,” and this is where she butts heads directly with neo-Darwinian theory. Her argument is that survival and evolution proceed by symbiosis as well as by mutation and natural selection.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
5,006 reviews1,117 followers
August 28, 2011
Tom Miley, his older brother and I once shared an apartment in East Rogers Park, Chicago. Both the Miley brothers are, like myself, dissatisfied with themselves and both have striven mightily to make improvement. Much, but not all, of this effort has been along the lines of self-education in the common sense of going to schools, reading lots of books, writing and talking about one's studies. We have long inspired and comforted one another. We have, despite their moves to San Francisco and Sonoma years ago, maintained contact by means of regular visits, phonecalls and correspondence. Indeed, Michael, the older brother, is visiting as I write this.

By profession, Tom is a composer, primarily of electronic music. There isn't much commercial demand for this so he's worked a variety of jobs, some in sound engineering, some in programming, some in the academy. Once, during the time I was visiting him and given this book to read, he even went back to school to obtain expertise in the life sciences, thinking to completely change careers--quite an ambition in one's middle age! He was quite successful academically, but hated the lab job he obtained, so he's returned to music and programming, but his interest in biology has abided.

My own study of biology ended in high school, except for the occasional book on the subject. This book, Microcosmos, was written for a general audience and so was an appropriate recommendation.

Margulis' concentration has been on the formation of complex biological entities within the framework of evolutionary theory. This book, like several of the others she's written, is about how evolution may have favored symbiotic relationships between individual cells and led, ultimately, to us and other vastly complex cellular communities.
November 6, 2017
clear writing and very immersive. Lynn Margulis takes you to the realm of microscopic life, and offers a view on evolution trough cooperation. well put arguments against a view on evolution that only concerns the individual, as she shows that the whole concept of a individual is troublesome.
Profile Image for Mike Smith.
458 reviews15 followers
September 23, 2015
Life has existed on Earth for nearly 4 billion years. For 80% of that time, according to Microcosmos, it consisted solely of pre-cellular and single-celled organisms. Authors Margulis and Sagan give a convincing and engrossing account of how atoms and molecules on the early Earth may have coalesced and combined, eventually forming more complex molecules that could make copies of themselves. Through a variety of chemical interactions, these complex molecules combined together to form bacterial cells -- groups of molecules contained within a membrane that separated "self" from "non-self" for the first time. Bacteria consumed chemicals from the surrounding environment to produce energy that they used to maintain themselves and to reproduce. The authors explain how early evolution depended as much on symbiosis between different bacteria specialized at different tasks (such as photosynthesis or movement) as it did on Darwin's "survival of the fittest". In the process, they completely changed the Earth, polluting the atmosphere with oxygen that later became a key element for later generations of bacteria. Eventually, the bacteria had developed and evolved almost all the basic biochemical reactions that drive all forms of life on Earth today. Only after the biochemistry problems were solved did multi-cellular life forms like plants and animals evolve.

This is an amazing story, and one that was just becoming understood when I took biology in high school in the late 1970s. I would love to find out what discoveries have been made since this book was first published in 1985.

One weakness of the book is the final couple of chapters. The authors leave microbes behind and outline the possible evolutionary history of plants, dinosaurs, and humans. The final chapter speculates on how humans might evolve as they colonize other planets and space environments. I found those chapters quite a departure from the earlier focus on the titular microscopic organisms.

Be aware that there is a lot of scientific vocabulary in this book, and some descriptions of chemical reactions. You don't have to remember your high school science to understand the gist of this book, but it will certainly help if you do.
Profile Image for Daniel Aguilar.
120 reviews30 followers
March 12, 2014
One of those mind-bending books that make you rethink many things about yourself, about the world... inspiring, entertaining, exciting...
The authors make an excellent job at taking ideas from many different thinkers and scientists (Lovelock, Darwin, von Neumann, Dawkins... ) and create a coherent narrative that takes the reader (relatively) easily through disciplines such as biology, cybernetics, anthropology and more. At some points the arguments seem to get a bit too far, a bit too speculative, but you are always warned about that and, also, it helps pushing the boundaries of your mind frame set.

All in all, a great new addition to my favourites shelf.
Profile Image for Susan.
42 reviews
June 4, 2021
We are colonies of creatures whose silent intelligence is unfathomable. I am life teeming within; I am made of colonies quietly guiding me. Cooperative colonies may make up many of my organs. My brain is an organ. In this book I saw humanity's innate drive to define 'me' vs 'them' -- in the very way that life began and became life. I can not be certain but I feel that the aliens are nothing compared to the strangers that create me. Interior vs exterior, us vs them, is the inherent metaphor that life and only life creates. Yet: these colonies that created us, through billions of years, became more than individuals.
Profile Image for Ian Espinoso.
10 reviews7 followers
December 22, 2019
This and the Tree of Knowledge, from Maturana and Varela, were the books that ushered me into Environmental Engineering when I was barely 15. Lynn Margulis' love for live is contagious, and it goes from a molecular level to modern society. It is a tiny book, and still deep enough to throw you 5 billion years ago, and make you whole again with life itself. No wonder Carl Sagan fell in love with this woman.
Profile Image for Rafa Lobomar.
28 reviews1 follower
June 19, 2022
Uno de mis recuerdos más nítidos fue en mi época colegial, en donde tuve que hacer una presentación acerca de la teoría endosimbiótica de Lynn Margulis. Para mí fue un momento revelador que me enseñó la belleza de la biología, y del cual surgió mi pasión por este campo. A pesar de la desactualización en algunos temas, la lectura de este libro no se siente así.

Es un hermoso recorrido de la historia de la vida en el planeta, sobre cómo las primeras moléculas orgánicas comenzaron a interaccionar entre sí, buscando la estabilidad y perdurar el mayor tiempo posible. Esto dio inició a las primeras formas de vida procariotas que poco a poco colonizaron cada rincón del planeta. Es cierto que estas se adaptaron a su ambiente, pero también lo transformaron, y esto junto a la incorporación mitocondrias y cloroplastos, fueron dos de los elementos que permitieron el gran salto a las formas eucariotas, y su subsecuente salto de un mundo micro a uno macro. Es un libro que aborda el enorme poder de las relaciones simbióticas en todo el entramado de la selección natural y que incluye una reflexión sobre nuestro lugar como especie, no como una especie superior a las demás o el pináculo de la evolución, sino como un elemento más, que es parte de un todo.
Profile Image for Upsilonn.
141 reviews7 followers
May 13, 2023
J'ai naïvement cru que je pouvais me lancer dans la lecture d'un essai de microbiologie avec zéro base. Ca avait l'air fascinant, mais je n'ai pas les connaissances et le recul nécessaire pour me plonger dans cette lecture un peu pointue. J'ai aussi été perturbée par le fait que l'essentiel des sources citées par Margulis sont ses propres travaux. Etant peu armée pour aborder ce genre de sujet, je ne pouvais pas replacer ses théories dans un contexte plus large et bien comprendre leurs apports et leurs limites. J'ai laissé tomber au bout d'une dizaine de pages.
Profile Image for Morgan.
152 reviews
March 30, 2018
It was comforting for me to realize after reading this '80s classic that micro-biotic life is smarter than we are. Its uber mind sees a much bigger picture and created humans, and all life that one can see with the naked eye for that matter (1%), as metaphorical transit mechanisms, cities, condominiums, shopping centers... I could only conclude that after we have destroyed our environment, and ourselves and our fellow creatures along with it, this microbial planet will recover rather quickly in geologic time and the symphony will flow on at a different octave. Deeply fascinating description of evolution as symbiosis, rather than Darwinian mutation, i.e. how the Builder built mankind.
Profile Image for Julene.
Author 12 books53 followers
September 23, 2015
Read many years ago as part of my study and practice of Continuum. She is a biologist and it resonates with the micromovement and being in contact with your body at a cellular level, including the microtubules.
Profile Image for Keygan.
Author 2 books2 followers
May 13, 2018
Note: Keep in mind that it's a little outdated, as it's fairly old for a science book. Despite that, it was a fantastic read. Provocative and even mindblowing at times.
Profile Image for Naureen.
43 reviews20 followers
May 12, 2020
Okay I have my reasons for giving it 3 stars. #1 and most important reason: I read this book for a class. Maybe if I had picked it up for myself and read it for fun and with more knowledge about what I was getting into with this book, I would've probably enjoyed it more. #2, there was times I was reading where I felt like going "what" because some claims in this book seemed so far fetched my mind couldn't comprehend. There were so many holes in here; everytime the author wrote "this MIGHT have been what happened" I lost it. When it comes to informative books I like certainty. I understand the study of life's beginnings is an on going research, okay so how many more years until we find answers. Will we one day throw in the towel and say that's it? Or will we continue on until the last human on earth dies with more questions than answers? Honestly, this book left me with so many more questions, and for the sake of my sanity and the fact that I'm finally graduating I'm not gonna pick up another book about evolution or about the birth of life unless against my will.
Profile Image for Nola.
206 reviews1 follower
November 15, 2018
Microcosmos is a history of evolution from the viewpoint of the bacteria. It made me realize how accustomed I have become to reading books into which authors insert themselves. They travel to various places to research their books and they tell about what they learn from their point of view. The authors of this book, in contrast, seemed strangely absent, or behind the scenes. There are just a few humorous phrases to convey a feeling of Microcosmos coming from real actual people. Grade school textbooks used to be like this. The subject matter is certainly interesting and clearly and chronologically presented. The stippled illustrations for each chapter heading are charming. I agree with other reviewers that the last couple of chapters didn’t fit well with the rest of the book because they got way too speculative. I was also really tired from reading this book and could hardly wait to finish it. It really isn’t the kind of book that reads itself. 😊
Profile Image for Alexis Benitez.
98 reviews64 followers
January 25, 2021
"La vida se convierte en un personaje central, que crea sus propios problemas y las respectivas soluciones."

Dorian y Lynn terminan de lograr lo que Carl Sagan inició con su trabajo de divulgación: crear una profunda y sólida conexión con el cosmos y la vida desde sus inicios más humildes con la ayuda de la simbiogénesis, una nueva teoría de la evolución que se centra en la cooperación constante y sostenido a lo largo de la historia entre los seis reinos de la vida como método de supervivencia a escala planetaria.

Mí único problema con el trabajo es que requiere un nivel bajo-medio sobre microorganismos para entenderse completamente sin interrumpir con su lectura: muchas veces se hacen menciones de partes de bacterias, amebas o células que sin un conocimiento previo no se pueden imaginar; hecho para nada secundario cuando la función de las menciones es explicar como estos seres se iban modificando con el paso del tiempo.
Profile Image for Carmen.
2,044 reviews
November 18, 2022
La vida en la superficie de la Tierra parece regularse a sí misma cuando se enfrenta a perturbaciones externas, y lo hace sin tener en cuenta los individuos y las especies que la componen. Más del 99,99 por ciento de las especies que han existido están extinguidas, pero la pátina del planeta, con su ejército de células, ha continuado existiendo durante más de tres mil millones de años. Y la base, pasada, presente y futura, de esa pátina es el microcosmos, constituido por billones de microbios en comunicación y en continua evolución. El mundo visible es una porción reciente y sobredesarrollada del microcosmos; funciona únicamente gracias a su bien desarrollada conexión con las actividades del microcosmos.

Si he aprendido algo después de leer esta magnífica obra de divulgación científica es HUMILDAD.
Profile Image for Skylar.
220 reviews2 followers
March 9, 2018
The authors of Microcosmos provide a fascinating look into the role the bacteria have played on Earth, both influencing the larger environment and life itself. Unfortunately, the last two chapters go a bit off the rails, where the authors try to speculate that humans, cooperating with each other in space exploration, will become the equivalent microbes beyond Earth. While I think there is potential with that argument, it just didn't fit with the rest of the book and dragged on for too long.
51 reviews
December 28, 2022
A very readable presentation of the origins and evolution of life on Earth. Kudos! A "must read" to understand the ongoing climatological changes and the damage humanity is causing to the planet that we call home.
Profile Image for Ismael Acosta Servetto.
38 reviews24 followers
October 8, 2017
Lynn Margulis nos presenta una hermosa y amena lectura acerca de la vida en la Tierra desde un punto de vista novedoso: a través de los microorganismos.
26 reviews
January 22, 2020
A good book. Though I am a biologist I learnt a lot, some totally new viewpoints. Sometimes a bit not 100% scientific to me with not rock solid ideas.
Profile Image for François Jacob.
23 reviews
October 4, 2022
Ce livre fait partie des rares ouvrages qui proposent une histoire de la vie sur terre avec des arguments intelligents, originaux et stimulants.
Profile Image for Jessica Kuzmier.
Author 7 books14 followers
June 29, 2020
Is the biosphere about survival of the fittest, or that of cooperation?

Lynn Margulis, one of the founding scientists of the philosophy endosymbiosis, believes the latter is true. In fact, without the general cooperation that resides in genetic exchange in the microbial world, Margulis believes that life would never be able to exist.

‘Microcomos’, a book that she co-wrote with her son and science writer Dorion Sagan, is a treatise which expounds upon this theory. The narrative takes the reader into a world too small to see but one essential to life on earth. Written in 1986, the late Margulis suggests theories that are commonplace today but novel for the era in which she wrote. Compiled in a very readable and approachable style, this short book is in no way outdated and irrelevant. Much of Margulis’ work is still accepted in the scientific paradigm today, even with noted biologists and evolutionists calling some of the work in dispute.

If one is looking for a quick lesson in natural history of the microbes who live with us and within us, this book is for you. I recommend the book to anyone who is a science buff or to anyone who is looking for a clearly written primer of how microbes got us to where we are now, and how they are still relevant today.
Profile Image for Kathline.
Author 1 book5 followers
December 30, 2009
Microcosmos inspired in me a real awe for the complexity and the durability of this small world. We are literally swarming with microbes, and there isn’t much we touch that isn’t also teeming with them. We are intimately involved with the microbial world, from the moment the sperm cell with its flagellum (likely inherited from spirochetes, according to Margulis) punctures the egg—to when we rejoin the earth and are consumed by and reissued from, microbes. Since it is a book written toward a non-scientific readership, I was glad to have Microbes: Life at Small Scale on my desk, which is much more specific in scientific terms.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 45 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.