Last month, we published Symbiogenesis: A New Principle of Evolution by Soviet-era Russian botanist Boris Kozo-Polyansky. Part scientific treatise, part historical detective work, the book resurrects a lost classic of evolutionary theory along with its fascinating backstory. The volume’s co-editors, Victor Fet and Lynn Margulis, argue that Kozo-Polyansky’s theories—now recognized as true by almost all biologists after decades of neglect—were far ahead of their time. Here, editor and translator Fet tells the story of Kozo-Polyansky’s discovery.
In the 1920s, a brilliant young Russian botanist synthesized the experimental work of evolutionary biologists across the world in order to theorize that symbiogenesis—the merging of separate organisms to form a single organism—played a leading role in evolution. Working from this fundamental idea, the botanist, Boris Mikhailovich Kozo-Polyansky, went on to broad-sweeping speculations, collecting examples of symbiogenetic systems from all groups of living organisms, and reconciling his new theory of symbiogenesis with the Darwinian evolutionary ideas of the early 1920s, well before the development of the neo-Darwinist New Synthesis theory that emerged in the 1930s and ’40s.
Below: Kozo-Polyansky as a young man
Many years before any evidence for horizontal transfer of genes and genomes entered the mainstream of biological thought, Kozo-Polyansky suggested that cells are in fact not just elementary units of life but cooperative systems (he in fact used the word “system”).The original Russian book was published in 1924, and its little-known author died in 1957. Kozo-Polyansky’s evolutionary ideas were ridiculed and forgotten. Only decades later, similar concepts proposed in 1970s-1980s de novo by Lynn Margulis, the co-editor of this edition, eventually found their way into scientific establishment, being spectacularly confirmed by the advances of cell and molecular biology in the 1980s-1990s.
Kozo-Polyansky's book is to some extent a “prescient” text, and many pages from it read as contemporary literature, for example (on the origin of cell’s organelles): “It was not the drive toward the division of labor that led to the formation of these organoids, but the fact that certain partners joined the system that made a specific scheme of labor division possible.” Kozo-Polyansky's stunning contribution, the one that distinguishes him from his great Russian predecessors at the "school of symbiogeneticists" such as K.S. Mereshkovsky, A.S. Famintzyn, et al. who wrote and/or were translated into other languages, was his Darwinist attitude. Kozo-Polyansky insisted that the Russians were correct: Symbiogenesis is the source of evolutionary (heritable) novelty—but, he posited, Charles Darwin's "natural selection" is responsible for the maintenance and perpetration of this heritable change.
The existence of the 1924 text was known to the Western biologists. Publication in English of the 1979 book by Khakhina (1992), promoted and edited by Lynn Margulis, was the first to place Kozo-Polyansky’s name in the context of the developments in the evolutionary science in the 1920s. Khakhina devoted a chapter of her book to Kozo-Polyansky’s hypotheses, along with brief notes on his 1924 book. Our translation project was also blessed by one of the greatest Russian botanists, Armen L. Takhtajan (1910-2009), the follower and student of Kozo-Polyansky, who was the first to mention Kozo-Polyansky’s name to both Margulis and Raven in 1973. Still active at age 95, Prof. Takhtajan wrote to us: “Numerous facts, especially those from cytology of simplest eukaryotic organisms [protists], support the view of Kozo-Polyansky─Margulis. The eukaryotic cell, compared to a prokaryotic cell, is already some sort of ‘supercell.’ A specific ‘assembly’ of this complex eukaryotic system from already largely ‘prefabricated parts’ took place during the process of evolution.” This was the view first put together by Kozo-Polyansky in 1924, when he brought together Darwinian selection and endosymbiosis.
Even before Chatton (1925) introduced (without any symbiogenetic implication about their genesis) the terms “prokaryote” and “eukaryote,” Kozo-Polyansky realized that this most fundamental discontinuity of life on Earth is due to the symbiogenetic, synthetic, Russian matryoshka (nested doll)-style structure of the eukaryotic cell. Interestingly, Kozo-Polyansky derived symbiogenesis from the famous Darwin’s “temporary hypothesis of pangenesis”, which gave De Vries’ (1889) nucleocentric pangenes, shortened to genes by Johansen. Stephen J. Gould wrote: “Few evolutionary biologists recognize this curious terminological odyssey making Darwin himself the ultimate, if indirect, source of our modern term ‘gene’ ” (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory). Kozo-Polyansky was the only person who connected the ideas of symbiogenesis to Darwin’s famous statement on an individual being a “microcosm”.
Below: Kozo-Polyansky in later life
There are people in Russia now who not only cherish the memory but understand the great importance of Kozo-Polyansky. The manuscript has been read and highly approved by Professor Michael Golubovsky (Institute of the History of Science and Technology, St. Petersburg, Russia, now a visiting researcher in UC Berkeley), who is a historian of Russian genetics and evolutionary science, and the editor of very important Lyubichshev works. It is also approved by Dr. Liya Khakhina (St. Petersburg, Russia), the foremost authority on its subject and the author of Concepts of Symbiogenesis: a Historical and Critical Study of the Research of Russian Botanists (Yale University Press, 1992).
The faculty of Voronezh State University (Russia) where Kozo-Polyansky was a Chair of Botany most of his life, also actively supported our project. They were pleased to learn that there is an interest in Kozo-Polyansky in the West. With the publication of his manuscript, nearly ninety years after he wrote it, Symbiogenesis is finally assuming its place among the major texts on the origin of life.
Below: The Usmanka River valley near Voronezh, close to the field station where Kozo-Polyansky worked for decades