Home » Darwinism, Origin Of Life » Lynn Margulis challenges neo-Darwinists and teaches somewhere now – but she has interesting ideas

Lynn Margulis challenges neo-Darwinists and teaches somewhere now – but she has interesting ideas

Here’s an intriguing article about origin of life researcher Lynn Margulis in the University of Wisconsin alumni news magazine, “Evolution Revolution” by Eric Goldscheider. We learn, among many other very interesting things,

Symbiogenesis theory flies in the face of an accepted scientific dogma called neo-Darwinism, which holds that adaptations occur exclusively through random mutation, and that as genes mutate in unpredictable ways, their gradual accumulation sometimes results in useful attributes that give the organisms an advantage that eventually translates into evolutionary change.

What tipped Margulis off that new traits could arise in another way was the fact that DNA, thought to reside only in the nucleus, was found in other bodies of the same cell. This realization led to research showing not only how crucial symbiotic relationships can be to the immediate survival of organisms, but also that one of the most significant sources of innovation — indeed, even the origins of new species — occurs when, over time, symbiotic partners fuse to create new organisms.

In other words, complexity at the cell level is not the result of lethal competition from lucky mutants, but rather interactive chemistry that begins as symbiotic relationships between gene sets that together accomplish things that would otherwise have been impossible.

That sounds more plausible to me, though it all but wrecked her career.

Margulis’s observation that constituent parts of the same cell had different genetic histories was largely written off as crank science in 1964 when she started submitting her paper on the topic to academic journals. No one wanted it. After more than a dozen rejections, the Journal of Theoretical Biology published “On the Origin of Mitosing Cells” in 1967, and then something very interesting happened. Requests for reprints started pouring in, more than eight hundred in all. “Nothing like that had ever happened in the Boston University biology department,” Margulis says. Although she was a part-time adjunct professor there at the time, she won a prize for faculty publication of the year. Eventually, a full-time position that lasted twenty-two years followed.

But in spite of, or maybe because of, this modicum of recognition, the scientific establishment viewed her skeptically, if not with outright hostility. Her grant proposals weren’t funded. Margulis tells of being recruited for a distinguished professorship at Duke University, only to have it subverted at the last minute by a whispering campaign.

She ended up at the University of Massachusetts, so at least she had a job.

One thing that mars her theories, in my eye, is is statements like

“Man is the consummate egotist,” Margulis has written. “It may come as a blow to our collective ego, but we are not masters of life perched on the top rung of an evolutionary ladder.” Instead, she likes to say that “beneath our superficial differences, we are all of us walking communities of bacteria.”

. Aw c’mon! I’m always hearing from enviro-fruitcakes and anti-nuclear nutcakes who think humans will soon destroy the planet. So walking communities of bacteria will destroy the planet? I am sure not getting involved in the squabble. I can only communicate with creatures that have brains.

A question related to this interesting article will shortly be posted here as Contest Question 11 at Uncommon Descent.

Also just up at Colliding Universes, my blog on theories about our universe:

Unmissable Ivy League lectures (maybe)

Mars: The endless kvetch about life on Mars

My favourite science fiction author, Rob Sawyer, writes to say …

Cosmology: Science’s leader in things that don’t make sense?

New podcasts on fine tuning of the universe

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6 Responses to Lynn Margulis challenges neo-Darwinists and teaches somewhere now – but she has interesting ideas

  1. As anyone with even a middling knowledge of modern evolutionary biology would know, Lynn Margulis is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential evolutionary biologists of the 20th century. This is what Richard Dawkins had to say about her and her work in 1995:

    “I greatly admire Lynn Margulis’s sheer courage and stamina in sticking by the endosymbiosis theory, and carrying it through from being an unorthodoxy to an orthodoxy. I’m referring to the theory that the eukaryotic cell is a symbiotic union of primitive prokaryotic cells. This is one of the great achievements of twentieth-century evolutionary biology, and I greatly admire her for it.” [John Brockman, The Third Culture, New York: Touchstone, 1995, 144.]

    She also holds a very negative view of certain interpretations of Neo-Darwinism, excessively focused on inter-organismic competition, as she believes that history will ultimately judge them as comprising

    “a minor twentieth-century religious sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon Biology.” [Mann, C. (1991) "Lynn Margulis: Science's Unruly Earth Mother," Science, 252, 378-381]

    She also believes that proponents of the standard neo-darwinian theory

    “…wallow in their zoological, capitalistic, competitive, cost-benefit interpretation of Darwin…. Neo-Darwinism, which insists on [the slow accrual of mutations by gene-level natural selection], is a complete funk.” [ibid.]

    She opposes such competition-oriented views of evolution, stressing the importance of symbiotic or cooperative relationships between species.

    From O’Leary’s post, one would think that Margulis has been all but marginalized for her unorthodox views. Here is a brief antidote to this distorted opinion:

    * Margulis was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983 and served as Chairman of the Academy’s Space Science Board Committee on Planetary Biology and Chemical Evolution.

    * She was inducted into the World Academy of Art and Science, the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences between 1995 and 1998.

    * In 1998 the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, announced that it would permanently archive Dr. Margulis’ papers.

    * In 1999 she received the Proctor Prize for scientific achievement.

    * In 1999, she was awarded the National Medal of Science by President William J. Clinton.

    * She is also a proponent and co-developer of the modern version of the Gaia hypothesis, based on an idea developed by the English atmospheric scientist James Lovelock.

    * She is profiled in a book published in 2006 by Resurgence Magazine in the UK, called Visionaries: The 20th Century’s 100 Most Important Inspirational Leaders.

    * In 2006 with her son Dorion Sagan (Carl Sagan’s oldest son), she founded Sciencewriters Books, an imprint of Chelsea Green Publishing.

    * In 2007 she expressed her support for a new investigation of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

    * In 2008 she was one of thirteen recipients of the Darwin-Wallace Medal, which, until now, has only been bestowed every 50 years, by the Linnean Society of London.

    * In February, 2008, she was the keynote speaker at Cornell’s Darwin Days celebration, where she spoke to an overflow crowd in the main auditorium of the Cornell Biotechnology Building.

    * In 2009 a paper co-authored by her was published, which suggests that many AIDS cases may in fact be misdiagnosed cases of syphilis.

    * In March 2009 she spoke at the Biological Evolution Facts and Theories Conference held at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome aimed at promoting dialogue between evolutionary biology and Christianity.

    * She has repeatedly expressed her opinion that evolutionary biology, broadly defined, is the best explanation for the origin and evolution of life on Earth, and that ID is neither good science nor good theology.

  2. Alan,

    Do you know of any examples of naturally occuring algorithms that are communicated between dicreet objects in order to accomplish a specific function?

  3. I see, the get-out clause is ‘evolutionary biology broadly defined’ — so broad that includes the bits of ID that aren’t cast into the equally neat categories of ‘bad science’ and ‘bad theology’. File this one under the Conway Morris School of Sophistry.

  4. Re Allan MacNeill’s useful information at 1:

    It is nice that people have recognized Lynn Margulis in recent years, but I have little doubt that the article I referenced is accurate regarding the initial neo-Darwinist attempts to suppress her ideas.

    They LOST that battle, so they chose to load her with honours and marginalize her instead.

  5. From Margulis,

    “This realization led to research showing not only how crucial symbiotic relationships can be to the immediate survival of organisms, but also that one of the most significant sources of innovation — indeed, even the origins of new species — occurs when, over time, symbiotic partners fuse to create new organisms.

    Can someone point me to the actual demonstration of “origins of new species” and “new organisms.”

    It is one thing to observe HGT. It is quite another to claim new organisms are created and show it.

    I’m do not need historical references where guesses of some form of ancient bacteria existed prior to another form of bacteria.

    And yes, Margulis was called a crank for sometime, long before she received any recognition by the stalwart Darwinist clan. To keep trying to erase history like Darwinist do and rewrite every 10 years must get awful dawnting with the age of the internet.

  6. sic… “daunting” with the age of the internet.

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