Lynn Margulis disses evolution in Discover magazine, embarrasses both herself and the field

Around 1970, biologist Lynn Margulis achieved renown for suggesting, and then showing, that eukaryotic cells originated by a symbiotic union of early prokaryotes, with some engulfing others and then the engulfed bacteria evolving into at least two of the cell’s vital organelles:  mitochondria and (in plants) chloroplasts.  Although others had suggested this before, Margulis gets the credit for pushing the theory forward, supporting it with biochemical and microbiological data, and recognizing its implications.  Later work on DNA sequencing supported her completely.  She became famous and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

To reword the old political slogan for science: fame corrupts, and huge fame corrupts hugely.  This isn’t always true, but if a scientist achieves tremendous fame and adulation, there’s always the temptation to think that what you say on every topic bears special weight and consideration. Such solipsism is especially likely to develop in those who, like Margulis, have to push a correct theory against the entrenched doubt and scorn of their colleagues.

And Margulis has become corrupted in this way.  In the last couple decades she’s been going around casting doubt on modern evolutionary theory. She has said, for example, that modern evolutionary biology is “a minor twentieth-century religious sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon biology” and that  “Neo-Darwinism, which insists on (the slow accrual of mutations), is in a complete funk.”  Since she’s famous, she’s invited many places, and often uses these occasions to dump on modern evolutionary biology.  In this respect she may be worse for science than creationists, since her scientific credibility remains high.  You may also remember that Margulis “handled” (i.e., allowing it to be published despite dissenting referees) the Williamson paper positing a hybrid origin of the lepidopteran life cycle (caterpillar then adult) through mating of an ancestral volant butterfly with a velvet worm.  (The paper was subsequently debunked.)  I suspect she forced it into publication because it fits her notion that symbiosis—and I suppose you can consider hybridization as something akin to symbiosis—is the overarching factor in evolution.

Margulis and her son, Dorion Sagan, even wrote a book on speciation, Acquiring Genomes, suggesting that the criticial factor in the origin of species was endosymbiosis.  I was asked to review it for The New York Times, but it was so dreadful, so completely ignorant of decades of work on speciation (including observations that reproductive barriers nearly always map to genes, not cytoplasmic organelles), that, although I enjoy writing for the Times, I refused on this occasion. I didn’t want to publicize such a misguided book.

But today I am giving publicity to Margulis’s new six-page interview in Discover magazine.  There is lots of dreadful stuff in the interview, including her notion that AIDS is really syphilis, not viral in origin at all. But let’s concentrate on the evolution-dissing, where she sounds awfully like a creationist:

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.

You don’t always get creatures that are so defective under artificial selection:  house cats are doing pretty well, so long as you don’t screw with their faces to create Persians.  True, many artificially selected species wouldn’t survive in nature, for humans often desire traits that would be maladaptive in the wild. Corn, for example, has been selected to keep its seeds on the cob rather than “shatter”, or scatter them about.  Not scattering your seeds is about the worst thing you can do as a plant in nature.

But where on earth does Margulis get the idea that artificial selection shows that “natural selection doesn’t create”?  Artificial selection, of course, does create, in that, as Darwin famously noted, humans can mold animals or plants into pretty much anything they like. This shows that combining different mutations can make something new: it can turn an ancestral plant into either a cauliflower, a kohlrabi, a Brussels sprout, or a cabbage (all derived from the same species).  And if those changes increased fitness in nature, as for example the combination of traits that turned an ancestral artiodactyl into a whale, why wouldn’t natural selection create something new?  The fossil record for the evolution of major taxa attests to this completely—unless Margulis thinks that flippers, feathers, and the like all arose by symbiosis or hybridization.  I suspect that she does, which would be a ludicrous and unsupported point of view.  After all, that is how, in her speciation book with Dorion Sagan, she suggested that most new species arise.

Margulis goes on to tout punctuated equilibrium—the observation that some evolutionary change in the fossil record happens quickly, while most of the time species are static.  The jury is still out on how many lineages really show that pattern, but no exponent of punctuated equilibrum—not Gould, not Eldredge, not my own colleagues here in Chicago—would say that the observation of “jerky” evolution vitiates natural selection. Margulis simply doesn’t understand punctuated equilibrium.

Margulis agrees with the creationists about the inefficacy of selection and of the neo-Darwinist paradigm:

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.

Well, at least she’s not crazy enough to accept god as a scientific explanation.  But she is crazy enough to proffer her “alternative” theory, which of course is symbiosis.  But think about how we could explain either speciation or adaptation as results of symbiosis—either narrowly construed as engulfing and incorporating a different organism into your own body, or broadly construed as hybridization.  If that were the case, major evolutionary innovations would arise instantly, and by “instantly” I mean within a few generations.  Yes, that’s what happened when bacteria and mitochondria became organelles in cells, and we occasionally do see the rapid origin of species through hybridization (e.g., the phenomenon of “polyploidy” in plants and “diploid hybrid speciation” in plants and animals).

But these events are not the rule, as Margulis implies, but—with the exception of polyploidy in plants—very rare occurrences.  Why do we think so? Because we can see the origin of new adaptations and lineages in the fossil record, and they ain’t instantaneous!  Think of the evolutionary transition from fish to amphibians, from amphibians to reptiles, from reptiles to mammals, from theropod dinosaurs to birds, from landlubber artiodactyls to whales. Or the evolution of our own species from smaller ancestors with apelike skulls. Each of these transitions took millions of years, and we can see the changes gradually accumulating in the fossils.  If this all occurred by symbiosis—a ludicrous notion on the face of it—you’d see either one or a series of instantaneous jumps creating evolutionary novelty.  We don’t see that.

And genetic analysis, which can pinpoint genes responsible for both new traits and new species, invariably shows that these new phenomena are due not to the wholesale engulfing of other species, but to changes in an organism’s DNA. Examples abound: see my own book with Allen Orr, Speciation, for the data on traits distinguishing closely related species.

Finally, Margulis seems to have a special beef against population geneticists:

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.

This is insane.  Genes become “fixed” (i.e., come to characterize entire species) because they positively affect survival and reproduction.  And you can have sets of genes that do the same thing.  A gene moving the nostrils of an ancestral whale atop its head, so that they become a blowhole enabling it to breathe while partly submerged, will become fixed.  And so will genes that, at the same time, transform the species’ front limbs into flippers.  There is no “breaking up” of these good genes by sex—they become fixed at the same time because they’re all good, as are other genes for hair loss, reduction of the hind limbs, losing external ears, and the like.  Attacking population genetics as unworkable reductionism really shows Margulis’s ignorance about the field, and exposes her as not a thinker but a demagogue.

Finally, Margulis said something about my Ph.D. advisor, Dick Lewontin, that really bothered me.  She characterized him as a money-grubbing scientist driven to take grant money for work that he knows is meaningless:

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 the 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.”

Well, fortunately I have a good relationship with Dick, and, like Woody Allen with Marshall McLuhan, I have him here behind the sign.  And, like Marshall McLuhan, Lewontin affirms that Margulis knows nothing of his work. (Yes, life can be like that!)

I called up Dick this morning and read him Margulis’s quote.  He said that it completely mischaracterized his views and what he must have said at Amherst.  Lewontin said that he thinks that purely mathematical models of population genetics have largely failed to help us understand the distribution of gene frequencies in nature, because those models often make assumptions that are either incorrect or untestable.  So while mathematical theory in population genetics has had some successes, he said, it hasn’t been nearly as useful as we hoped. That’s why, Dick claimed, he stopped doing pure equations and started doing computer simulations, which he considers a more realistic way to see what can happen in nature. In simulations one can vary the parameters more easily and check the models’ sensitivity to varied conditions.  In fact, Dick said that ages ago he stopped submitting grants that proposed purely mathematical approaches. So Margulis’s characterization of Lewontin as a dishonest huckster trying to fund work that he knew was bogus is inaccurate and unfair.

Lewontin wanted me to add (for I have permission to quote him here), that his purpose in getting grant money was not simply to fund designated projects described in his research proposals, but to “run an institution”: to “fund a group of creative people to do what they want.”  And indeed, that’s what he did—and that’s what many grant-funded investigators do.  We can’t always predict how our proposed research will turn out; in fact, we know it will turn out differently from the projects we describe in our proposals.  And the granting agencies like the NIH also know this well.  In many ways, grants are not just given for proposed projects, but for demonstrated accomplishments of a group of investigators. For many years Lewontin ran one of the most productive groups in modern evolutionary genetics. I was proud to be a part of it.

When I read him Margulis’s statement, designed to denigrate population genetics, Lewontin didn’t recognize at all the caricature she had drawn.  Margulis simply distorted his views, which I’ve just described, as another way of dismissing modern evolutionary biology.

When discussing evolutionary biology, then, Margulis is dogmatic, willfully ignorant, and intellectually dishonest.  She does deserve plaudits for not only her early work on symbiosis, but for having the tenacity to push for her ideas in the face of considerable opposition. But that tenacity is being misapplied here.  She’s simply wrong—and wrong in the worst way a scientist can be wrong: ignoring all the data that go against her theories.  But what do you expect of someone who answers the interviewer’s last question like this?:

Dick Teresi (the inteviewer): Do you ever get tired of being called controversial?
Margulis:  I don’t consider my ideas controversial. I consider them right.

She’s almost religious in her fanaticism.

I’m not sure what I think about Discover publishing this.  The reviewer isn’t critical at all—Teresi doesn’t offer any counterarguments to her specious assertions about evolution, which a good interviewer should do.  You could argue that this isn’t 60 Minutes, but a scientific magazine.  Nevertheless, Margulis’s interview comes off as unsullied, uncontested, and ultimately unwarranted criticism of modern evolutionary biology (it has, of course, already been picked up by the creationist Discovery Institute). It would seem incumbent on Discover to offer a counteropinion.  Otherwise, they’ve acted like a boxing referee who lets a favored pugilist get away with punching below the belt.

132 Comments

  1. Pete Moulton
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    “…it would seem incumbent on Discover to offer a counteropinion.”

    And I know just the man to offer that counteropinion. Of course, he has recently admitted that being the designated skunk in the woodpile is getting a bit old…

    • Boris
      Posted May 12, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      I read Dr. Margulis interview in Discover – it was very well done.

      I am astonished with the hostility of Jerry A. Coyne – his use of derogatory descriptions like “she EVEN wrote a book” for a distinguished scientist and for personal insults “she agrees with Creationists”, “she’s not crazy enough to..”, “like religious fanatic”, etc.

      I actually LOVED her feisty response about her hypotheses not being controversial but right !!

      She has clearly unmasked one whole generation of “neo-Darwinian” priesthood making living by selling “truths” – no wander that all who are engaged in that profitable trade are on attack. In few years she will be universally accepted and be given a Nobel prize

      • Ichthyic
        Posted September 16, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

        I actually LOVED her feisty response about her hypotheses not being controversial but right !!

        yes, because that’s what really matters:

        not being wrong, but the vehemence with which one puts forward misinformation and erroneous conclusions.

        the louder the better, right?

        phht.

        In few years she will be universally accepted and be given a Nobel prize

        for what? being the loudest crank on the block?

  2. Gayle Stone
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Her idea about getting larger eggs from the chickens is not natural selection, sounds awfully Lamarckian to me.

    • Jack van Beverningk
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      How so? Producing a large egg doesn’t sound like an acquired trait to me.
      It actually DOES sound like ‘selection’ (the ‘natural’ in this case being debatable).
      (But then, I’m not a biologist).

    • Boris
      Posted September 16, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      Lamarckian… repeating what is being endlessly repeated about him without ever reading him.
      Darwin had EXACTLY same ideas as Lamarck -but that is never even mentioned, however
      The entire scientific life is pidgenholed in a one falsehood

  3. Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    :) I read the interview when it came out in the print edition. I wondered if you would see it and, if you did, what you would think.

    I wasn’t surprised.

    I have to admit that such interviews are terribly confusing to non-experts like myself, though I am all too well aware that sometimes, and individual renowned expert sometimes “goes crackpot”; it certainly happens in mathematics.

    • Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      Going crackpot is almost an occupational hazard for mathematicians and cosmologists and infects the odd computer scientist. I had never heard of an evolutionary biologist succumbing to this disease before, but, I suppose, there is a first time for everything.

  4. Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Shameful of Discover to run that interview uncritically. Personally, I think her HIV denial is the most detestable thing I have heard on that subject from a scientist and am shocked by it for its baselessness. I don’t know if she has any clout at all in AIDS research, but I hope not because it seems that basing any treatment on her lies would be just as deadly as following the lies of a vaccination denialist during an outbreak.

    • Dominic
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Even Bill Hamilton had funny ideas about AIDS didn’t he?

      • Dominic
        Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        HIV – sorry.

        • Posted April 12, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

          According to Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._D._Hamilton#Expedition_to_the_Congo ), it seems he latched onto the idea, called the OPV AIDS hypothesis, that HIV was a side effect of the creation of the polio vaccine.

          According to Andrew Brown (who now writes anti-gnu pieces for the Guardian), Hamilton died from complications of a malarial infection he caught on an expedition in the Congo to gather evidence for that hypothesis which, already on the shakiest of ground, was thoroughly disproven shortly after he died when an original vaccine vial was found.

          Additionally, Brown writes that Hamilton may have subscribed to the Aquatic Ape hypothesis, the Gaia hypothesis, and even eugenics, though I’m not sure how much truth there is to those claims.

          • Marlene Zuk
            Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

            As a former student and longtime friend of Hamilton’s, I can assure you that although he certainly had some unusual ideas, he didn’t “subscribe to the Aquatic Ape hypothesis, the Gaia hypothesis, and even eugenics”. He did certainly want to explore the idea about the polio vaccine and HIV, and that is indeed why he was in Africa, but I’m pretty sure that once the new data had been released, he would have recognized the evidence for what it was.

            As for eugenics, he did think many human characteristics were influenced by genes, and could carry this notion in directions I at least found pretty weird. But I don’t think his career is marked by a gradual descent into crackpottedness, or whatever the appropriate word would be.

            • Posted April 13, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

              Thanks for clearing that up. I suspect there may be more similarly disreputable things said about Hamilton in Brown’s article that have no factual basis. A copy of the full article (which is behind a subscription firewall) is here: http://lclane2.net/hamilton.html

            • Posted April 13, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

              The commenter named frank sellout below brought to our attention the Wikipedia article on the Gaia hypothesis to show that Margulis co-created it! And in that same Wikipedia article, Lovelock’s 2009 book on the Gaia hypothesis is cited as saying that Hamilton at the very least endorsed the Gaia hypothesis as a “Copernican” concept.

  5. locutus7
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I’m guessing she also supports the Gaeia Hypothesis….

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      She speaks well of it in her public appearances, although I think she may take it as a metaphor rather than a literal truth.

      • frank sellout
        Posted April 13, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        Lynn Margulis mostly certainly supports this hypothesis since she helped formulate it.

        From wikipedia- “The Gaia hypothesis was formulated by the environmentalist James Lovelock and co-developed by the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s”

    • Jack van Beverningk
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      She sure does!
      Coincidently, a few weeks before the Discover interview I bought her “What is life” (2nd hand) book, because it sounded interesting (and only costed 1 cent).
      I closed it at the first mentioning of Gaia (and that was pretty early on in the book).

      • Dominic
        Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        Well let’s not be too hasty – Earth Systems Science has a lot to say that is useful about how the earth functions – it is not all new age woo stuff. I am not saying it is all right – I cannot judge that – but it seems to have important contributions to make to understanding things such as the carbon cycle.

    • Rowan
      Posted April 13, 2011 at 12:47 am | Permalink

      I had a book by Dorion Sagan in the 1990s; it was entitled Biospheres and – roughly – promoted the notion that if humans were to terraform other planets, then that would be an instance of Gaia reproducing, which would fulfil one of the requirements for an entity to be considered ‘alive’ and therefore support the Gaia hypothesis.

      It was published by Arkana, which as far as I can tell is Penguin’s woo imprint.

  6. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure what I think about Discover magazine publishing this. The reviewer isn’t critical at all—

    They just kept feeding her more rope.

    More criticism at Aetiology

  7. Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Wait. I’m confused.

    Does she think that giraffes got their long necks when a cow had sex with an anaconda?

    If so…where’d the anaconda get its long neck?

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      Lol.

    • Tulse
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      Exactly. Or more directly regarding her original theory, how did the precursors to mitochondria and chloroplasts develop their functioning so efficiently, if not through gradual evolution?

  8. Marshall
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    “But what do you expect of someone who answers the interviewer’s last question like this? … ‘I don’t consider my ideas controversial. I consider them right.’ ”

    Pot calls kettle black? Anybody here NOT consider that their ideas are right?

    • Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      Hrm? Could you elaborate on exactly what idea you are talking about? Margulis was talking about the things she espoused in the interview. Do you agree with her statements in that interview?

      • Holmes
        Posted April 14, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        No. No. The commenter was making the obvious point that EVERYBODY thinks (holds) that their ideas are right. EVERYBODY, including all the right-headed and the wromg-headed ones.

        • Posted April 14, 2011 at 9:06 am | Permalink

          No, no, no. The ideas she thinks are right are the ones she was talking about in the interview. Those ideas are controversial and most of them baseless and wrong. It is easy to reword what she said to make the meaning clearer:

          I don’t consider my ideas [that I told you about in the interview] controversial. I consider them right.

          She considers them right based on what exactly? Based on silly notions and rejection of evidence that she is wrong, that’s how. The commenter above who wrote that is probably an evilution denier trying to score a cheap point by twisting the meaning of her words.

          • Holmes
            Posted May 25, 2011 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

            How can anyone ever have ideas that he/she thinks are NOT right? Do you ever do have such ideas?

    • SAWells
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      Because honest people don’t think that “right” and “controversial” are exclusive?

    • Posted April 12, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

      The problem lies when people think their ideas are right in the face of contary evidence. Margulis appears to be one of those people.

      She doesn’t even see her ideas as tentative, not-quite-confirmed or deserving further investigation. She sees them as RIGHT.

      That’s not the attitude of a scientist.

      • Holmes
        Posted April 14, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

        This is just quibeling. To investigate anything we begin with an idea that we believe it MOST plausibe (said in another way: idea that we believe is RIGHT), and we proceed with investigation of it. Yes, we always start with an idea we believe in.

    • Boris
      Posted May 12, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      Her answer was so beautiful, such an inspiration
      A person who spent her life thinking out of the box, thinking for herself. After her interview I read four of her books – by far the most all-encompassing was “Acquiring Genome” which that poor blogger above disparages…

  9. Helen Wise
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    I read that interview in Discover. It was one of those rare times that I badly wanted to ask Dr. Coyne immediately what he thought of it.

    The previous month’s issue (the first one of my new subscription, obtained with my “professional” discount–wha?) featured an editorial I disliked quite a lot, too. So that’s two issues in a row that have really bugged me.

    • Diane G.
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      My mother-in-law (attorney, judge) liked to brag about the “professional discount” she got on magazines. I politely refrained from mentioning that we all got those offers…

      Let my Discover subscription lapse several years ago largely because of their penchant to seek out mavericks and such and publish uncritical articles on them (one generally could find good critiques in the letters published in subsequent issues, but those, of course, were not nearly as widely read).

      Though I’m not sure we can blame the media–controversy sells.

      • Helen Wise
        Posted April 12, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

        That WAS polite of you ;-)

        I’ve read Discover on and off for a decade, but not in the past with such a critical eye as now. That is totally Coyne’s fault. PZ’s too, if I’m fair about it.

      • Holmes
        Posted May 25, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

        Georg Cantor mathematical submissions were consistently blocked and not published by the professional journal of the time. He had to have a friend who did accept and publish these papers, going against the prevailing “winds” of powerful and influential members of the mathematics establishment. Clearly, Cantor believed his ideas are right. It will be terrible if we do not have those “dreamers”, “crackpots”, “fanaticals” to do their things. There will be no Galileo to save us from ourselves.

  10. Frank
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    There almost seems to be a syndrome in which famous scientists, whose primary contributions are typically in the past, start to show a ridiculous overconfidence in their opinions – and seek to be iconoclastic for its own sake. Perhaps they would like to make a decisive, final splash. They erect straw men, misrepresent the work of others, and begin to construct sloppy arguments. They also become intellectually lazy by failing to even look at the relevant current literature. Joan Roughgarden is another prime example in her attack of sexual selection – in which she criticizes sexual selection theory circa 1870, and seems to be blissfully unaware of recent findings.

    • Dominic
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      That is interesting. There are so many advances in different areas of biology that it is really hard to keep abreast of all of them. Perhaps that affects clever professors as well as us ordinary non-experts. When we get to read popular science books in digestible form, they may be already surpassed or dismissed. I am only slowly getting a picture of the various ‘camps’ in evolutionary biology!

    • Alan
      Posted April 13, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      Agree about the patent nuttiness of Joan Roughgarden. In her case it practically seems to rise to the status of mental illness.

  11. Troy
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    It’s infuriating. Just to boost her own ego she gives ammunition to the anti-science crowd. The NAS should dump her for this.

    • rightslant
      Posted April 13, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      You can’t hold “giving ammunition” against someone. (We don’t like it when creationists blame Darwin for Social Darwinism, do we?)

      Margulis’ ideas must either stand or fall on their scientific merits. (And right now, it looks like they fall on that basis.)

      Pulling your punches because you might “give ammunition” to your political opponents is politics, not science.

      When pro-science folks try to engage in political maneuvering against their creationist and ID critics, they invariably lose. Because, frankly, creationists and ID proponents are better at it. They’re bad scientists but terrific political activists.

      If you stick to the science, you have to win in the end.

      • Holmes
        Posted May 25, 2011 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

        Hear, Hear! Thanks.

  12. NoAstronomer
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I can’t really pretend to know too much about these topics…

    But would Lynn Margulis meet the criteria for an ‘arrogant scientist’ as mentioned in your recent post ( http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/scientism/ )?

    Mike.

  13. sasqwatch
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    “house cats are doing pretty well, so long as you don’t screw with their faces to create Persians.”

    Butter Kitty grudgingly approves this message.

  14. Insightful Ape
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    One word: careerism.

    • Jack van Beverningk
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      At age 73? There are most likely other words involved than just that one.

    • J.J.E.
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      While following the money and/or fame is usually a good rule of thumb, I have to say that if any young PI did something like this, this would be professional suicide. So, I agree with Jack in this case, this is likely not careerism. Especially considering that Margulis is already an Academy member and well-established.

    • Marella
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

      Narcissism, she just likes to be the centre of attention, so she says outrageous things and the reporters oblige by writing about her. She wouldn’t get all that space in Discover magazine by being sensible. She’s past doing real science so now she’s making shit up.

      • Holmes
        Posted May 25, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

        What real science do you do?

  15. Joe Dickinson
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always felt that even the work for which Margulis is famous is a bit off the mark in one important respect. Symbiosis is an event, not an evolutionary mechanism at all comparable to natural selection. Given that event, it is still natural selection that determines whether the “partnership” is favored, and certainly natural selection that stabilizes and fine tunes the relationship, probably via many mutations of small effect.

    • Tulse
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      Excellent point.

    • Dominic
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Yes! It seems Margulis wants a cuddly form of evolution, like Midgely. Is there a feminist school of evolutionary thought? I can imagine people criticising the ‘masculine’ view of competition versus co-operation.

    • Boris
      Posted May 12, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

      Wow – what a flood of hot air among most of the contributors. Has any, including that poor Dr. Coyne ever read any of her books – including “Acquiring Genomes” that poor Coyne do disparages? Without a single scientific basis for all the hatred.
      As for oh so “horrible” Gaia name – instead of a more “scientific” five-word name or some accronim ! For example G.A.I.A accronym would be far more more acceptable.
      Are we a society of smallminded dwarfs?

  16. Patrick
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Nitpicking on polyploidy and hybrid speciation:

    1) Polyploidy is not limited to plants (although, in vertebrates it does qualify as a “very rare exception”);
    2) Polyploidy and hybrid speciation are not always linked, as is implied above (some polyploids–autopolyploids–arise from within a single species);
    3) Hybrid speciation is not really a very rare exception once we move out of the heavily-studied vertebrates and insects… in plants, recent estimates (e.g., Hegarty and Hiscock 2005, New Phytologist 165(2): 411-423; Wood et al. 2009, PNAS 106(33):13875-13879) suggest that 10-15% of plant speciation events involve hybridization (and, usually, allopolyploidy as well). If we’re to understand speciation in plants, polyploid hybrid speciation isn’t a one-off sideshow that can safely be ignored.

    Of course, Margulis is still way off the deep end… no arguments on that part.

    • Posted April 12, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      Agreed, polyploidy is indeed hybrid speciation. But it’s a stretch to call polyploidy a form of symbiosis (I’m giving Marguliss’s theory extreme license). I don’t think Margulis really is talking about hybrid speciation, though.

      I haven’t read the Wood et al. paper, but in our book we estimate a lower frequency of polyploid speciation (I seem to remember around 3%). You’re right, though; as we say in our book, it’s not uncommon in plants, and I’ve added a caveat above to reflect that. Thanks!

      • Frank
        Posted April 12, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        There are also cases of diploid speciation, in which reduced gametes from two formerly separate (but closely related) species combine to produce a third species that is largely isolated from the two parental species (e.g., in a few sunflowers).

        • Patrick
          Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

          Yup… however, diploid hybrid speciation is, as far as we know, quite rare. The total number known in plants is somewhere in the vicinity of 20… so this phenomenon would seem to be a bit of a rare oddball occurrence that doesn’t play a major role.

          On the other hand, there may be more diploid hybrid species than we know about… I happen to work in a genus (Boechera, Brassicaceae) in which the frequency of diploid hybrid speciation has been dramatically underestimated. But this genus might be seriously odd in this regard; it’s hard to know.

          • Frank
            Posted April 13, 2011 at 6:02 am | Permalink

            Perhaps it is time for a review of this phenomenon, and a call for genetic analyses that might uncover more cases.

    • Holmes
      Posted May 25, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for being right on the mark. The issues are scientific ones and we should keep to that. Thats all.

  17. Grania Spingies
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    It’s articles like this that make this blog my favourite in the Whole Universe. It is interesting, educational, clearly written, accessible to the non-biologists, and filled with humour & intelligence.

    Apologies, Jerry, I know that ‘blog’ is not your preferred term; but I don’t know what else to call it.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for your vote of confidence; much appreciate.

      As for what else to call it, the management likes “website”! :-)

      • Grania Spingies
        Posted April 12, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        Aye, aye, sir! Website it is then.

      • Dominic
        Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        We want to have your polyploid offspring!

    • jay
      Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      I’ll give you a mostly good vote too, but I never fully trust people who don’t love dogs.

  18. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    A stopped watch is correct twice a day – but is not a reliable timepiece.

  19. Stephen P
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Very sad. The one memorable day of my school biology lessons in the 70’s was when I had a vigorous discussion with my teacher: I attacked the two-kingdom system and said it was silly to classify bacteria under plants or animals. So when I first heard of Margulis & Schwarz’ book “Five Kingdoms” I rushed to buy it. I thought it was excellent. (What do the experts around here think?)

    But now she seems to have completely run off the rails.

    • Dan L.
      Posted April 13, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      No expert, but there are no longer 5 kingdoms. I believe the topmost level of the hierarchy differentiates between Prokaryotes (all bacteria and I think maybe some other tiny little guys), Eukaryotes (plants, animals, fungi, and a bunch of unicellular organisms) and Archaea (least sure on this one, but I think they’re bacteria-like protozoa that are either genetically or metabolically closer to eukaryotes than prokaryotes).

      Under “Eukaryotes” you’ll find your animals, plants, and fungi as well as a bunch of unicellular eukaryotes. Don’t know if any of these are still described as “kingdoms.”

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 13, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        As I understand it, they’re called Domains, a level above the kingdom level…

        I “collected” this brief description of the changes in phylogenetics from Dr. Ron Shimek, at his invert bio forum (in a conversation about why algae are no longer “plants”):

        One of the things that recent work in DNA sequencing has given us is an appreciation of how diverse life is. That is absolutely NOT reflected in our common names for thingies, particularly amongst those organisms/creature/things that can photosynthesize. Back in the bad old days when I was but an budding/sporling graduate student we were taught that all life could be divided into 5 kingdoms (Plantae = plants, Animalia = animals, Fungi= fungi, yeasts, etc, Protista = everything that is not one of the above or bacteria, and Monera = bacteria).

        My, how times have changed.

        There are some competing schemes for organizing life now, but the basic breakdown is first 3 domains of life: Arachaea (one type of what we used to call bacteria), Bacteria (another version of bacteria), Eukarya (every other type of life = or those organisms that have membrane bound structures such as a nucleus in their cells) and then within each domain a series of kingdoms.

        Genetically and biochemically, most of life’s diversity is found in the Bacterial and Archaeal lineages.

        Interestingly enough, though, just about everything we can actually see… is in the Eukarya. And WoW! What a change a few decades of research can make.

        First off, all animals and all plants are multicellular (by definition) and all plants (are now defined by the presence of specific types of conductive tissues).

        Bottom line – NO alga is a plant, although plants evolved from some green algae.

        Likewise no animal is a protist, although they likely arose from a type of protist called a choanoflagellate.

        Photosynthetic life is very diverse and most of the algae are no more closely related to plants than they are to animals – or frankly – each other.

        This website,

        http://www.bio.miami.edu/dana/160/160S10_9print.html

        notes for a biology lecture, explains this in a bit (not much) of detail with some rather nice illustrations (in fact, one can pretty much get the gist of the thing by just looking at the images).

        In the image below [hotlink to sideways cladogram about a third of the way down in previously linked page], taken from that site, what are now considered to be Kingdoms are arrayed on the right side of the graph [in the yellow/tan blocks].

  20. tofu
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what her first husband would have had to say about all this?

    • Posted April 12, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      Whatever she wants – I suspect she absorbed him.

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 12, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

        Uh, while that might have been a clever remark about some ex-husbands…

        • Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

          Hmph. I didn’t know who he was – now I’ve found out. Bugger.

          Lesson learned regarding due diligence.

          • Diane G.
            Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

            Oh, you’re probably just not ancient enough to remember…unfortunately, I am.

  21. Corey
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    While Margulis is definitely insane, her ideas shouldn’t be wholly thrown out.

    Actually there was an article in PNAS a week or so back, about photosynthetic algae living inside the cells of embryonic salamanders. The authors state at one point that amphibian nuclei take up foreign bits of DNA quite easily. So it’s not inconceivable that genes could be obtained from the algae at some point. Will the genes be useful? Probably not. But it shows us again that mutation is not the only way novelty can arise in a genome.

    I should mention too, that the fossil record isn’t going to show us everything. Changes in physiology aren’t likely to fossilize.

    For example, the Pea aphid (Acyrthosiphon pisum) feeds on plant sap, a diet that is rich in carbohydrates but lacking in essential amino acids. An endosymbiont called Buchnera aphidicola provides these essential amino acids to the aphid, and the endosymbiont vertically transmitted from mother to offspring. (The endosymbiont lives inside aphid cells called bacteriocytes). Apparently this association is at least 150 million years old. So it seems to me, that when an ancestor of Buchnera infected the pea aphid ancestor, it may have been the beginnings of a speciation event. That is, the acquisition of of Buchnera’s genome by the aphid ancestor may have lead to the ability to use plant sap a s a food source.

    So I suggest we ignore Lynn’s crack-pot exterior, and take her theories with a mountain of salt, but that we don’t label everything she espouses as being wrong.

    • J.J.E.
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      No, I think the non-specialist is entirely justified in ignoring everything she says these days. If she says something actually worthwhile, a specialist in that field would have to replicate it before anyone else should pay attention. In general, we should be ignoring singletons anyway. Replication is essential. But we often give scientists “in good standing” the benefit of the doubt and take what they say at face value when we probably shouldn’t be. So, no, we shouldn’t be treating anybody’s ideas as right until they are replicated. I would even say it is a healthy approach to think about all new results as possibly wrong (or at the very least as suspect) until they are independently confirmed.

      • Dan L.
        Posted April 13, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        This “good standing” trick is essentially how Madoff got away with fraud for nearly 3 decades. Always get a second opinion.

    • grolby
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think anyone is suggesting that symbiosis doesn’t matter or doesn’t happen. Symbiosis in nature is, from what we can tell, the rule rather than the exception. The question is: is symbiosis the process that drives evolution? For most of us, the answer is, quite definitively: usually not. The driving force behind evolution is natural selection, and symbiotic associations (which include parasitisms, by the way) is a consequence of selection.

      For what it’s worth: UMass, where Margulis is on the faculty, is my alma mater, and I was fortunate enough (and I do mean this) to meet her in the course of my early scientific education. She’s done good work, obviously, and I know she has good reasons for feeling the way she does about the domination of ideas in the sciences by men (I identify as a feminist man, myself). That does not mean, however, that those ideas are wrong, but that there have been – and continues to be, albeit with considerable improvement – problems inherent in the Old Boys Club that elements of the scientific community have been. So I don’t know what to make of evolutionary biology as some kind of Anglo-Saxon male invention (well, other than that I don’t really think that’s the case, except in the most literal possible sense!), but I understand it.

      But to go after what has turned out to be my chosen field of study, population genetics – well, she’s lost me for good. I thought the undulopodium story was improbable even as an undergrad, but it’s no harm done for her to spend her time working on that. Dismissing population genetics, though, that’s crazy.

      And it’s true that sex can break up adaptive adaptive allele combinations, which is part of why sex is such an interesting and difficult problem for evolutionary biologists (it happens to be my primary focus), but that’s a long shot from this “breaking up” preventing the fixation of alleles at all. That’s just nonsense.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 12, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        True, if you break up “adaptive adaptive allele combinations” you still can have “adaptive allele combinations” out of it, obviously.

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 12, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for that comment, grolby.

      • jay
        Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        There is an unfortunate side effect where a person, in legitimately fighting some form of discrimination becomes molded by the fight to the extent that they see everything in those terms. Some flavors of feminism have had that destructive effect and become a quasi religious obsession.

        People who firmly believe in equal rights and opportunities for women may still feel very uncomfortable with the baggage now carried by the word ‘feminism’

        • grolby
          Posted April 13, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

          It must be said – that baggage is not the fault of feminists. Yes, there are crazy people out there who identify with feminism, but that’s true of any social movement or group that you could name. It’s not relevant to cultural backlash against feminists or any other group working for equality. I only invoked it because I think it’s useful to understand that Margulis’ statements on these issues, however mistaken or even utterly bogus, come from a very real issue, one that must be very personal for her given the length and timing of her career.

      • Jesse
        Posted November 10, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

        Super late to this discussion, but I’d just like to note that natural selection is an inescapable mathematical process, whereas mutation, symbiosis, sexual reproduction and all those are methods for changing and exchanging information.

        Natural selection is a purely reducing scoring process, whereas all those others are methods of generating new variants.

        In the end natural selection is utterly mathematically inescapable – not just for biological organisms, but for ANY self-replicating forms whatsoever (code, memes, protein formation, etc). There’s about as much point in arguing against it as there is in arguing that 1+1 doesn’t equal 2.

        However, that has no bearing whatsoever on the argument regarding the importance of mutation vs synthesis/symbiosis vs whatever. They’re entirely different concepts.

        So in that regard, yeah, if she’s actually arguing ‘against’ natural selection then she’s batty. But I think she’s right to place more emphasis on alternate processes such as symbiosis rather than focusing solely on mutation as a source of variation.

    • Boris
      Posted May 12, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      And just why is Dr. Margulis insane?

      She will be given a Nobel prize despite all the hatred by “neo-Darwinian” priesthood

  22. Kevin
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Accusing someone of financial fraud in obtaining government grants isn’t just bad form — it’s libel. I would suggest that Dr. Lewontin could at the very least obtain a retraction from the publication with a notice of action from a reputable libel lawyer.

    It’s sad, but perhaps not unexpected, that Discover Magazine seems to have lost its way.

    I blame the publishers. That’s the mighty Kalmbach Publishing group, which in addition to Discover, also publishes The Writer, Model Railroader (its first periodical), Trains (its second), Classic Trains Magazine, “Classic Toy Trains Magazine,” Fine Scale Modeler Magazine, Bead & Button Magazine, Astronomy Magazine, and Cabin Life. (source: Wiki)

    The entire enterprise of science is being treated exactly like the release of a new line of beads. Uncritically. As if it were a hobby.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      In another thread Discover was called “sciencey”, like New Scientist (eek!) say.

  23. SLC
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    As has been intimated here, Prof. Margulis is also an HIV/AIDS denier, a 9/11 troofer, and, I understand, sometime pals around with Holocaust deniers, despite being Jewish. It’s sort of sad in a way that Prof. Margulis, like her hero Peter Duesberg, has turned from a productive scientist into a nutcase. Joining J. Allen Hynek, William Shockley, Brian Josephson, and Linus Pauling in that category.

    • Marella
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

      William McBride, who was instrumental in the uncovering the thalidomide debacle, also went off the rails when he was no longer in the spotlight and started making shit up. Very sad.

  24. NewEnglandBob
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    When one runs around with a big hammer (Margules’ fame), everything looks like a nail (symbiotic union).

  25. Jack van Beverningk
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Casey Luskin, at The Discovery Institute, updated his article, linked to by Jerry, and now refers to Jerry’s post:


    Update: It seems that even materialist critics of neo-Darwinism like Margulis face strong pushback in some quarters. Jerry Coyne has already picked up on her interview, stating: “When discussing evolutionary biology, then, Lynn Margulis is dogmatic, wilfully ignorant, and intellectually dishonest.”

    He also tries to pressure Discover Magazine into publishing an article defending neo-Darwinism (isn’t this what virtually every other issue of Discover Magazine does?), for the purely political goal of not lending credence to what he calls “the creationist Discovery Institute”:

    Margulis’s interview comes off as unsullied, uncontested, and ultimately unwarranted criticism of modern evolutionary biology (it has, of course, already been picked up by the creationist Discovery Institute). It would seem incumbent on Discover to offer a counteropinion. Otherwise, they’ve acted like a referee who lets a favored boxer get away with punching below the belt.”

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      Jerry Coyne has already picked up on her interview, stating: “When discussing evolutionary biology, then, Lynn Margulis is dogmatic, wilfully ignorant, and intellectually dishonest.”

      Yes, after giving copious explanation of exactly why she deserves those labels.

    • Rob
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

      Watch out guys, those Darwinian cracks are getting so big you may all fall into them :-)

  26. Jim Thomerson
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I quit reading Discover magazine soon after it came out, because I found it sensationalist and distorting of science. Many years ago, we considered inviting Margulis for a seminar. Our Chair, a cell biologist, refused on the grounds that she was not a scientist. I was surprised, because, at the time I was only vaguely knew of Margulis as the advocate of symbiotic origin of eukariotic cells.

  27. Diane G.
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    We can’t always predict how our proposed research will turn out; in fact, we know it will turn out differently from the projects we describe in our proposals. And the granting agencies like the NIH also know this well. In many ways, grants are not just given for proposed projects, but for demonstrated accomplishments of a group of investigators. For many years Lewontin ran one of the most productive groups in modern evolutionary genetics. I was proud to be a part of it.

    Perhaps soon to be a moot point. From an article I glanced at briefly today:

    The House FY2011 appropriations bill would cut the NIH budget by $1.6 billion. After accounting for biomedical inflation (each year the prices of research equipment and supplies increase by about 2 percent more than the general inflation rate), this would leave NIH funding at its 2001 level

    http://www.thenation.com/article/159847/next-round-budget-negotiation-big-cuts-health-research-are-coming

    Cutting an already small slice of the pie even smaller…

    • grolby
      Posted April 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      It gets worse; NIH is the big money for the evolutionary biologists I know; we rely pretty heavily on the already strapped NSF to fund research that generally can’t be linked, even tenuously, to human health outcomes. It’s a frightening time, and the short-sighted foolishness of the cuts makes it even more painful.

  28. Posted April 12, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Horrible that she said all that about Lewontin. Seems wildly unfair.

  29. Eli Siegel
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Scientists can get strange. Hoyle thought influenza viruses came from outer space, Pauling and vitamin C.

  30. Posted April 12, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    vitiates

    Thanks for the new word.
    (Now tell me–I promise not to blab–do you have one of those word-a-day calendars?)

    By the way, I enjoyed this article.

  31. MadScientist
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    I’ve often wondered if Margulis ever did give up those drugs and sensory deprivation chambers. Her attacks on science seem to get worse over the years and I can’t imagine what would lead her to believe her outrageous claims. She did good work 40 years ago; why has she lost her capacity for establishing scientific fact? It’s also a pity that the son seems to be more like the mother than the father.

    • tofu
      Posted April 13, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink

      Read the Davidson bio on Carl Sagan from 1999. Sagan had a pretty strained relationship with his first two sons, both with Margulis and Dorion being the oldest. As a result Dorion was always very close to his mother. When Sagan did try to mend things with Dorion, the son basically rejected the father.

  32. moseszd
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 3:26 am | Permalink

    Ah, I call it ‘The Nobel Prize Disease.’ Because it effects Nobel Prize winners disproportionately. NOt that other scientists can’t get it, mind you. Because they do.

    • Sigmund
      Posted April 13, 2011 at 6:11 am | Permalink

      Lynn Margulis never won the nobel prize. Her most famous work, the endosymbiont theory about mitochondria and chloroplasts was not entirely original and more importantly it doesnt’t quite fit into the existing categories of the nobel prizes. It’s not exactly medicine or physiology – in fact its much closer to subjects that ate eligible for the Crafoord prize, an alternative to the Nobel prizes for subjects not covered by Nobels original categories.
      It’s not uncommon to hear Margulis’ name mentioned as someone who made a discovery that is good enough to win a nobel prize and I wonder if this factor has been eating away at her over the decades since her breakthrough.

  33. Posted April 13, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    A few months ago she was here in Ourense (Spain) giving a speech, and she said all that you put above (the Gaia theory also…) and I freaked out! I have a PhD in biology, and I remembered her since I studied the endosymbiotic theory of the origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts, and I admired her, but when I heard her said that, I nearly start to laugh… Is incredible how can somebody chage his mind… By the way, the book “thermodinamics of life” from his son is very good, nothing to do with her thougts

  34. Fred W.
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    What troubles me about this is Margulis is attacking natural selection, not evolution per se (although she is critical of what she sees as the old boys club of evolutionary biology.) We have since come to accept non-selective evolution (such as genetic drift) without destroying the field. If we attack every scientist that presents an alternative hypothesis (even one which we think is almost certainly wrong) as destroying the discipline and aiding and abetting the enemy, we’ll never have any new ideas.

    • J.J.E.
      Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      That’s a mighty big leap there. Science has always been full of visionaries, conservatives, crackpots, etc. Conflict between those groups hasn’t halted new ideas yet…

      • Fred W.
        Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

        Yes, you’re probably right that it is a big leap. I maintain though that symbiosis & hybridization may be very important aspects of evolution, and if we ignore these ideas just because their main proponent is nuts, we will only be harming ourselves. Plus, I feel that as an older woman in science, she has probably faced up to enough discrimination to make her feel totally crazy. Dealing with the same shit, I might reject the conclusions of all my male colleagues out of no other reason than spite, too.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted April 25, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

          Fred, nobody is ignoring these ideas.

          If you go do a literature search, you will find dozens and dozens of papers looking at symbiosis and lateral transfer of genetic information out there.

  35. Toby
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    She said natural selection doesn’t create; creation of new genetic information is rather random… the selection of changes isn’t random, but when TEs are transposed & the like, that is simple breaking of pieces which float around. Margulis isn’t making that subtle semantic distinction though; she seems to have a mild case of stupidity… ‘natural selection via symbiosis’…

    • Ichthyic
      Posted April 25, 2011 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

      it’s a category error, and if you ever speak with her directly, you’ll see she really isn’t altogether “there” any more.

      I had the pleasure of interacting with her directly on SciBlogs a couple years back.

      She isn’t even capable of processing the most basic understanding of the actual theory of evolution. What she spits out sounds more like what I might hear from a C student in a Biology class at the high school level.

      I’m not making this up! She’s either insane, or willfully ignorant.

  36. Posted April 13, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    That’s the second time I’ve seen you mention that particular line from Annie Hall, and it brightens my day.

  37. Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    To mistranslate an old Soviet saying: “There’s no science in Discover and there’s no discovery in Scientific American” An exaggeration, no doubt, but so was the original.

  38. Holmes
    Posted April 14, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    I am alarmed at the loss of ‘coolness’in the debate about evolution -“panctuated”, “accident-accumalted”, “symbiosis driven”,etc – especially when what gets professor Coyne’s angry is the quotation from Discovery (which he qoutes) of margulis saying: “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 the 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.”
    Reading this quotation leads to the first primary question: was the quotation an accurate of what Professor Lewontin said, or was that a misquotation. I the impression I get from this exchange is of Margulis feeling sorry for Lewontin to need to do this even for a very good cause. I did not get the impression of an accusation here, just sorrow. And if I am correct, the mud-slinging is most unfortunate and does not bode well.
    Holmes

    • Ichthyic
      Posted April 25, 2011 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

      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.”

      I call fiction.

      which is probably another reason Jerry is steaming mad, and rightly so.

      “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.”

      I could actually accept Lewontin saying something like this, but it doesn’t mean, for one second, that the calculations and models he put out are worthless!

      Margulis is indeed, just making shit up.

      haven’t we had enough of that lately?

  39. Posted April 15, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    I picked up the article a couple of days ago and immediately started a post that would have resembled this one, but you have unfortunately beat me to it.

  40. Posted April 15, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    I guess it goes to show, you get fame for dissenting from, not affirming, the consensus view.

  41. Fungus Guy
    Posted April 25, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Actually, if you think that animal nuclei are representative of all evolution, you might think that acquiring genomes is not a big player. But if you know anything about the majority of the tree of life, there is no other way to look at it. At least half a dozen independent origins of photosynthetic eukaryotes, some with multiple remnant nuclei. Multiple current transitional organisms with partly integrated other organisms. Bacterial lineages with huge portions of variable genome content. Obligate mutualisms in fungi, animals and plants. Animal bodies are weird for being so Darwinian in their evolution. The multicellularity anomaly. Gene duplications, whole genome duplications and rampant horizontal gene transfer. These are the events (like point mutations but far more powerful) that are selected. They represent major shifts in earth history. Selection does not create them any more than a journal conducts science.

    • Diane G.
      Posted April 25, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for all those examples! As to your last sentence, though–does not selection maintain them (or not), just as with any other variation that arises?

      • Ichthyic
        Posted April 25, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

        you’ve hit the nail on the head, Diane.

        Selection doesn’t care from whence sources of variation arise.

        This is exactly why it is “not even wrong” for Margulis to be using symbiosis to argue against selection to begin with.

        it’s a category error.

  42. Boris
    Posted May 12, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    I am mystified by all the hattred of Dr. Margulis, including by my “idol” Richard Dawkins.
    I find her theory (note – not hypothesis) very convincing. It certainly deserves respect and analysis, including scientific repudiation – if this is still possible. Otherwise she should receive Nobel prize.

    Regarding the allergy to the name Gaya instead of a five-word long more “scientific” name — ahain how smallminded even supposedly educated people can be.

  43. Holmes
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Hello. Visiting this page again I cannot help having a ‘sinking-in-the-stomach’ feeling of being a witness to a street-mugging, a street-mugging conducted by a very intellectually capable mob, and it really scares me. I have seen a feeding-frenzy in documentaries and I am always struck by the horror and fear that engulf me, and what I am witnessing this time on this blog scares me because it is a street-mugging. Never mind that the individual you are attacking may be a “bad” or even an “evil” person, mob-mugging of that person is still a mob-mugging. So please don’t give yourself to participating in this intellectual “lynching” : it stains us all without any intellectual redemption. We all can do much better than that. Lightings

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 25, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

      Oh give me a break! The woman made extremely stupid and erroneous comments about evolution and we called her on it. How does that make this a “lynching” or a “street mugging”. Your language is hyperbolic–extremely so–and completely misses the point that what was being attacked were Margulis’s extremely dumb ideas.

  44. YA
    Posted September 16, 2011 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Discover Magazine has the right and obligation to publish various scientific viewpoints nor is appealing to consequences such as “Oh the Discovery Institute has found out about this” a scientific argument. It is rather a corroding influence in science to have arguments based on fear of consequences. Galileo challenged authority as the basis of science. Let’s not claim to speak in his name and establish our own inquisition. That would make a mockery of what he tried to accomplish. In science we investigate independent of human politics. What seems more well established for sufficiently subliminal velocity than F=ma?;yet it has challengers. They deserve to be heard and perhaps have insights that can be useful even if their cause is in itself flawed.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted September 16, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      I blame you for my laziness in not noticing how you resurrected this thread.

      Galileo challenged authority as the basis of science

      wha?

      that’s just so wrong it hurts.

      • YA
        Posted September 17, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

        Well how is it wrong? I’m listening.

  45. zojo
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry I missed the discussion. What I wanted to say was this.

    There are a lot of odd, and some downright cranky statements in the Margulis interview, but one of the fundamental points seems fair. Most of life is not animal, and animal genetics and evolution are not typical of all of life. This seems unarguable. We know that we, and all non-microscopic life, are in some ways just substrates for the bacteria and archaea that form the huge bulk of organic life on this planet. Yet, proportionaly far more research time is spent on animals. So, by saying that a lot of science is overly zoocentric, she has a point.

    We know that Eukaryotes as they exist today are a result of endosymbiosis. We know that much of the DNA found in animals comes from viruses and bacteria. So when Margulis says that symbiosis is a fundamental factor in evolution, isn’t she just saying what is a simple fact?

    I found the whole AIDS is caused by syphilis weird and irrational sounding – it certainly throws a lot of doubt over her clarity of thought. But just because she has some daft ideas, doesn’t mean that we can ignore or deride those ideas that may have some merit, and indeed, that have some supporting, albeit circumstantial, evidence.

    The whole argument about what she understood Lewontin to be saying, and what he actually meant is interesting. It shows that communication is fraught with the possibility of failure. But if you look at his argument, it is not so different from what she seemed to hear.

    According to Jerry, “he thinks that purely mathematical models of population genetics have largely failed to help us understand the distribution of gene frequencies in nature, because those models often make assumptions that are either incorrect or untestable. So while mathematical theory in population genetics has had some successes, he said, it hasn’t been nearly as useful as we hoped. That’s why, Dick claimed, he stopped doing pure equations and started doing computer simulations, which he considers a more realistic way to see what can happen in nature.”

    Personally, I think computer simulations are no more “real” than mathematical models. The dangers of both are that you end up making assumptions to allow the model/simulation to be created and to ensure it is repeatable. Everything then depends on these assumptions (a similar problem exists in economics – hence the mess we are now in). The nature of the assumptions is that they are selected in an evolutionary process that drives the most computationally efficient ones to be used. There must also be a slight tendency to chose those that produce the most beneficial results. Unconciously, but inevitably given we are all human and so subject to certain pyschological and neurological rulesets. The result is that assumptions are not neutral, nor are they an accurate representation of reality. Therefore the model/simulation is inherently flawed.

    So, Lewinson knows the methods he uses are flawed, and do not produce results that are helpful to really understand what he is studying. He then proposes to use an improved method as “In simulations one can vary the parameters more easily and check the models’ sensitivity to varied conditions.” So, the method is improved, but still depends on models, so is effectively still flawed. It’s just that you can try a lot more variations a lot faster.

    Now from one perspective (of a friend or supporter perhaps) this is honest and sensible. From the view of someone hostile to the whole method and the basic underlying system of study, this looks like someone admitting they just keep on doing the same thing, even thought the results are worthless.

    I don’t take a position on either side. But I can’t see the huge gulf that others can. It’s more about how she phrased it – making it sound as bad as possible. That was unkind and disrespectful. But then so were quite few of the comments others have made about Margulis.

    Her rediscovery of the role of endosymbiosis was a huge contribution to the biological sciences. It saddens me to see the sort of comments posted here from people who have almost certainly contributed nothing of even remotely comparable value to the sum total of human knowledge.

  46. Jesse
    Posted November 10, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Hmm. I don’t much care for Margulis’ style, manner of speaking, or her dismissal of other scientist’s honest work…

    But I do think she is probably right, or at least has a rather viable contribution to evolutionary theory.

    The idea that a system of the complexity of a the living biosphere would operate on a strictly branching system, with no recombination, no interaction between organisms at the symbiotic level (possibly even to the point of exchanging or altering genetic code between relatively unrelated species), is unlikely.

    Furthermore it runs against apparent fact. There are numerous mechanisms by which it is apparent this can occur, such as viruses, crossbreeding, and at the cellular level where most of the action is happening, we are frankly just not fully cognizant of all the myriad processes going on there that might result in the incorporation or exchange of data.

    Given the mathematical ‘shotgun’ approach of evolution and natural selection, it is exceedingly likely that if it a mechanism exists, it will be USED. Basically unavoidable in fact.

    How important is synthesis and symbiosis in the overall evolution of life forms? That’s the question. Not whether it happens, as it clearly does, but how often, and with how much impact on the direction of evolution.

  47. Jesse
    Posted November 10, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Secondly, she makes an excellent point that we spend far too much time focusing on macro-organisms and their genetic progression, while consistently failing to remind ourselves that all life at the multi-cellular level is essentially colonial in nature, and consist of complex internalized ecosystems incorporating an enormous amount of genetic code beyond those of the primary host organism.

    My body, right now, relies on far more genetics than you would see if you restricted yourself to a sample of my blood. In fact, if those were the ONLY genetics involved in my existence, I would die in short order, unable to perform so basic a function as digesting my own food.

    While the function of all these secondary symbiotic and parasitic forms incorporated into the colonial structure of our bodies is poorly understood, they can be no means dismissed as critical in our development and evolution.

    It is clear that through the modification or evolution of those symbiotic forms, our own traits and abilities can and will change.

    What precisely those are, and how significant they are is very difficult to measure at this time, because we simply do very little research on symbiosis – but we know they can be fatal at a minimum, so they seem rather important to me…

  48. Maia
    Posted November 24, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    Lynn Margulis died yesterday, and I regret the loss of her brilliant, yes quirky, yes sometimes strange, ways of conceiving the world.
    My impression of Lynn Margulis’ work is that she was doing what people do in when a boat is leaning too far to one side: she was righting the balance by leaning toward what was usually ignored in evolutionary biology…microbial genetics, symbiogenesis, etc. Standard evolutionary theory has gotten very stuck and sure of itself, afraid of questioning itself, afraid of radical thinking…partly due to being on the defensive against ID/Creation criticism.
    Anyone who dares to question Natural Selection as the anointed mechanism can then be called “crazy”…which word has been used here too many times.
    Read her books, argue with her ideas, but quit calling her crazy and stupid.

    • ckb
      Posted February 2, 2012 at 4:41 am | Permalink

      Amen. It is the way women who think were treated since before the dark ages (B.C.E. to present apparently). Lack of consensus is civil and forwards scientific inquiry- ditch the argumentum ad hominem. The passionate cries of “crazy” sound ever so much like those who cried out against serial endosymbiotic theory. A man who does not doubt his theories is pompous, egotistical… a woman of the same tensil strength is crazy. She was an amazing scientist and a phenomenal teacher.

  49. Posted May 25, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    In nature there is room for evolution through random mutation as well as evolution through symbiosis, both most likely influence each other, perhaps in ways we can’t yet understand.
    At any rate, scientific debate is good…it gets us thinking and moving forward.
    There is no one, correct model. Small pieces of each most likely influence evolution. My argument is just to keep an open mind to all of it.


9 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] an accomplished scientist can go bad: To reword the old political slogan for science: fame corrupts, and huge fame corrupts hugely. This [...]

  2. [...] Lynn Margulis disses evolution in Discover magazine, embarrasses both herself and the field Posted on April 12, 2011 by marksolock Lynn Margulis disses evolution in Discover magazine, embarrasses both herself and the field [...]

  3. [...] Read on [...]

  4. [...] Lynn Margulis disses evolution in Discover magazine, embarrasses both herself and the field Around 1970, biologist Lynn Margulis achieved renown for suggesting, and then showing, that eukaryotic cells originated [...] [...]

  5. [...] Read on Share and Enjoy: [...]

  6. [...] Jerry Coyne on Lynn Margulis. Without a hint of irony, I might add. I might also add that I like it when Jerry sticks to writing on evolution. Like most of this post and the one to follow… [...]

  7. [...] the world’s leading evolutionary biologist regarding speciation, already has on his blog Why Evolution Is True.   So, I’ll keep my addition short, and post Jerry’s review of not only her book but [...]

  8. [...] Lynn se pasa al lado oscuro [...]

  9. [...] none of it is Jerry Coyne, whose excellent book Why Evolution is True was reviewed here recently. His assessment of Margulis’s claim for symbiogenesis is expressed in his usual gentle style: But where on [...]

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