by Greg Mayer
The New York Times has published an obituary. It’s dreadful. Here’s the worst part:
The hypothesis was a direct challenge to the prevailing neo-Darwinist belief that the primary evolutionary mechanism was random mutation.
Rather, Dr. Margulis argued that a more important mechanism was symbiosis; that is, evolution is a function of organisms that are mutually beneficial growing together to become one and reproducing. The theory undermined significant precepts of the study of evolution, underscoring the idea that evolution began at the level of micro-organisms long before it would be visible at the level of species.
I’ll leave the dissection of this nonsense as an exercise.
JAC addition: I agree with Greg; it’s dreadful. And here’s Margulis’s dismissal, given as a quote in the obituary, of an entire cadre of evolutionary biologists:
“I work in evolutionary biology, but with cells and micro-organisms. Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith, George Williams, Richard Lewontin, Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould all come out of the zoological tradition, which suggests to me that, in the words of our colleague Simon Robson, they deal with a data set some three billion years out of date.”
As if the work of these people has nothing to contribute to evolutionary biology because it applies to modern-day species! It’s like saying a mechanic can’t work on modern cars because he doesn’t know anything about Stanley Steamers or Model Ts!.
Modern organisms are hardly “out of date”, and they do obey the rules of population genetics. Margulis might as well have dismissed all the architects of modern evolutionary theory, including J. B. S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, Ronald Fisher, and Bill Hamilton.
Margulis’s legacy would be far more positive if she hadn’t spent the last few decades going around saying that she alone had the correct handle on evolutionary biology, and everyone else was wrong. And it would have helped had she not been an HIV-AIDS denialist, asserting that the virus didn’t even exist and the disease was really syphillis, rendered undetectable because the spirochete became symbiotic with our cells. How do we weigh that deadly denialism against her positive contributions about symbiosis?
And then there were her views that the 9/11 destruction in New York was due not to an act of terrorism but to deliberately set bombs. In the video below she explains this crazy idea, and you can read her essay about it here.
Margulis’s legacy in science is secure: because she walked among us, we understand much more about nature than we would have otherwise. Her pushing the theory, in the teeth of doubt and criticism, that some cellular organelles descend from ancient bacteria, is a major advance in our understanding of life.
But her legacy is not unmixed, and her life leaves us with another lesson: if a scientist has a Big Idea that turns out to be right, that does not automatically make her right about everything else. None of us, however famous, should be immune to the criticism that characterizes our discipline. As we remember her on this sad occasion, let us at least have a balanced view of her life.