Clearsighted critic of standard evolutionary mechanism taken early
Classic struggle of heretic to move mountain of prejudicial inertia
Teresi achieved fine Discover interview to cap her legacy
One of the most forceful personalities and minds in science was suddenly taken from us by a stroke today (Tues Nov 22 2011). Lynn Margulis was an unusually strong character and for a biologist she had an unusually muscular mind, and her early marriage to Carl Sagan was the least of her accomplishments. She was very young when she began to demonstrate the lameness of the standard idea of how evolution works and the origin of species, ie that random tiny mutations are converted by Darwininian competition to emerge as dominant features if these are advantageous to survival, and can even give rise to new major forms or species if they are particularly helpful.
Margulis was one of the few scientists who immediately see that this theory is conceptually inadequate at the fundamental level and not much more than a silly biological version of modern capitalist thinking a la Ayn Raynd, where nature is wholly a jungle where only the strongest survive, and that evolution at the level of creating new species (which standard Darwinism still utterly fails to explain) was far more likely a cooperative venture of some kind.
From single cells to humans
This revisionism took shape in her ideas about symbiogenesis where at the most basic stratum of life in which single celled forms existed at the beginning, it was likely that such cells merged, and that explained the appearance of cells with a nucleus of which most larger life forms are now made up, including ourselves. From the Margulis point of view we are all essentially agglomerations of cooperating bacteria, and that explains also how new species can arise – from the merging of disparate cells which thus form new living entities with more powerful survival processes than either progenitor.
This obituary in the Times suggests that the details of her thinking are still obscure to the average Timesman and other non specialists, but it is very clear in giving her the credit she deserved after years in the trenches fighting for her truths. No less a fellow heretic than Richard Dawking famously complimented her highly on her determined resilience in the fact of the standard hostility and envy of lesser minds who occupied higher positions in the ruling system when she started out as a young woman of originality and superior sense.
In other words, Margulis was a heretic of great ability who could be counted on to guide lesser mortals as to other heretics in science and which were or are bone fide future Nobelists and which are fueled by too much skepticism and imagination for common acceptance. In this respect she was one of the first to recognize the distinction of one of the most eminent naysayers in science, Peter Duesberg of Berkeley, who has been subjected to political attacks for a quarter century for pointing out from the beginning that as the putative cause of AIDS HIV is in fact a non starter, as every year that passes confirms.
Margulis saw immediately that Duesberg’s analysis was correct and that HIV/AIDS is a nonsense from every point of view, and she had no compunction in saying so. How rare is her kind of unrestrained seeking after better truths in science and how sorely we need more of it was never better shown than in her life of great achievement in the face of mass conformity and political resistance, the new world of institutionalized and now corporate science that has grown into an almost immovable pyramid since the Second World War.
Now we have lost one more rare voice of skeptical creativity.
Lynn Margulis, Evolution Theorist, Dies at 73
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: November 24, 2011
Lynn Margulis, a biologist whose work on the origin of cells helped transform the study of evolution, died on Tuesday at her home in Amherst, Mass. She was 73.
She died five days after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke, said Dorion Sagan, a son she had with her first husband, the cosmologist Carl Sagan.
Dr. Margulis had the title of distinguished university professor of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, since 1988. She drew upon earlier, ridiculed ideas when she first promulgated her theory, in the late 1960s, that cells with nuclei, which are known as eukaryotes and include all the cells in the human body, evolved as a result of symbiotic relationships among bacteria.
The hypothesis was a direct challenge to the prevailing neo-Darwinist belief that the primary evolutionary mechanism was random mutation.
Rather, Dr. Margulis argued that a more important mechanism was symbiosis; that is, evolution is a function of organisms that are mutually beneficial growing together to become one and reproducing. The theory undermined significant precepts of the study of evolution, underscoring the idea that evolution began at the level of micro-organisms long before it would be visible at the level of species.
“She talked a lot about the importance of micro-organisms,” said her daughter, Jennifer Margulis. “She called herself a spokesperson for the microcosm.”
The manuscript in which Dr. Margulis first presented her findings was rejected by 15 journals before being published in 1967 by the Journal of Theoretical Biology. An expanded version, with additional evidence to support the theory — which was known as the serial endosymbiotic theory — became her first book, “Origin of Eukaryotic Cells.”
A revised version, “Symbiosis in Cell Evolution,” followed in 1981, and though it challenged the presumptions of many prominent scientists, it has since become accepted evolutionary doctrine.
“Evolutionists have been preoccupied with the history of animal life in the last 500 million years,” Dr. Margulis wrote in 1995. “But we now know that life itself evolved much earlier than that. The fossil record begins nearly 4,000 million years ago! Until the 1960s, scientists ignored fossil evidence for the evolution of life, because it was uninterpretable.
“I work in evolutionary biology, but with cells and micro-organisms. Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith, George Williams, Richard Lewontin, Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould all come out of the zoological tradition, which suggests to me that, in the words of our colleague Simon Robson, they deal with a data set some three billion years out of date.”
Lynn Petra Alexander was born on March 5, 1938, in Chicago, where she grew up in a tough neighborhood on the South Side. Her father was a lawyer and a businessman. Precocious, she graduated at 18 from the University of Chicago, where she met Dr. Sagan as they passed each other on a stairway.
She earned a master’s degree in genetics and zoology from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of California, Berkeley. Before joining the faculty at Massachusetts, she taught for 22 years at Boston University.
Dr. Margulis was also known, somewhat controversially, as a collaborator with and supporter of James E. Lovelock, whose Gaia theory states that Earth itself — its atmosphere, the geology and the organisms that inhabit it — is a self-regulating system, maintaining the conditions that allow its perpetuation. In other words, it is something of a living organism in and of itself.
Dr. Margulis’s marriage to Dr. Sagan ended in divorce, as did a marriage to Thomas N. Margulis, a chemist. Dr. Sagan died in 1996.
In addition to her daughter and her son Dorion, a science writer with whom she sometimes collaborated, she is survived by two other sons, Jeremy Sagan and Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma; three sisters, Joan Glashow, Sharon Kleitman and Diane Alexander; three half-brothers, Robert, Michael and Mark Alexander; a half-sister, Sara Alexander; and nine grandchildren.
“More than 99.99 percent of the species that have ever existed have become extinct,” Dr. Margulis and Dorion Sagan wrote in “Microcosmos,” a 1986 book that traced, in readable language, the history of evolution over four billion years, “but the planetary patina, with its army of cells, has continued for more than three billion years. And the basis of the patina, past, present and future, is the microcosm — trillions of communicating, evolving microbes.”
Margulis’s ideas in a nutshell
Further reading: Dick Teresis (ex OMNI editor) talks to Margulis, a neighbor in:
Discover: April 2011 issue; published online June 17, 2011
The best brief guide to Margulis’ thinking in her own words came in April when her neighbor, ex-editor Dick Teresi, captured an interview for Discover, almost the only mainstream outlet for material which even hints that the ideas of science heretics of stature like Margulis or Duesberg are worth considering.
Anyone who wants to understand the direction in which smart evolutionary theory must go should read this:
Lynn Margulis Says She’s Not Controversial, She’s Right
It’s the neo-Darwinists, population geneticists, AIDS researchers, and English-speaking biologists as a whole who have it all wrong.
by Dick Teresi; photography by Bob O’Connor
A conversation with Lynn Margulis is an effective way to change the way you think about life. Not just your life. All life. Scientists today recognize five groups of life: bacteria, protoctists (amoebas, seaweed), fungi (yeast, mold, mushrooms), plants, and animals. Margulis, a self-described “evolutionist,” makes a convincing case that there are really just two groups, bacteria and everything else.
That distinction led to her career-making insight. In a 1967 paper published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, Margulis suggested that mitochondria and plastids—vital structures within animal and plant cells—evolved from bacteria hundreds of million of years ago, after bacterial cells started to collect in interactive communities and live symbiotically with one another. The resulting mergers yielded the compound cells known as eukaryotes, which in turn gave rise to all the rest—the protoctists, fungi, plants, and animals, including humans. The notion that we are all the children of bacteria seemed outlandish at the time, but it is now widely supported and accepted. “The evolution of the eukaryotic cells was the single most important event in the history of the organic world,” said Ernst Mayr, the leading evolutionary biologist of the last century. “Margulis’s contribution to our understanding the symbiotic factors was of enormous importance.”
Her subsequent ideas remain decidedly more controversial. Margulis came to view symbiosis as the central force behind the evolution of new species, an idea that has been dismissed by modern biologists. The dominant theory of evolution (often called neo-Darwinism) holds that new species arise through the gradual accumulation of random mutations, which are either favored or weeded out by natural selection. To Margulis, random mutation and natural selection are just cogs in the gears of evolution; the big leaps forward result from mergers between different kinds of organisms, what she calls symbiogenesis. Viewing life as one giant network of social connections has set Margulis against the mainstream in other high-profile ways as well. She disputes the current medical understanding of AIDS and considers every kind of life to be “conscious” in a sense.
Margulis herself is a highly social organism. Now 71, she is a well-known sight at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she is on the geosciences faculty, riding her bike in all weather and at all times of day. Interviewer Dick Teresi, a neighbor, almost ran her over when, dressed in a dark coat, she cycled in front of his car late at night. On the three occasions that they met for this interview, Teresi couldn’t help noticing that Margulis shared her home with numerous others: family, students, visiting scholars, friends, friends of friends, and anybody interesting who needed a place to stay.
Most scientists would say there is no controversy over evolution. Why do you disagree??
All scientists agree that evolution has occurred—that all life comes from a common ancestry, that there has been extinction, and that new taxa, new biological groups, have arisen. The question is, is natural selection enough to explain evolution? Is it the driver of evolution?
And you don’t believe that natural selection is the answer??
This is the issue I have with neo-Darwinists: They teach that what is generating novelty is the accumulation of random mutations in DNA, in a direction set by natural selection. If you want bigger eggs, you keep selecting the hens that are laying the biggest eggs, and you get bigger and bigger eggs. But you also get hens with defective feathers and wobbly legs. Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create.
That seems like a fairly basic objection. How, then, do you think the neo-Darwinist perspective became so entrenched??
In the first half of the 20th century, neo-Darwinism became the name for the people who reconciled the type of gradual evolutionary change described by Charles Darwin with Gregor Mendel’s rules of heredity [which first gained widespread recognition around 1900], in which fixed traits are passed from one generation to the next. The problem was that the laws of genetics showed stasis, not change. If you have pure breeding red flowers and pure breeding white flowers, like carnations, you cross them and you get pink flowers. You back-cross them to the red parent and you could get three-quarters red, one-quarter white. Mendel showed that the grandparent flowers and the offspring flowers could be identical to each other. There was no change through time.
There’s no doubt that Mendel was correct. But Darwinism says that there has been change through time, since all life comes from a common ancestor—something that appeared to be supported when, early in the 20th century, scientists discovered that X-rays and specific chemicals caused mutations. But did the neo-?Darwinists? ever go out of their offices? Did they or their modern followers, the population geneticists, ever go look at what’s happening in nature the way Darwin did? Darwin was a fine naturalist. If you really want to study evolution, you’ve got go outside sometime, because you’ll see symbiosis everywhere!
So did Mendel miss something? Was Darwin wrong??
I’d say both are incomplete. The traits that follow Mendel’s laws are trivial. Do you have a widow’s peak or a straight hairline? Do you have hanging earlobes or attached earlobes? Are you female or male? Mendel found seven traits that followed his laws exactly. But neo-Darwinists say that new species emerge when mutations occur and modify an organism. I was taught over and over again that the accumulation of random mutations led to evolutionary change—led to new species. I believed it until I looked for evidence.
What kind of evidence turned you against neo-Darwinism??
What you’d like to see is a good case for gradual change from one species to another in the field, in the laboratory, or in the fossil record—and preferably in all three. Darwin’s big mystery was why there was no record at all before a specific point [dated to 542 million years ago by modern researchers], and then all of a sudden in the fossil record you get nearly all the major types of animals. The paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould studied lakes in East Africa and on Caribbean islands looking for Darwin’s gradual change from one species of trilobite or snail to another. What they found was lots of back-and-forth variation in the population and then—whoop—a whole new species. There is no gradualism in the fossil record.
Gould used the term “punctuated equilibrium” to describe what he interpreted as actual leaps in evolutionary change. Most biologists disagreed, suggesting a wealth of missing fossil evidence yet to be found. Where do you stand in the debate??
“Punctuated equilibrium” was invented to describe the discontinuity in the appearance of new species, and symbiogenesis supports the idea that these discontinuities are real?. An example: Most clams live in deep, fairly dark waters. Among one group of clams is a species whose ancestors ingested algae—a typical food—but failed to digest them and kept the algae under their shells. The shell, with time, became translucent, allowing sunlight in. The clams fed off their captive algae and their habitat expanded into sunlit waters. So there’s a discontinuity between the dark-dwelling, food-gathering ancestor and the descendants that feed themselves photosynthetically. ?
What about the famous “beak of the finch” evolutionary studies of the 1970s? Didn’t they vindicate Darwin??
Peter and Rosemary Grant, two married evolutionary biologists, said, ‘To hell with all this theory; we want to get there and look at speciation happening.’ They measured the eggs, beaks, et cetera, of finches on Daphne Island, a small, hilly former volcano top in Ecuador’s Galápagos, year after year. They found that during floods or other times when there are no big seeds, the birds with big beaks can’t eat. The birds die of starvation and go extinct on that island.
Did the Grants document the emergence of new species??
They saw this big shift: the large-beaked birds going extinct, the small-beaked ones spreading all over the island and being selected for the kinds of seeds they eat. They saw lots of variation within a species, changes over time. But they never found any new species—ever. They would say that if they waited long enough they’d find a new species.
Some of your criticisms of natural selection sound a lot like those of Michael Behe, one of the most famous proponents of “intelligent design,” and yet you have debated Behe. What is the difference between your views??
The critics, including the creationist critics, are right about their criticism. It’s just that they’ve got nothing to offer but intelligent design or “God did it.” They have no alternatives that are scientific.
You claim that the primary mechanism of evolution is not mutation but symbiogenesis, in which new species emerge through the symbiotic relationship between two or more kinds of organisms. How does that work??
All visible organisms are products of symbiogenesis, without exception. The bacteria are the unit. The way I think about the whole world is that it’s like a pointillist painting. You get far away and it looks like Seurat’s famous painting of people in the park (jpg). Look closely: The points are living bodies—different distributions of bacteria. The living world thrived long before the origin of nucleated organisms [the eukaryotic cells, which have genetic material enclosed in well-defined membranes]. There were no animals, no plants, no fungi. It was an all-bacterial world—bacteria that have become very good at finding specialized niches. Symbiogenesis recognizes that every visible life-form is a combination or community of bacteria.
How could communities of bacteria have formed completely new, more complex levels of life??
Symbiogenesis recognizes that the mitochondria [the energy ?factories] in animal, plant, and fungal cells came from oxygen-respiring bacteria and that chloroplasts in plants and algae—which perform photosynthesis—came from cyanobacteria. These used to be called blue-green algae, and they produce the oxygen that all animals breathe.
Are you saying that a free-living bacterium became part of the cell of another organism? How could that have happened??
At some point an amoeba ate a bacterium but could not digest it. The bacterium produced oxygen or made vitamins, providing a survival advantage to both itself and the amoeba. Eventually the bacteria inside the amoeba became the mitochondria. The green dots you see in the cells of plants originated as cyanobacteria. This has been proved without a doubt.
And that kind of partnership drives major evolutionary change??
The point is that evolution goes in big jumps. That idea has been called macromutation, and I was denigrated in 1967 at Harvard for mentioning it. “You believe in macromutation? You believe in acquired characteristics?” the important professor Keith Porter asked me with a sneer. No, I believe in acquired genomes.
Can you give an example of symbiogenesis in action??
Look at this cover of Plant Physiology [a major journal in the field]. The animal is a juvenile slug. It has no photosynthesis ancestry. Then it feeds on algae and takes in chloroplasts. This photo is taken two weeks later. Same animal. The slug is completely green. It took in algae chloroplasts, and it became completely photosynthetic and lies out in the sun. At the end of September, these slugs turn red and yellow and look like dead leaves. When they lay eggs, those eggs contain the gene for photosynthesis inside. Or look at a cow. It is a 40-gallon fermentation tank on four legs. It cannot digest grass and needs a whole mess of symbiotic organisms in its overgrown esophagus to digest it. The difference between cows and related species like bison or musk ox should be traced, in part, to the different symbionts they maintain.?
But if these symbiotic partnerships are so stable, how can they also drive evolutionary change??
Symbiosis is an ecological phenomenon where one kind of organism lives in physical contact with another. Long-term symbiosis leads to new intracellular structures, new organs and organ systems, and new species as one being incorporates another being that is already good at something else. This major mode of evolutionary innovation has been ignored by the so-called evolutionary biologists. They think they own evolution, but they’re basically anthropocentric zoologists. They’re playing the game while missing four out of five of the cards. The five are bacteria, protoctists, fungi, animals, and plants, and they’re playing with just animals—a fifth of the deck. The evolutionary biologists believe the evolutionary pattern is a tree. It’s not. The evolutionary pattern is a web—the branches fuse, like when algae and slugs come together and stay together.
In contrast, the symbiotic view of evolution has a long lineage in Russia, right??
From the very beginning the Russians said natural selection was a process of elimination and could not produce all the diversity we see. They understood that symbiogenesis was a major source of innovation, and they rejected Darwin. If the English-speaking world owns natural selection, the Russians own symbiogenesis. In 1924, this man Boris Mikhaylovich Kozo-Polyansky wrote a book called Symbiogenesis: A New Principle of Evolution, in which he reconciled Darwin’s natural selection as the eliminator and symbiogenesis as the innovator. Kozo-Polyansky looked at cilia—the wavy hairs that some microbes use to move—and said it is not beyond the realm of possibility that cilia, the tails of sperm cells, came from “flagellated cytodes,” by which he clearly meant swimming bacteria.
Has that idea ever been verified??
The sense organs of vertebrates have modified cilia: The rods and cone cells of the eye have cilia, and the balance organ in the inner ear is lined with sensory cilia. You tilt your head to one side and little calcium carbonate stones in your inner ear hit the cilia. This has been known since shortly after electron microscopy came in 1963. Sensory cilia did not come from random mutations. They came by acquiring a whole genome of a symbiotic bacterium that could already sense light or motion. Specifically, I think it was a spirochete [a corkscrew-shaped bacterium] that became the cilium.
Don’t spirochetes cause syphilis??
Yes, and Lyme disease. There are many kinds of spirochetes, and if I’m right, some of them are ancestors to the cilia in our cells. Spirochete bacteria are already optimized for sensitivity to motion, light, and chemicals. All eukaryotic cells have an internal transport system. If I’m right, the whole system—called the cytoskeletal system—came from the incorporation of ancestral spirochetes. Mitosis, or cell division, is a kind of internal motility system that came from these free-living, symbiotic, swimming bacteria. Here [she shows a video] we compare isolated swimming sperm tails to free-swimming spirochetes. Is that clear enough?
And yet these ideas are not generally accepted. Why??
Do you want to believe that your sperm tails come from some spirochetes? Most men, most evolutionary biologists, don’t. When they understand what I’m saying, they don’t like it.
We usually think of bacteria as strictly harmful. You disagree??
We couldn’t live without them. They maintain our ecological physiology. There are vitamins in bacteria that you could not live without. The movement of your gas and feces would never take place without bacteria. There are hundreds of ways your body wouldn’t work without bacteria. Between your toes is a jungle; under your arms is a jungle. There are bacteria in your mouth, lots of spirochetes, and other bacteria in your intestines. We take for granted their influence. Bacteria are our ancestors. One of my students years ago cut himself deeply with glass and accidentally inoculated himself with at least 10 million spirochetes. We were all scared but nothing happened. He didn’t even have an allergic reaction. This tells you that unless these microbes have a history with people, they’re harmless.
Are you saying that the only harmful bacteria are the ones that share an evolutionary history with us??
Right. Dangerous spirochetes, like the Treponema of syphilis or the Borrelia of Lyme disease, have long-standing symbiotic relationships with us. Probably they had relationships with the prehuman apes from which humans evolved. Treponema has lost four-fifths of its genes, because you’re doing four-fifths of the work for it. And yet people don’t want to understand that chronic spirochete infection is an example of symbiosis.
You have upset many medical researchers with the suggestion that corkscrew-shaped spirochetes turn into dormant “round bodies.” What’s that debate all about? ?
Spirochetes turn into round bodies in any unfavorable condition where they survive but cannot grow. The round body is a dormant stage that has all the genes and can start growing again, like a fungal spore. Lyme disease spirochetes become round bodies if you suspend them in distilled water. Then they come out and start to grow as soon as you put them in the proper food medium with serum in it. The common myth is that penicillin kills spirochetes and therefore syphilis is not a problem. But syphilis is a major problem because the spirochetes stay hidden as round bodies and become part of the person’s very chemistry, which they commandeer to reproduce themselves. Indeed, the set of symptoms, or syndrome, presented by syphilitics overlaps completely with another syndrome: AIDS.
Wait—you are suggesting that AIDS is really syphilis??
There is a vast body of literature on syphilis spanning from the 1500s until after World War II, when the disease was supposedly cured by penicillin. Yet the same symptoms now describe AIDS perfectly. It’s in our paper “Resurgence of the Great Imitator.” Our claim is that there’s no evidence that HIV is an infectious virus, or even an entity at all. There’s no scientific paper that proves the HIV virus causes AIDS. Kary Mullis [winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for DNA sequencing, and well known for his unconventional scientific views] said in an interview that he went looking for a reference substantiating that HIV causes AIDS and discovered, “There is no such document.”
Syphilis has been called “the great imitator” because patients show a whole range of symptoms in a given order. You have a genital chancre, your symptoms go away, then you have the pox, this skin problem, and then it’s chronic, and you get sicker and sicker. The idea that penicillin kills the cause of the disease is nuts. If you treat the painless chancre in the first few days of infection, you may stop the bacterium before the symbiosis develops, but if you really get syphilis, all you can do is live with the spirochete. The spirochete lives permanently as a symbiont in the patient. The infection cannot be killed because it becomes part of the patient’s genome and protein synthesis biochemistry. After syphilis establishes this symbiotic relationship with a person, it becomes dependent on human cells and is undetectable by any testing.
?Is there a connection here between syphilis and Lyme disease, which is also caused by a spirochete and which is also said to be difficult to treat when diagnosed late? ?
Both the Treponema that cause syphilis and the Borrelia that cause Lyme disease contain only a fifth of the genes they need to live on their own. Related spirochetes that can live outside by themselves need 5,000 genes, whereas the spirochetes of those two diseases have only 1,000 in their bodies. The 4,000 missing gene products needed for bacterial growth can be supplied by wet, warm human tissue. This is why both the Lyme disease Borrelia and syphilis Treponema are symbionts—they require another body to survive. These Borrelia and Treponema have a long history inside people. Syphilis has been detected in skull abnormalities going back to the ancient Egyptians. But I’m interested in spirochetes only because of our ancestry. I’m not interested in the diseases.
When you talk about the evolutionary intelligence of bacteria, it almost sounds like you think of them as conscious beings.?
I do think consciousness is a property of all living cells. All cells are bounded by a membrane of their own making. To sense chemicals—food or poisons—it takes a cell. To have a sense of smell takes a cell. To sense light, it takes a cell. You have to have a bounded entity with photoreceptors inside to sense light. Bacteria are conscious. These bacterial beings have been around since the origin of life and still are running the soil and the air and affecting water quality.
Your perspective is rather humbling.
The species of some of the protoctists are 542 million years old. Mammal species have a mean lifetime in the fossil record of about 3 million years. And humans? You know what the index fossil of Homo sapiens in the recent fossil record is going to be? ?The squashed remains of the automobile. There will be a layer in the fossil record where you’re going to know people were here because of the automobiles. It will be a very thin layer.
Do we overrate ourselves as a species??
Yes, but we can’t help it. Look, there are nearly 7,000 million people on earth today and there are 10,000 chimps, and the numbers are getting fewer every day because we’re destroying their habitat. Reg Morrison, who wrote a wonderful book called The Spirit in the Gene, says that although we’re 99 percent genetically in common with chimps, that 1 percent makes a huge difference. Why? Because it makes us believe that we’re the best on earth. But there is lots of evidence that we are “mammalian weeds.” Like many mammals, we overgrow our habitats and that leads to poverty, misery, and wars.
Why do you have a reputation as a heretic??
Anyone who is overtly critical of the foundations of his science is persona non grata. I am critical of evolutionary biology that is based on population genetics. I call it zoocentrism. Zoologists are taught that life starts with animals, and they block out four-fifths of the information in biology [by ignoring the other four major groups of life] and all of the information in geology.
??You have attacked population genetics—the foundation of much current evolutionary research—as “numerology.” What do you mean by that term??
When evolutionary biologists use computer modeling to find out how many mutations you need to get from one species to another, it’s not mathematics—it’s numerology. They are limiting the field of study to something that’s manageable and ignoring what’s most important. They tend to know nothing about atmospheric chemistry and the influence it has on the organisms or the influence that the organisms have on the chemistry. They know nothing about biological systems like physiology, ecology, and biochemistry. Darwin was saying that changes accumulate through time, but population geneticists are describing mixtures that are temporary. Whatever is brought together by sex is broken up in the next generation by the same process. Evolutionary biology has been taken over by population geneticists. They are reductionists ad absurdum. ?Population geneticist Richard Lewontin gave a talk here at UMass Amherst about six years ago, and he mathematized all of it—changes in the population, random mutation, sexual selection, cost and benefit. At the end of his talk he said, “You know, we’ve tried to test these ideas in the field and the lab, and there are really no measurements that match the quantities I’ve told you about.” This just appalled me. So I said, “Richard Lewontin, you are a great lecturer to have the courage to say it’s gotten you nowhere. But then why do you continue to do this work?” And he looked around and said, “It’s the only thing I know how to do, and if I don’t do it I won’t get my grant money.” So he’s an honest man, and that’s an honest answer.
Do you ever get tired of being called controversial?
?I don’t consider my ideas controversial. I consider them right.
Margulis’ Insofar as the so-called AIDS virus HIV has been shown by Nancy Padian to be utterly uninfectious, and yet HIV/AIDS researchers happily produce surveys and studies year after year which use infectiousness as a premise and seem to show it as a result, in changing rates of infection, Margulis is the only major HIV skeptic who has come up with a possibility in syphilis as a cause which accounts for this phenomenon, which otherwise has to be explained by the wide ranging cross reaction achieved by multiple versions of the HIV test.
But though everything else she believed about HIV/AIDS was quite right according to our own research in the literature over a quarter decade, we never quite saw her point on syphilis as being the best answer as to what causes AIDS, since although it might be sufficient it wasn’t necessary, ie the symptoms of syphilis were not as far as we know common to all or even many AIDS patients. Nor has AIDS ever shown any sign of being infectious in the general population. Now at least we have her public answer to this objection, in this exchange.
We congratulate Teresi on making sense of her ideas in his interview, which we would have liked to do ourselves, and planned to do, but Alas found Margulis too preoccupied with her current work when she visited New York, research which was changing biological theory as she did it. She preferred talking enthusiastically about the subtleties of her advanced investigations and wasn’t particularly keen on expressing herself in lay terms, which was why her many good introductory books relied on the writing abilities of her son Dorion Sagan.
Further reading: John Horgan at Scientific American:
R.I.P. Lynn Margulis, Biological Rebel:
Toward the end of our interview, I asked Margulis if she minded always being referred to as a provocateur or gadfly, or someone who was “fruitfully wrong,” as one scientist put it. She pressed her lips together, brooding over the question. “It’s kind of dismissive, not serious,” she replied. “I mean, you wouldn’t do this to a serious scientist, would you?” She stared at me, and I finally realized her question was not rhetorical; she really wanted an answer. I agreed that the descriptions seemed somewhat condescending.
“Yeah, that’s right,” she mused. Such criticism did not bother her, she insisted. “Anyone who makes this kind of ad hominem criticism exposes himself, doesn’t he? I mean, if their argument is just based on provocative adjectives about me rather than the substance of the issue, then…” Her voice trailed off. Like other mavericks I have met, Margulis could not help but yearn, now and then, to be a respected member of the status quo, whose work merely confirmed the prevailing paradigm. But without courageous rebels like her, science would never achieve any progress.
Rebels are lonely hunters
This view of heretics yearning for acceptance beneath it all is a common note sounded by journalists and bloggers, who may like to think that the comfort they find in going along with social norms and common assumptions is evidence of common humanity.
But we like to think that the reason that top level heretics “yearn” to be accepted members of the “status quo” is because they deserve higher standing than most of the members of the pyramid they are trying to move, including most if not all the ones at the tip.
It must be one of the great burdens for any human being to drag through life, the disrespect and antagonism of the great mass of their fellows who should know better, but don’t. Especially when they contemplate who does as a rule gain power in society, and in their fields, especially nowadays, when the scientist of great integrity who follows the most elemental rule of good science, to question yourself, seems to be becoming almost extinct among those that the media likes to celebrate.
Her 9/11 embarrassment
Of course, outside her field of expertise Lynn was as vulnerable to superficially attractive skepticism (which on deeper inspection is probably flawed) as much as any other questioner in life who has learned how much of their own field is ill founded. We’d say that she was a prize specimen of this kind of slip in being overly impressed by 9/11 skeptic David Ray Griffin.
Here is her written statement, and here is her video on the topic. Both suggest to us that her research on the topic was quite shallow and her judgment relied heavily on her personal impression of Griffin, a key figure in the field.
But this is understandable. The essential loneliness of heretics leads them to bond enthusiastically with any others they meet who are intellectually up to the mark, and thus they are quickly subject to exactly the same group psychology that glues together those who believe in conventional wisdom in the face of evidence that it flouts both common sense and scientific review.