RIP Lynn Margulis

UPDATE: It’s very strange that, at 7:30 a.m. New York time, the New York Times hasn’t mentioned Margulis’s death. Given her stroke last week, surely they had time to prepare an obituary, and she’s certainly important enough to warrant a substantial one.

UPDATE 2: The New York Times now has an obituary.   GCM


I am informed, and this seems reliable, that Lynn Margulis died yesterday of a stroke she suffered last Thursday.

I had my differences with Margulis, for in her latter years she took to making repeated and unfounded attacks on modern evolutionary biology and speciation.  Nevertheless, there is no doubt that her work formed one of the most profound contributions in twentieth-century evolutionary biology.  I refer in particular to her idea that organelles—especially mitochondria and chloroplasts—descended from ancient bacteria that formed symbiotic relationships with cells that engulfed them.  She faced strong doubt, criticism and even derision for this idea, but in the end evidence from DNA and other sources proved her correct.

She wasn’t so correct about evolution in general, or in her views that such symbioses were both ubiquitous and a driving factor in evolution and speciation, but she was right about some important stuff: facts that revolutionized our understanding of the history of life.


  1. physicalist
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to hear that. She seemed to be a good person (if a little difficult at times).

  2. jwthomas
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    I believe she was also Carl Sagan’s first wife (and Dorian Sagan’s mother.)

    • Occam
      Posted November 23, 2011 at 3:01 am | Permalink

      She’d also have rated highly on “family Erdös numbers”, if there were such a metric:
      One of her sisters is married to Sheldon Glashow, recently quoted here for his paper with Andrew Cohen on constraints on neutrino velocities; the other sister is married to mathematician Daniel Kleitman.
      Kleitman, incidentally, has a true Erdös number of 1!

  3. J.J.E.
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    I heard from a colleague recent in Margulis’ department only that she was in a coma. I didn’t know she had died yet…

  4. Ludo
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    She was a great scientist – one of the greatest!
    Just think how difficult it must have been – from an intellectual and a practical point of view – to propose such a heretic theory like hers about the bacterial origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts!
    It was Lynn Margulis’ theory that kindled my interest in biology and evolution, back in the sixties. I was then considering studying philosophy – but reading about Lynn Margulis’ theory in Scientific American made me change my mind and turn to biology.
    I never regretted that choice – and I still feel thankful to Lynn Margulis.

    • Posted November 23, 2011 at 1:22 am | Permalink

      No. Sorry, but no. She was not a great scientist. She did some great science, but she was spectacularly wrong on many issues and was a HIV/AIDS-denier (or at least heavily flirted with HIV/AIDS-denial) – for more about that aspect of her, see here.

      • Dominic
        Posted November 23, 2011 at 3:17 am | Permalink

        So what is it that makes a “Great Scientist”? Surely many great scientists are lucky scientists? Great art can come from unpleasant people…?

        • Posted November 23, 2011 at 3:39 am | Permalink

          I would think that great scientists as a minimum should be able to apply critical thinking to subjects, and be able to understand the scientific literature, even if outside their area of expertise.

          Margulis was a HIV/AIDS-denier and a 9/11 conspiracy nut. She also frequently showed disregard towards the scientific method, and claimed that her ideas were dismissed because they flew against orthodoxy.

          She did some great contributions to science, but as a scientists, she had deep, serious flaws, and promoted opinions which were not only wrong, but dangerous (e.g. HIV/AIDS-denial).

          • Amphiox
            Posted November 23, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

            Margulis is not alone among scientists providing incredible insights and advances falling into crazy stuff in the latter years.

            It almost seems like an occupational hazard really.

            That in my book doesn’t make her not a great scientist. It just makes her human.

            If Isaac Newton and Linus Pauling count as great scientists, then surely Lynn Margulis counts as well.

      • RFW
        Posted November 23, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

        For a good, even great, scientist to go off the rails as they age is nothing new. Linus Pauling, unquestionably a great chemist, ended up as the apostle of orthomolecular medicine (in its crudest manifestation, “vitamin C cures colds”), tried very hard to prove his molecular theory of general anesthesia (anesthetics form clathrates that impede nerve impulses), and God only knows what other oddities. But he remains a great chemist.

        Having been rather broadly exposed to Pauling’s thinking, my guess is that he had incredible intuition about chemical matters, but as he aged he wandered into fields where his intuition yielded false answers.

    • Ludo
      Posted November 23, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      What’s wrong with being wrong? Even if it is ‘spectacularly wrong’? As long as it is scientifically productive – meaning: leading to better insights, new observations and interesting experiments.
      Was not Darwin ‘spectacularly wrong’ about genetics? And Kelvin about the age of the Earth? So many great scientists were wrong about so many things – so what?

      • neil
        Posted November 23, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        Absolutely spot on. Errors are a critical part of science, and scientists should not fail to propose alternative hypotheses because of fear of error (or fear of being called a “denier”.)

        Science broadly defined is the enterprise of proposing explanations, with the three e’s (evidence, experience and experiment) culling the good from the bad. Errors and error correction are what make science great, and the lack thereof is what makes religion stupid.

        • neil
          Posted November 23, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

          I guess you’d want to cull the bad from the good.

        • Amphiox
          Posted November 23, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

          And individual scientists will often cling to their wrong ideas even against enormous amounts of prevailing evidence, for very long periods of time.

          Even Darwin famously did so for a theory he developed concerning the geology of a particular valley.

          Whether it’s ego, bullheadedness, emotional attachment to “my baby” of a hypothesis, it’s what human beings often do.

          That’s why we have a scientific method. To correct these biases.

          • neil
            Posted November 23, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

            I agree. But that bull-headedness by a scientist against the majority is equally important when the scientist is right and the science community is wrong, such as in the case of Wegener and tectonic plates, J. Harlan Bretz and ice age floods, and Margulis and organelles.

            Sometimes it is the science community, not the individual scientist, who is being bull-headed.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted November 23, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

        What’s wrong with being wrong? Even if it is ‘spectacularly wrong’?

        There is a clear distinction between being wrong with no data yet collected, and being obstinately wrong after the data are in. There is no way in which HIV/AIDS denialism is not wrong.

      • InfiniteImprobabilit
        Posted November 26, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think Darwin was ‘spectacularly wrong’ about genetics. He was aware that blending inheritance had problems. He was also (like everyone else at the time) unaware of Mendel’s work. But to call that ‘spectacularly wrong’ is like saying Copernicus and Galileo were ‘spectacularly wrong’ about the solar system.

  5. Posted November 23, 2011 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    I didn’t agree with a lot of her ideas, but her demise sure has robbed the scientific community of a very interesting participant.

    RIP, Lynn.

  6. Aidan Karley
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    Damn – another book that I haven’t finished reading before the author died. I’ve been working my way, slowly, through Margulis’ Five Kingdoms as a more-or less comprehensive survey of current life to the phylum level for … nearly 10 years now. My notes are spread across two generations of pocket computers, and I need to merge them. A useful book and concept, doomed to controversy and the shifting sands of taxonomy (at least two phyla listed in my edition had been recognised as degenerates from other phyla during the time I was actively working through the list.
    Still, a productive scientist with provocative ideas – the symbiotic origin of chloroplasts and mitochondria is pretty much accepted these days ; the origin of flagella from symbiosis of spirochaetes seemed much weaker, and I’d have to go back to the book or my notes to remember what some of her other asserted symbioses were.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted November 23, 2011 at 6:39 am | Permalink

      Remind me to NOT send you a copy if I ever write a book!

  7. Aidan Karley
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 4:36 am | Permalink

    Incidentally, I don’t know Margulis’ religious opinions, but is “rest in peace” an appropriate thing to say? Assuming the reports are correct, she’s dead ; she doesn’t exist any more, and so the concept of “rest” is irrelevant.

    • Jack van Beverningk
      Posted November 23, 2011 at 5:49 am | Permalink

      Since she’s dead, HER religious opinions then don’t matter either, right? Btw, note that Jerry didn’t mention ‘Rest’ at all: he wrote ‘RIP’. And if you prefer you can read that as ‘Rot in Peace’, but do you really think THAT is more appropriate? (technically correct and appropriate not being the same thing)?

    • Ray Moscow
      Posted November 23, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      I kind of like the idea of death as ‘rest’ (e.g., from life’s trials and troubles), although technically it’s not, since ‘rest’ implies that the person is still somehow there.

      In this case, it’s just a nice sentiment.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted November 23, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        I kind of like the idea of death as ‘rest’

        Which goes to show that liking an idea does not make it true.

    • Posted November 23, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      You’re probably right
      I think you’re probably right
      But you don’t actually KNOW for sure

      Love from the L3 teapot

  8. Posted November 23, 2011 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    We should clarify that Lynn’s work on organelle evolution, while revolutionary at the time, was built on original ideas in the early 1900’s. For instance, Ivan Wallin was the first American scientist who realized that mitochondria were bacterial in nature. In 1927, he published a book on this topic. Lynn’s work picked up on these ideas. She was an astute historian of symbiosis and had the technical courage to apply modern day techniques to these original ideas on the bacterial origin of some organelles.

    • MKray
      Posted November 23, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

      Why, why, why do people use the logical term for the first decade of the twentieth century
      (`the nineteen hundreds’) to refer to the whole twentieth century. Are they afraid people don’t know what `twentieth century’ means?

      • Posted November 23, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

        “Most” people thought that the millenium began in the year 2000 – so I reckon your observation may well be correct – some people don’t know what “twentieth century means.

        On the other hand, it’s easier and accurate to write “1900s” than “the twentieth century” or “20th Century”. In my opinion of course – but I’m a lazy writer.

        Just a thought.


      • Posted November 23, 2011 at 7:04 am | Permalink


    • Amphiox
      Posted November 23, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      Was Margulis familiar with Wallin’s earlier work? I had been under the impression that she independently came up with the idea, and only afterwards came across the older work in the area.

  9. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Foreign papers seem to be getting their obits in:
    Muere Lynn Margulis, defensora del papel de las bacterias en la evolución de la vida

  10. Ken Pidcock
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Personally, I think there’s a good chance that her attention to symbiogenesis will prove fruitful going forward. Genomes are turning out to be a bit weirder than what we thought when she took the stage.

    And while Margulis was contentious, she was a scientist through and through. During the 2009 controversy over the Williamson PNAS paper, she was quoted as saying,

    We will win one way or another because this is science.

    • Sigmund
      Posted November 23, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      I don’t read that as personifying the correct attitude towards science. Her actions in the PNAS debacle indicated that she had formed a conclusion and was cherry-picking data to support it while ignoring objections.
      That said, her advocacy of symbiosis in the question of the origin of eukaryotic organelles was both timely and ultimately proven correct – which goes to show the value of the scientific process – it can sort out good ideas from bad and so even someone with lots of bad ideas (911 conspiracy, aids denial) can make important contributions to scientific knowledge.

  11. Posted November 23, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Maybe this happened because I mistyped my email??

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    One obit here:

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted November 23, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      Maybe this happened because I mistyped my email??

      Probably. Jerry has a policy of requiring approval for all first comments. So with a different e-mail, you would have been flagged as a new commenter.

    • Posted November 27, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      Every new post of mine has to be moderated now since I posted a few comments earlier, astonishing for a website devoted to science, isn’t it? And I am not a creationist, I am a die-hard evolutionary biologist.

  12. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    Margulis’ death is already noted on Wikipedia; the reference is to this blog posting at BugTracks

    This in turn references Dorion Sagan’s Facebook page.

  13. DV
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Rest in Peace? That’s only possible if she passed away instead of merely died.

    • Aratina Cage
      Posted November 23, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      I’ll just remind you that “rest in peace” makes zero sense for Christians to use, either, since they don’t consider themselves resting after death but in Heaven or Hell. The only way “rest in peace” would make literal sense would be if corpses could be reawakened and death were simply a state of sleep. Who believes that?? So, it’s a quibble not worth having with just about everyone.

      • pj
        Posted November 24, 2011 at 5:49 am | Permalink

        If we are quibbling, that is *precisely* what the Lutheran dogma taught to me in my childhood was. After death there is dormancy until the second coming of christ and I was the heretic thinking people go straight to heaven or hell when they die.

  14. Posted November 23, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry she’s gone; she might have added much more to science. Being wrong about some aspect of research is of course, an accepted risk scientists face. Peer review and time sorts things out and often resurrects portions of rejected work. Perhaps she would have modified or rejected some of her views. Nevertheless, her symbiogenesis concept may yet have some usefulness for future research, inspire creative thought, and even help explain Gould’s
    punctuated equilibrium.

    • colbyg
      Posted November 23, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure that punctuated equilibrium is really in need of explanation. But that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

      I did my undergrad at UMass, and was fortunate enough to have a couple of lectures taught by Lynn Margulis and to have a conversation with her. And she lived up to her environmentalist ideals: I remember passing her as she was riding her bike home a number of years ago; at this time, she would have been in her late 60’s.

      I don’t think that there are too many people out there who haven’t had some kind of problem with her or ideas she espoused at one point or another. But she was a valued member of the community who made some significant contributions to scientific knowledge. Sure, she said some things that pissed me off, too. But I’m saddened to know that she’s not in the world anymore.

  15. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    The Boston Herald gets their obit out:

    Evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis dies in Mass.

    And they apparently got it from the Associated Press, so it should go wide now.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted November 23, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      This paragraph is poorly put:
      Margulis was best known for her theory of symbiogenesis, which challenges Neo-Darwinism by arguing that inherited variation does not come from random mutations but long-lasting interaction between organisms.

      • Posted November 23, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

        To All: I was not under the impression that Margulis totally denied evolution. Am I wrong, or did she believe, like Gould, that there must be other explanations in addition to evolution but not exclusive of evolution. My take is, she was a bitter researcher having been attacked and denied publication for so long. She enjoyed basking in the warmth her successes and hoped to twist the knife once more in the belly of the establishment with more sensational break throughs. That is why she pushed her theories so hard and why she promoted some weird ideas. Although she stepped over the line on several occasions she also backed off a little later in
        her career. Cut her some slack folks.

        • Reginald Selkirk
          Posted November 24, 2011 at 6:38 am | Permalink

          Just a few years ago, I heard her speak and she claimed that “genome acquisition” was responsible for all speciation. This is pretty extreme. We now have complete genomes for Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes. We know that several speciation events separated these two species within the last4-8 million years. Show me the “genome acquisition.”

          • Posted November 24, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

            Reginald, thanks for the explanation. I know what you said is true but that is my point. I’ll ask the question a different way. Is it not possible to have speciation both ways in animal and plant lines. Usually, it might occur in simple single cell organisms or even a lichen, which may be an example of symbiogenesis, because it may have been partially created by the combination of two other organisms, algae and fungus. I understand that under lab conditions the algae and fungus can be separated and kept alive. Of course the separated organisms are no longer lichens. Evolution in reverse? Margulus’s theory does not seem applicable to higher animals but might work in simple animals. What about those creatures of the sea that might have eaten luminescent animals and acquired their luminescence or/and DNA for themselves? How about the insects that far back in history somehow acquired those needed bacteria that enabled them to become the termites of today. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that there are numerous examples of past animals or plants acquiring a particular trait from another so it could become what it is today. Butterflies, for example, acquire plant poisons to protect themselves from predators. The resulting bad tasting butterfly is then better able to survive, evolve and expand its range into new habitats. This boost of toxicity enables it not only to survive but also continue its evolution a la Darwin. Is not that what gene splicing is all about, changing the character, traits, and structure by combining different traits and/or genes to create a new creature or plant that often cannot breed with its parent plants? Are these new creatures and plant new species?

            There are those, perhaps you, who think symbiogenesis and Darwinian evolution are two different incompatible theories. I choose to consider both as elements in biological evolution. One does not exclude the other. Darwin did not understand all aspects of his theory and neither does modern science. If we wrap up Darwin’s and Margulis’s theory together in one big magnificent package we may better understand how this beautiful world functions without supernatural help.

            I’m not a scientist, and I may well be wrong. I never got all the answers right on my zoology exams. I might have even flunked a few. Thanks for your explanation.

            • whyevolutionistrue
              Posted November 24, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

              Ingesting organic molecules from other species and using them for your own purposes is not any kind of violation of neo-Darwinism. Nor is it speciation. To most biologists, a new species is formed when two populations of what was an ancestral species evolve barriers to gene flow between them, so that the production of fertile hybrids can no longer occur.

              There is not a single instance of this form of reproductive isolation occurring via symbiosis, with the possible exception of a few species of arthopods that might have achieved reproductive isolation through acquiring different Wolbachia bacteria. Every other case of speciation that has been worked out in detail shows no involvement of symbiotic organisms in reproductive isolation. Margulis’s (and Dorion Sagan’s) claim that symbiosis is ubiquitous in speciation is not only wrong, but they should have known it was wrong when they proposed it.

              • Posted November 24, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

                Ubiquitous means found everywhere, present, appearing. I agree with you that Margulis’s theory is not ubiquitous, but simbiogenesis is possible, as you mentioned. Who knows what the future will bring. Perhaps more new revelations we have never thought of. Perhaps Margulis’s ideas will verified. I don’t know, but I keep an open mind and am eager to exam all new ideas and not pass judgement to quickly. I know you must agree. Certainty in science can be a handicap. It may prevent researchers from re-examining old “truths” and finding new “truths”. Swapping DNA in the lab or in nature may lead to some surprising discoveries. Ingesting organic molecules from other organisms is not speciation. As we know speciation takes many generations to occur, but it may be one small step toward speciation. Check out some of my blogs at Thanks again for your input. I am impressed with your knowledge.

              • Posted November 24, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

                “Every other case of speciation that has been worked out in detail shows no involvement of symbiotic organisms in reproductive isolation.”

                Jerry, this statement is not correct. There are numerous, other cases of symbiont-induced speciation. While we both agree that it not as frequent as genetic-based isolation, symbiont-induced isolation is more important than the way it is put above. The relative ease with which one can now study the interactions of microbial symbionts in their hosts has revealed the impact they play in adaptive evolution and speciation. More to the point, I note several cases below and there are many more that Ill save for another time.

                1. In a striking example of symbiont-induced behavioral isolation, genetically-identical D. melanogaster flies that were reared on different diets (i.e., molasses and starch) acquired different microbiotas, which in turn led to strong mate discrimination between them.

                2. Alterations in courtship behavior that lead to reproductive isolation in animals can be caused by parthenogenesis-inducing bacteria

                3. Much of the evolutionary success of arthropods is attributable to the fact that they harbor endosymbionts that permit the use of a wide array of nutrient deficient or imbalanced habitats, that undoubtedly has led to instances of ecological isolation.

                4. Besides Wolbachia, expanding research in other invertebrate-microbe associations demonstrates that the unrelated Cytophaga—Flavobacterium–Bacteroides Cardinium can also cause CI

                5.. Empirical evidence on Wolbachia-induced bidirectional CI shows that it is taxonomically widespread, occurring within species in Culex pipiens mosquitoes, various D. simulans flies, and between sympatric species of mites and between species of Nasonia wasps. Further, theoretical evidence indicates that bidirectional CI can stably persist in populations that undergo high rates of migration.

                And many more examples.., but perhaps this is better suited for another venue. We are writing a review on this topic.

            • Reginald Selkirk
              Posted November 25, 2011 at 6:53 am | Permalink

              There are those, perhaps you, who think symbiogenesis and Darwinian evolution are two different incompatible theories.

              I am certainly not among that group. That is precisely my objection to that paragraph in Margulis’ obit.

              • tmtyler
                Posted April 11, 2012 at 5:05 am | Permalink

                Symbiosis was certainly a major omission from the neo-Darwinian synthesis – given what we now know about the significance of its involvement in speciation and evolutionary change.

          • tmtyler
            Posted April 11, 2012 at 4:51 am | Permalink

            Re: Show me the [human] “genome acquisition.”

            In the case of humans we may need to look to “cultural symbionts” to see the “genome acuisition” involved. Of course, you might say this is stretching the concept of a “genome” – but it’s still a bunch of heritable information that is “acquired”. Such cultural “memome acuisition” is also thought to have possibly caused speciation in songbirds and killer whales. What cultural tradition could possibly have caused human speciation? Memes for rafting, could possibly have done it. Humans left Africa on rafts – and they could easily have caused reproductive isolation in some cases.

  16. Keith
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Very sad news. And odd that it took WEIT to break the story, and not the traditional media?

  17. jay
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Not to mention the Gaia hypothesis, which has been the basis of a whole field of woo.
    People take would could be a convenient analogy and begin treating it like it represents reality. (not unlike Genesis)

  18. fyreflye
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Nobody’s mentioned the flap over her co-writing the original book on the Gaia Hypothesis with James Lovelock. She seems to have distanced herself from that book in later years; Lovelock went on to clarify his theory as a metaphor rather than a claim that the planet was somehow alive.

  19. Emmy
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    People criticizing her ideas here should have the decency to at least post a study that debunks them. To those who don’t appear to understand the Gaia hypothesis, it merely stated that the planet may be a self-regulating system. Try the simulation Daisyworld for a better understanding of it.

    If the media makes it out to be a new age concept, that’s your fault for buying it.

    More importantly, from the limited amount I’ve read, Margulis challenged Darwin in that she believes that species coevolve with their ecosystems, and that “survival of the fittest” is not the end all be all of evolution.

    Studies since have shown that “weakness” mutations do not necessarily die out. The idea that evolution is a give-and-take is somewhat already established; the Biosphere is a layer of Earth just like the atmosphere or athenosphere, and it changes the surface of the planet like anything else.

    • jay
      Posted November 23, 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      Firstly I said it was the *basis* for a whole bunch of woo.

      But I disagree that it was treated as just allegory even by L & M. After Lovelock began calling it a theory, it was claimed that it could be predictive and used for analysis.

      No. It is just a (quite loose) allegory. The planet is NOT a living system. There are some de facto feedback loops but these are not under any control as in a living creature. Gaia did not evolve in the biolgical sense, there was NEVER any natural selection going on of planets.

      But even as an allegory, it was bad because it tries to treat the entire biosphere as a cooperative organism, which evolution will tell us is completely NOT the case. This belief leads to a basic ‘do nothing’ approach to the world, that everything that is, is just how it’s ‘suppsed’ to be. This goldilocks mindset is the last thing we need as we deal with feeding the world’s population. However the woo crowd laps this up even attributing consciousness to this ‘creature’. The mythical Eden of the extreme tree-hugger crowd would have us throw away technology that can feed, technology that can provide health, technology that can house and protect and replace it with a golden past ‘in harmony with Gaia’, which never actually was.

      • Emmy
        Posted November 23, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        Jay, I understand what you’re saying, but you put in a whole lot of words that I did not write. I am saying this fully admitting that I did not study Margulis’ ideas all that much, so please correct me if I’m wrong.

        Maybe Lovelock did call it a theory. I have no admiration for the man, he promoted geoengineering and other dumb things, but this discussion is not about him.

        Only in the media and goofy new age community have I seen the claims you’re making, not from Margulis. I’m happy to admit I’m way off base if I see quotes or references from Margulis, but I’m not willing to just take people’s word for it.

        Of course she was at least partially right, animals do change their environment. Elephants create grasslands by trampling small forests. Beavers turn streams into ponds. Bacteria decomposes living matter into soil layers.

        The objection of Margulis to Darwin is that he had a one sided view of survival of the fittest. Hardly surprising for a man of the 1800s (Wallace too, he should get some credit here). Animals are not just passive agents of the planet. It is a two way street. The Biosphere shapes the surface of the planet as well as changing the atmosphere (global warming, emissions, right?)

        I don’t know what you mean by “do nothing”. Margulis inspired me to see the Earth as a dynamic system rather than a static one, as I used to in high school. I find her quite inspiring.

  20. Posted November 23, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I am amazed and somewhat pleased Margulis’s imminent death has caused such a controversy. She deserves to be better known for her achievements and place in science. Some of those who vehemently criticize her work, personality, and character have gone overboard. Their emotion oozes through their criticism and makes it seem less objective. The last chapter on symbiogenesis has yet to be written and I suspect her name and papers will be heavily footnoted. She is/was a great lady of science who has surpassed the achievements of most of her colleagues. Good for her. As has been mentioned, Einstein and Galileo among other great scientists made mistakes. Sometime they live long enough to acknowledge their mistakes and sometime they don’t. Magulis’s biggest and most unforgiving fault is she died too soon. Shame on her.

    • Emmy
      Posted November 23, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      I so agree with what you said – I was dismayed to read this post today.

      • Linda Jean
        Posted November 23, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

        emmy, you are a breath of logical decent air

        • Emmy
          Posted November 23, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

          Well, thank you! 🙂

  21. jwthomas
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    John Brockman’s obituary and reminiscence is here

  22. Kharamatha
    Posted November 24, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink


    No one will get this, huh?

  23. Michael J. Chapman
    Posted November 25, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    I was Lynn’s friend and co-author for 20 years (look us up on Amazon). I also team-taught her courses on symbiogenesis, Gaia theory and protists. The comments here display a level of understanding of her work that might earn, at best, a C+ in one of her undergraduate courses. At worst, by contrast, are cowards who can’t even wait a while before slamming the departed. Yes I mean you, Kristjan Wager, so clearly envious of her fame, so clearly unworthy to lick the grime off her porch steps.

    • Posted November 26, 2011 at 4:41 am | Permalink

      Why would I be envious of her fame? I am not a scientist, and I don’t pretend to be one.

      I am however a skeptic, who tries to fight quackery whereever I find it. Marguise pushed many dangerous ideas, especially the HIV/AIDS denial – ideas that could cost the lives of others, if people bought into them.

      To put it bluntly: I was quite constrained in my objections to the post-death whitewash that I saw in Jerry’s original post. Marguise had one great idea (which I more that I’ll ever have), but her whole career seemed dedicated to push any ideas which went against orthodoxy. That doesn’t make you a great scientist. That makes you a quack, who happens to be spetacularly right once.

      • Posted November 26, 2011 at 4:43 am | Permalink

        Just realized that I misspelled her name twice. That was a stupid mistake to make.

        • Posted November 27, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

          I guess I look at it differently. A scientific concept/theory is not evil or good, it is indifferent. Has gravity killed many people? Of course. So should we blame Newton? Are Margulis’s theories dangerous, NO. Theories are presented to the scientific world without concern that they are going to be useful or they are going to be mis-used. If Margulis’s theories about HIV/Aids are incorrect they will be ignored and discarded. In fact, they have been. One African leader rejected the connection between HIV and Aids but that had nothing to do with Margulis. It had to do with a dictatorship, politics, and ignorance. Incorrect theories have been presented and discarded in the past. Rejecting incorrect ideas is nothing new and ALL IDEAS CAN BE CONSIDERED DANGEROUS, IT JUST DEPENDS ON HOW THEY ARE USED.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted November 27, 2011 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

            No, you’re wrong there. You can’t have it both ways. If you give Margulis credit for being right about symbiosis (against the general opinion), she can’t escape the blame for being wrong about HIV/Aids (again, against the general opinion). And it DOES have consequences. There are always contrarians waiting to sieze on the views of any scientist who can be claimed to support their views, whether it’s climate change deniers or anti-MMR campaigners or HIV/Aids deniers or Creationists – and all of those things ARE likely to kill people. Well, except Creationism, possibly. Just supposing you know the truth, and revealing it will cost a thousand lives – would you? Now, suppose you do, and turn out to be wrong – how would you feel? I just don’t think ‘Oh, it’s only a scientific theory’ is a tenable position IF that theory has major consequences in real life.

  24. Kevin Fetherston
    Posted November 26, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Lynn Margulis was a creative, controversial, and compelling scientist. She made the scientific community a much more interesting place. As such, and as depicted previously here, she more than touched a few nerves. Thank goodness!
    It’s easy to take shots at someone’s reputation once they have passed. It’s also really banal.
    I had the privledge and pleasure of her mentorship as an undergraduate. The Margulis lab was a tremendously exciting place to discover live science in real time. The evolutionary scientific community would be a much more tame and less interesting place without her work.

  25. Posted November 26, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Just noticed this post. The comments here are so different from those I saw on the other post, with more positive and balanced view of her work. The only reason I see for such difference is how the original post set the tone for discussion. Yes, that is the power of the media and the “leaders”.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted November 28, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

      or it’s just a sorting issue.

  26. Posted November 27, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Here is a non-scientific hunch; Symbiogenesis will be recognized as a significant adjunct to our concept of evolution, more than we now think.

  27. Jack
    Posted November 27, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    In this video, for 10 minutes, she vapidly lectures us about what science is and what science is not while saying the science proves 9/11 was an inside job. Yes she needs to be called out for going off the deep end in the strictest way possible because she used her authority and the core philosophies of science to push conspiracy woo.

    [I’ve edited out the video Jack placed in his comment here, because it’s already been posted by Jerry in the RIP Lynn Margulis, ctd. post: go see it there. GCM]

  28. Posted November 28, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Margulis was wrong about HIV/Aids and 911 but correct about other things and a great teacher, as students attest. Should all scientists refrain from speaking the truth as they see it because of the chance that it will be proven wrong in the future? I think not. Freedom of opinion is vital to our society and to science. I wish we all had the foresite of infiniteimprobabilit.

    • InfiniteImprobabilit
      Posted November 28, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

      Re the ‘foresight’ crack – personally, I hate arguing from 20/20 hindsight. I just don’t think you can argue that a scientist has NO responsibility for the predictable results of their statements. And your previous analogy with gravity is entirely false – nobody’s going to jump off a cliff because they agree / disagree with Newton. Not every scientific statement has social implications. If neutrinos do turn out to be travelling FTL, nobody’s going to die. BUT people do refuse to get their kids immunised because of the MMR scare – *that* sort of thing does have effects.

      IF you know (or should with commonsense know) that your theory is going to have major social consequences then IMO you are responsible for the results of publicising it if it turns out to be wrong**. If you couldn’t have known, or the results are negligible, then you’re off the hook.

      **And can claim the credit if it turns out right, of course.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Jerry Coyne, I learned that Lynn Margulis died yesterday. Those who’ve seen my public talks will know […]

  2. […] inventing photosynthesis, setting up symbiotic relationships with smaller energy-generating cells (ciao Lynn Margulis!) – that kind of thing. And then everything went mental in the last 5-6 seconds (sorry if that was […]

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