Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Discover Interview: Lynn Margulis Says She's Not Controversial, She's Right"

Darwinism is dead and has been dead a long time. But as Arthur C. Clarke once noted, scientists and lay people who won't change their minds will have to die off before they stop obstructing the more open-minded. Such obstructionists prevent advancement.

It was the Russians who first originated the theory of which Margulis speaks.

(As an aside, American women are the most pampered and self-pitying in the world...and they know nothing of Grace Hopper or Lynn Margulis.)

This interview is from Discover magazine. It is the first of three parts. Click on the link for the rest.

It was written by Dick Teresi.

It's the neo-Darwinists, population geneticists, AIDS researchers, and English-speaking biologists as a whole who have it all wrong

A conversation with Lynn Margulis is an effective way to change the way you think about life. Not just your life. All life. Scientists today recognize five groups of life: bacteria, protoctists (amoebas, seaweed), fungi (yeast, mold, mushrooms), plants, and animals. Margulis, a self-described “evolutionist,” makes a convincing case that there are really just two groups, bacteria and everything else.

That distinction led to her career-making insight. In a 1967 paper published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, Margulis suggested that mitochondria and plastids—vital structures within animal and plant cells—evolved from bacteria hundreds of million of years ago, after bacterial cells started to collect in interactive communities and live symbiotically with one another. The resulting mergers yielded the compound cells known as eukaryotes, which in turn gave rise to all the rest—the protoctists, fungi, plants, and animals, including humans. The notion that we are all the children of bacteria seemed outlandish at the time, but it is now widely supported and accepted. “The evolution of the eukaryotic cells was the single most important event in the history of the organic world,” said Ernst Mayr, the leading evolutionary biologist of the last century. “Margulis’s contribution to our understanding the symbiotic factors was of enormous importance.”

Her subsequent ideas remain decidedly more controversial. Margulis came to view symbiosis as the central force behind the evolution of new species, an idea that has been dismissed by modern biologists. The dominant theory of evolution (often called neo-Darwinism) holds that new species arise through the gradual accumulation of random mutations, which are either favored or weeded out by natural selection. To Margulis, random mutation and natural selection are just cogs in the gears of evolution; the big leaps forward result from mergers between different kinds of organisms, what she calls symbiogenesis. Viewing life as one giant network of social connections has set Margulis against the mainstream in other high-profile ways as well. She disputes the current medical understanding of AIDS and considers every kind of life to be “conscious” in a sense.

Margulis herself is a highly social organism. Now 71, she is a well-known sight at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she is on the geosciences faculty, riding her bike in all weather and at all times of day. Interviewer Dick Teresi, a neighbor, almost ran her over when, dressed in a dark coat, she cycled in front of his car late at night. On the three occasions that they met for this interview, Teresi couldn’t help noticing that Margulis shared her home with numerous others: family, students, visiting scholars, friends, friends of friends, and anybody interesting who needed a place to stay.

Most scientists would say there is no controversy over evolution. Why do you disagree?

All scientists agree that evolution has occurred—that all life comes from a common ancestry, that there has been extinction, and that new taxa, new biological groups, have arisen. The question is, is natural selection enough to explain evolution? Is it the driver of evolution?

And you don’t believe that natural selection is the answer?

This is the issue I have with neo-Darwinists: They teach that what is generating novelty is the accumulation of random mutations in DNA, in a direction set by natural selection. If you want bigger eggs, you keep selecting the hens that are laying the biggest eggs, and you get bigger and bigger eggs. But you also get hens with defective feathers and wobbly legs. Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create.

That seems like a fairly basic objection. How, then, do you think the neo-Darwinist perspective became so entrenched?

In the first half of the 20th century, neo-Darwinism became the name for the people who reconciled the type of gradual evolutionary change described by Charles Darwin with Gregor Mendel’s rules of heredity [which first gained widespread recognition around 1900], in which fixed traits are passed from one generation to the next. The problem was that the laws of genetics showed stasis, not change. If you have pure breeding red flowers and pure breeding white flowers, like carnations, you cross them and you get pink flowers. You back-cross them to the red parent and you could get three-quarters red, one-quarter white. Mendel showed that the grandparent flowers and the offspring flowers could be identical to each other. There was no change through time.

There’s no doubt that Mendel was correct. But Darwinism says that there has been change through time, since all life comes from a common ancestor—something that appeared to be supported when, early in the 20th century, scientists discovered that X-rays and specific chemicals caused mutations. But did the neo-
Darwinists ever go out of their offices? Did they or their modern followers, the population geneticists, ever go look at what’s happening in nature the way Darwin did? Darwin was a fine naturalist. If you really want to study evolution, you’ve got go outside sometime, because you’ll see symbiosis everywhere!

So did Mendel miss something? Was Darwin wrong?

I’d say both are incomplete. The traits that follow Mendel’s laws are trivial. Do you have a widow’s peak or a straight hairline? Do you have hanging earlobes or attached earlobes? Are you female or male? Mendel found seven traits that followed his laws exactly. But neo-Darwinists say that new species emerge when mutations occur and modify an organism. I was taught over and over again that the accumulation of random mutations led to evolutionary change—led to new species. I believed it until I looked for evidence.

What kind of evidence turned you against neo-Darwinism?

What you’d like to see is a good case for gradual change from one species to another in the field, in the laboratory, or in the fossil record—and preferably in all three. Darwin’s big mystery was why there was no record at all before a specific point [dated to 542 million years ago by modern researchers], and then all of a sudden in the fossil record you get nearly all the major types of animals. The paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould studied lakes in East Africa and on Caribbean islands looking for Darwin’s gradual change from one species of trilobite or snail to another. What they found was lots of back-and-forth variation in the population and then—whoop—a whole new species. There is no gradualism in the fossil record.

Gould used the term “punctuated equilibrium” to describe what he interpreted as actual leaps in evolutionary change. Most biologists disagreed, suggesting a wealth of missing fossil evidence yet to be found. Where do you stand in the debate?

“Punctuated equilibrium” was invented to describe the discontinuity in the appearance of new species, and symbiogenesis supports the idea that these discontinuities are real. An example: Most clams live in deep, fairly dark waters. Among one group of clams is a species whose ancestors ingested algae—a typical food—but failed to digest them and kept the algae under their shells. The shell, with time, became translucent, allowing sunlight in. The clams fed off their captive algae and their habitat expanded into sunlit waters. So there’s a discontinuity between the dark-dwelling, food-gathering ancestor and the descendants that feed themselves photosynthetically.

Click HERE to read the whole article.


Mindstorm said...

Oh, so it's impossible to be controversial and right, or to be not controversial and wrong? Could you point to some major discovery that was not controversial at the time of its formulation? Some were ignored for centuries before their popularization, that is, longer than a single generation of scientists.

Evolutionism (or more often written as MEP - modern evolutionary synthesis) is not the same as Darwinism, because it also incorporates knowledge unknown to Darwin, most notably mechanisms of genetics. Even proponents of symbogenetics use evolutionary models and don't propose any replacement.

In every primary study on the subject that I have read, antagonistic interactions make the majority of any ecosystem. That means more relative importance of competition than of cooperation. Fun fact: the metabolic crisis of your mitochondria means triggering the apoptotic cascade leading to the death of their host cells. See? Even in such an intimate relationship there remains a built-in 'kill switch' ensuring cooperation through mutually assured destruction. Otherwise, we have defective mitochondria that overproduce reactive oxygen species (highly toxic free radicals of oxygen and its compounds) damaging further both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, which ultimately leads to cancer and later death of the whole organism.

So what if Eeukaryota are composite entities? What about Archaea? It's not some made-up group.

Mindstorm said...
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Mindstorm said...

A quite rapid progress of late is happening in the area of quorum signaling. It can be viewed both as competitive and cooperative mechanism. Similar to intra-species non-lethal mating competitions replacing fights to death.

Bob Wallace said...

I've been saying for years everything is a self-organizing network with no one in charge.

kurt9 said...

Its been known for more than 20 years that random DNA mutations cannot account for evolution. This is too slow of mechanism. We've known for 20 years that infectious agents are a major driver of evolution. At least 40% of the human genome is recognizable HERV (human endogenous retro virus) code. Then there is this endosymbiosis that also plays a role in evolution.

I don't see how any of this can be considered controversial to anyone who has some understanding of molecular biology.

Lynn Margulis's work has been expanded on by William Martin and others. Martin originated the Hydrogen Hypothesis of endosymbiosis as the explanation of the origin of the Eukaryote. If true (and I think it is), the emergence of the Eukaryote was such a singularly rare event that it has occurred only once, not only on Earth, but in the galaxy. We are truly alone.

kurt9 said...

Nick Lane has also made original contributions to endosymbiosis theory. His website is:

I recommend reading "Power, Sex, and Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life"

Mindstorm said...

I wonder if the transformation from a settled form of grasshopper into swarms of locust occurs according to the same mechanism.

If so, there is a possibility of disrupting the process.

Mindstorm said...
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Mindstorm said...

This might interest you, even if only as a potential technological inspiration. Microbes that sustain themselves on energy gradients that don't depend on photosynthesis as the primal source (well, if you ignore free oxygen as its byproduct). So some hypothetical nanomachines might utilize the same principles.

I wonder what is the lower limit of complexity for a fully functional organism...

Bob Wallace said...

That sounds like a truly astonishing thing!

Andrew Stallard said...

Even with as much contempt and disrespect as I have for the mendacious frauds promoting creationism and intelligent design theory, I have to admit they have a point when they speak of the closed-mindedness of the scientific community. It is as if they are so afraid of providing ammunition for the intelligent design theorists they are unwilling to voice doubts and think outside the box. And issues surrounding ID and Creationism are hardly the only or most important examples of the hideboundedness of that community. Three cheers for Lynn Margulis for willing to take a fresh look at the evidence whether she turns out to be correct or not.

This is the reason that I have decided to forgo getting a Ph.D. and pursue a career as a research scientist and instead just get a master's in education and teach high school. Navigating the bureaucracy with its explicit and implicit protocols makes covering your arse the first priority. It goes without saying that in such an environment that pursuing a risky hypothesis is not worth it. Why should you risk your career by rocking the boat when you're probably wrong? Any breakthroughs I make will be done in my basement laboratory and reported on my personal web page (taken down at present).

If I were to speculate I would say hobbyists' basements rather than Ivory towers are the places where most of the great discoveries of the future will emerge. After all, if you don't have advisers, colleagues, administrators, committees, and God only knows who else looking over your shoulder you can actually get things wrong without being afraid. This is usually the first step toward getting them right.

Mindstorm said...

If you want something controversial and likely to be true, here is a good example:

The thing is, for modern multicellular organisms to undergo a similar change spontaneously is extremely unlikely. For a variety of reasons that were not present that far back in the past.

Mindstorm said...

Have you ever wondered why Archaea make better symbionts than Bacteria? Unable to form spores, their interests by necessity align with interests of their host organism. They cannot 'foul their nest' only to 'abandon the ship' later, like sporulating bacteria. In turn, they contribute to sustainable environments.

You might apply the same principles to human institutions. :) For example countries and transnationals.