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.
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