Lynn Margulis: Intimacy Of Strangers & Natural Selection

Column – Suzan Mazur

While Eastman Professor Lynn Margulis clearly doesn’t have time on her hands at Oxford University’s Balliol College where she’s spending the year away from her other job as Distinguished University Professor of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst …

Lynn Margulis: Intimacy Of Strangers & Natural Selection

By Suzan Mazur

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Lynn Margulis is an example of somebody who didn’t follow the rules and pissed a lot of people off. She had a way of looking at symbiosis which didn’t fit into the popular theories and structure. In the minds of many people, she went around the powers that be and took her theories directly to the public, which annoyed them all. It particularly annoyed them because she turned out to be right.” – W. Daniel Hillis, The Third Culture

While Eastman Professor Lynn Margulis clearly doesn’t have time on her hands at Oxford University’s Balliol College where she’s spending the year away from her other job as Distinguished University Professor of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst – I did actually run out of tape talking with her in round one of our conversation, barely scratching the surface on symbiosis (“new species evolve primarily through the long-lasting intimacy of strangers”), the evolutionary concept that brought her the Presidential Medal of Science in 1999. Margulis says that as far as “survival of the fittest” goes, it’s a “capitalistic, competitive, cost-benefit interpretation of Darwin” and that even banks and sports teams have to cooperate to compete. She sees natural selection as “neither the source of heritable novelty nor the entire evolutionary process” and has pronounced neo-Darwinism “dead,” since there’s no adequate evidence in the literature that random mutations result in new species.

Margulis takes a holistic view of evolutionary science, and her U. Mass. lab page notes that their work “seamlessly” involves microbiology, cell biology, genetics, ecology, “soft rock” geology, astronomy, astrobiology, atmospheric sciences, metabolic organic and biochemistry.

This year on Darwin’s 200th birthday anniversary (Feb. 12), she was awarded the Darwin Wallace medal by the Linnean Society of London. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983, served as chair of the NAS Space Science Board Committee on Planetary Biology and Chemical Evolution, was elected to the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, the World Academy of Art and Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, among other honors.

Lynn Margulis told me that when she wrote her book Symbiosis in Cell Evolution: Microbial Communities in the Archean and Proterozoic Eons she was entirely ignorant of the Russian work of Boris Mikhailovich Kozo-Polyansky (1924) and his predecessor’s concepts of symbiogenesis. She said she also knew little of the American antecedents (e.g., Ivan E. Wallin’s Symbionticism and the Origin of Species, 1927). Margulis said she simply had read with great interest Columbia Professor E.B. Wilson’s tome “The Cell in Heredity and Development” (1925). Yet her conclusions closely resembled those of Kozo-Polyansky and other unknown symbiogenesis-championing predecessors albeit with modern genetic, biochemical and paleontological information.

She has co-authored seven books with Dorion Sagan, her son from her first marriage (at 19) to the late astronomer Carl Sagan. Those books include: Symbiotic Planet: A new look at evolution; Acquiring Genomes: A theory of the origins of species; What is Sex?; What is Life?; Mystery Dance: On the evolution of human sexuality; Microcosmos: Four billion years of evolution from our microbial ancestors; Origins of Sex: Three billion years of genetic recombination. With M.J. Chapman, her close colleague and former student, she’s written Kingdoms & Domains: An illustrated guide to the phyla of life on Earth, now in its 4th edition.

She adores many of her colleagues, describing them as “marvelous!”, “wonderful!” “superb!”. And she advised that she would have “no time” to talk with me as soon as her daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren arrive for a visit.

Lynn Margulis spent 22 years teaching at Boston University prior to her current faculty positions. She has a BA from the University of Chicago, an MS in zoology and genetics from the University of Wisconsin and a PhD in genetics from the University of California, Berkeley.

But she didn’t start out this way. She was born on the south side of Chicago to a non-science family, had a wild streak and admits (most women won’t) that she loved to chase and be chased by guys. She married two of them.

Our recent phone conversation follows a slightly improved abstract of the paper she presented in Rome last week at the “Biological Evolution Fact and Theories” conference organized jointly by the Jesuits, Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome) and the University of Notre Dame (Indiana).

Origin Of Evolutionary Novelty By Symbiogenesis

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Images Courtesy of Lynn Margulis

Whereas speciation by accumulation of “random DNA mutations” has never been adequately documented, a plethora of high-quality scientific studies has unequivocally shown symbiogenesis to be at the basis of the origin of species and more inclusive taxa.

Members of at least two prokaryotic domains (a sulfidogenic archaebacterium, a sulfide-oxidizing motile eubacterium) merged in the origin of the earliest nucleated organisms to evolve in the mid-Proterozoic Eon (c. 1200 million years ago).

Such a heterotrophic, phagocytotic motile protoctist was ancestral to all subsequent eukaryotes (e.g., other protoctists, animals, fungi and plants).

The defining seme of eukaryosis, the membrane-bounded nucleus as a component of the karyomastigont, evolved as Thermoplasma-like archaebacteria and Perfilievia-Spirochaeta-like eubacteria symbiogenetically formed the amitochondriate LECA (the Last Eukaryotic Common Ancestor). Their co-descendants (that still thrive in organic-rich anoxic habitats) are amenable to study so that our videos of them will be shown here.

There are no missing links in our scenario. Contemporary photosynthetic (green) animals (e.g., Elysia viridis, Convoluta roscoffensis), nitrogen-fixing fungi (Geosiphon pyriforme), cellulose digesting animals (cows, Mastotermes darwiniensis termites) and plants (Gunnera manicata) make us virtually certain that Boris Mikhailovich Kozo-Polyansky’s (1890-1957) analysis (Symbiogenesis: A New Principle of Evolution, 1924) was and still is correct.

Symbiogenesis accounts for the origin of hereditary variation that is maintained and perpetuated by Charles Darwin’s natural selective limitations to reaching the omnipresent biotic potential characteristics of any species.

Suzan Mazur: What is the significance of the Rome evolution conference and why was it limited it to US-European papers?

Lynn Margulis: I didn’t know it had been. You mean no Chinese or Japanese?

Suzan Mazur: There are no Russian, Chinese, African, Indian or Japanese presenters listed.

Lynn Margulis: This is not a policy of limitation, this fact resulted from historical circumstances.

It must be deeply understood that the term “evolution,” which is not used by Charles Darwin – he called the process “descent with modification” – is Anglo-Saxon. It is very much a British-American “take” on the history of life, traditionally limited to Anglophones.

Most English-speaking scientists think in hushed hagiographic terms when they mention Charles Darwin, comparable to English thought about physics before Einstein when Newton was the only game in town. It’s a very English nationalist phenomenon, especially as Darwin was later interpreted.

Suzan Mazur: Do you think the Rome conference organizers had that in mind when they were inviting papers?

Lynn Margulis: No I don’t think so. It probably didn’t even occur to them that the guest list on their “international meeting” might strike some as racist!

The Chinese and the Navajos lack any tradition in evolution, although they both enjoy superb medicine (healing) traditional practice.

Professor Tom Glick, a former colleague of mine at Boston University — he’s wonderful — wrote a book, The Comparative Reception of Darwin, with chapters by country.

A joint student of ours suggested the study needed a chapter on the Chinese reception of Darwinism. The book has a chapter on Japan, Latin American coverage, Spain, many countries – on how Darwinism was perceived and received in the century between 1859 and about 1970.

This young man, a doctoral candidate in the history of science, went to China for a year and discovered no tradition of Darwinian evolution there. He ended up studying aspects of Chinese medicine.

Also, my colleague Tacheeni Scott, a fine cell biologist, a Navajo, told me that his culture has no concept whatsoever of evolution. They just have no tradition.

Suzan Mazur: But there is significant research on evolution taking place in India and Japan. I haven’t looked at African evolution studies but I did interview scientists in Africa in the 1980s for Omni magazine — they were trained by the Soviets, so there must be important African thinking about evolution.

Lynn Margulis: Most of Africa was colonized by Europe. Let’s put it this way. In the Russian equivalent of the Encyclopedia Britannica, some 250 pages describe symbiogenesis – in an evolutionary context of course. In Darwinian evolutionary books published in and before 1982 as part of the centenary activity of Darwin’s death in 1882, there is zero on symbiogenesis.

You have a point. Certain countries are expected to be excluded because they lack traditional study of evolution.

Suzan Mazur: The theme of the Rome Conference is “Biological Evolution Facts and Theories: A Critical Appraisal 150 Years After The Origin of Species”. Would you comment on how funding colors evolution fact and theory?

Lynn Margulis: I will give you a specific example. In perhaps about 1980, Harvard professor Richard Lewontin – you know him?

Suzan Mazur: Yes. I’ve interviewed him. .

Lynn Margulis: And the late Margaret Dayhoff. . . She was a protein biochemist who started the use of protein sequence information to reconstruct evolutionary history. She co-authored a marvelous series of books on Protein Sequence and Structure in the early 1970s with Richard Eck. Their handbook collected all the evolutionary information at the time, which wasn’t much. Dayhoff et al. realized that the kinds of data they were getting could only be comprehended in the light of evolution.

The late paleontologist and Harvard professor Elso Barghoorn was involved too. There were four or five of us who, by correspondence exclusively, realized that the major issue in all our research — whether it was electrophoresis or the microfossil record – was the evolution story. So we talked about ways of putting pressure on the National Science Foundation to set up an evolution section. This clearly was in NSF’s (not NIH’s) purview. Dayhoff was funded by a chemistry section of the National Institute of Health. Barghoorn was supported by a geology section of NSF and by NASA.

We wrote a carefully honed letter that said a very strong set of researchers existed who consider their primary activity “evolution” and yet their methods are very different. We proposed that our efforts be joined. This would lead to reduction of redundancy and save money for the funding agencies. It would probably further evolution science more than anything else to construct an evolution program. We investigators would not have to prevaricate about our interests. We said it politely.

I think I sent the letter in. I did not receive an answer from them for over a year, perhaps for two years. Then out of the blue, long after I figured there would never be an answer and had entirely forgotten, I received an answer from the NSF.

Remember Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson who ridiculed the NSF saying the NSF funded work on the left toe of spiders or something? He was just trying to be sensible. I can understand.

Anyway, I deduced that NSF scientist-bureaucrats were conflicted about our letter. The woman assigned to answer us wrote to say there were so many American citizens opposed to evolution that if the NSF put chemistry, geology, etc. into a single evolution division, it would be like sticking out our heads to be chopped off. Such a proposal, no matter its intellectual validity, would surely not fly! She said the NSF thought it would strengthen evolution science by avoidance of the word “evolution” and not by centralizing research activities.

Suzan Mazur: I’ve been critical about the NAS publication Science, Evolution, and Creationism. It’s a light treatment of the subject.

Lynn Margulis: Mealymouthed probably.

Suzan Mazur: Would you say there’s an evolution sea change taking place?

Lynn Margulis: Tell me more please.

Suzan Mazur: For instance, at the Rome conference there’s a full day of talks on “evolutionary mechanisms”.

Stuart Kauffman, one of the scientists presenting a paper on evolutionary mechanisms, told me in an interview about a year ago “there are some physicists who are asking questions like: Is natural selection an expression of some more general process?” That “it’s all up in the air”.

Richard Lewontin told me that natural selection occurs.

Antonio Lima-de-Faria says natural selection’s a political term not a scientific term.

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci told me publicly that it’s both politics and science.

Lynn Margulis: Who first said it was a political term?

Suzan Mazur: Antonio Lima-de-Faria, the cytogeneticist from the University of Lund.

Lynn Margulis: From Lund. He’s Portuguese.

Suzan Mazur: Right.

Lynn Margulis: Good, good. Is he coming to Rome?

Suzan Mazur: He is not. I’ve had lots of dialogue with him.

Stuart Newman says natural selection should be relegated to a less important role in evolutionary science.

Stan Salthe says “Oh sure natural selection’s been demonstrated . . . however . . . it has rarely if ever been demonstrated to have anything to do with evolution in the sense of long-term changes in populations. . . .”

Lynn Margulis: That’s really what Salthe said?

Suzan Mazur: Yes. And he said that “the import of the Darwinian theory of evolution is just unexplainable caprice from top to bottom. What evolves is just what happened to happen.”

Philosopher Jerry Fodor, who’s co-writing a book What Darwin Got Wrong with physicist and linguist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, told me that “whatever the story turns out to be, it’s not going to be the selectionist story.”

Can you shed some light on what’s going on regarding the status and meaning of natural selection?

Lynn Margulis: I think I see the problem clearly. There is absolutely no doubt that natural selection itself can be measured every minute of the day in every population of organisms. Darwin was brilliant to make “natural selection” a sort of godlike term, an expression that could replace “God”, who did it — created life forms. However, what is “natural selection” really? It is the failure of biotic potential to be reached. And it’s quantitative.

Biotic potential is the intrinsic ability of any population to overgrow its environment by production of too many offspring. Whether born, hatched, budded or sporulated, all organisms potentially produce more offspring than can survive to reproduce themselves. Natural selection is intrinsically an elimination process. I’ll give you some specific examples.

My favorite one – I show this in a film and people just gasp. An ordinary bacterium – Proteus vulgaris – divides at the rate of every 15 minutes.

I have a time-lapse view of Proteus vulgaris where I show two hours of growth – 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, etc., until it fills the screen. I explain that if Proteus vulgaris continued to grow at this rate, not once a minute or once every 10 seconds, but once every 15 or 20 minutes, i.e., the way it really grows when it’s not limited, this bacterium would reach the mass of the Earth over a weekend.

It’s easy to show that the biotic potential measured as “number of offspring per unit time” (convertible of course into its equivalent “number of offspring per generation”) is never reached. Ever.

Darwin said the whole Earth could be covered by the progeny of a single pair of elephants.

Everybody knows that ancient chess story, one rice grain, two rice grains, four rice grains – you know what I’m talking about – the whole kingdom of rice at the end of the chess board = 264th!

Apparently, a maximum of 11 dachshund puppies can be born per litter. They have 3 litters a year, and therefore their biotic potential is: 33 puppies a year.

Let’s take a human example. For years the eldest woman reported to have delivered a live infant was a 59-year-old. The highest biotic potential described was 22 children per one single couple. This was the measurement of “human biotic potential”: “22 children per couple per generation”, and approximately equivalent to 22 children per 25 years.

Recently a Brazilian newspaper reported a couple, same Mom, same Pop, who had 32 children! Now each of those children, I can bet you, I don’t have to bet you, did not live to produce 32 children in the next generation. That has never occurred in the history of mankind. That point is — if you return 25 years later to the same Brazilian village, the original two parents will have been replaced, not by 32 but by another two descendants. The others died, moved away or, most likely, most failed to reproduce. That is simply elimination by “natural selection”, the failure of biotic potential to be reached. But that’s all. Simply no population ever reaches its biotic potential for long enough to do anything but measure it!

What then is natural selection? Natural selection is the failure to reach the potential, the maximum number of offspring that, in principle, can be produced by members of the specific species in question. This has been shown zillions of times in zillions of organisms.

Suzan Mazur: So you don’t agree that natural selection has rarely if ever been demonstrated to have anything to do with evolution in the sense of long-term changes in populations.

Lynn Margulis: Of course not. We have to unpack that misstatement. Growth is not simply enlargement by intake of food. It is no single process. In metazoans growth involves, at least intracellular motility including mitosis, protein synthesis, ATP energy generation, oxygen respiration, water intake and retention, salt balance, development and cell differentiation, and other related processes. The term “growth” tends to be slighted and misrepresented but it is far worse with the word “evolution”. The evolutionary process, intrinsically multi-componented, tends to be misunderstood by most people; it is often not even properly presented by those who purport to teach it! I think I understand it and can unpack it with complete equanimity. Natural selection occurs all the time. But natural selection as an elimination process, as failure to reach biotic potential, is not the issue.

Suzan Mazur: Salthe’s saying natural selection in terms of long-term changes in populations.

Lynn Margulis: I claim that long-term change also has been demonstrated. Such change over time is what the whole fossil record is about.

Suzan Mazur: He said it’s been demonstrated but rarely. . . .

What about Stuart Kauffman? He said natural selection may be “an expression of a more general process.”

Lynn Margulis: They are arguing about the entire evolutionary process. They are confused about its separable, measurable components. Darwin’s claim of “descent with modification” as caused by natural selection is a linguistic fallacy. They talk as if there were one single cause. As if natural selection were the cause. Although stated in your quotes, they respond to that which is left undefined. They do not respond to evolutionary evidence, to the results of the evolutionary process as documented in the fossil record. They tend to be ignorant about sedimentation, stratigraphy, taphonomy, diagenesis and other natural processes relevant to interpretation of direct fossil evidence for life’s evolution.

Darwin wrote about the Struggle for Life and attributed change to Natural Selection. He made it easy for his contemporaries to think and verbalize Mr. Big Omnipotent God in the Sky up there picking out those He wants to keep. He has been conceived of as The Natural Selector, He throws the others away.

Suzan Mazur: Your investigation of holistic science has revolutionized thinking about evolution. Your lab page carries the statement: “Our science seamlessly involves microbiology, cell biology, genetics, ecology, “soft rock” geology, astronomy, atmospheric sciences, metabolic organic and biochemistry.”

You’ve been critical of evolutionary science being too focused on animal investigation and not looking enough to more than two billion years that preceded the origin of animal species. What are your thoughts about what may have preceded biological evolution? Do you find Antonio Lima-de-Faria’s idea interesting about atomic, chemical, mineral, chemical levels of evolution?

Lynn Margulis: Evolution is not the appropriate word. “Evolution” just means change through time. But yes there has been “change though time” at many levels.

Suzan Mazur: Are you saying you agree there are four levels?

Lynn Margulis: I don’t know what Lima-de-Faria’s four levels are. I’m familiar only with his good work on cells from years ago.

Suzan Mazur: What about his ideas about biological periodicity, where he describes the flatworm, for instance, having male genitals as developed as those of the human male, the placenta turning up in assorted species across time, along with traits like luminescence, the capacity to fly, etc.

Lynn Margulis: I assume he’s talking about convergent evolution.

Suzan Mazur: No he doesn’t consider this convergent evolution. What he’s saying is that the cell is not able to put together protons, neutrons, and electrons to build a zinc, a cobalt, a magnesium or an iron atom. He says these atoms come from the external environment and that “it is not surprising that the functions and structures of the cell were obliged to follow and perpetuate the periodicity inherent in the chemical elements and the minerals.” So that periodicity in biology, similar patterns that arise in different animals and plants, this sudden emergence of functions in mammals that first occurred in earlier invertebrates, for example, may be “directly correlated with periodicity at the level of the chemical elements”.

Lynn Margulis: I haven’t followed his papers in recent years, but I’m delighted to hear that he’s working and publishing at 87.

About minerals, no doubt minerals are deeply involved in evolution. No doubt. At least 20 elements of the periodic table are absolutely and uniquely required for life today, according to Bob Williams, Oxford University Professor of Chemistry.

He showed that in addition to “CHNOPS” (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulfur) — now up to 20 elements are essential to living organisms today. Earlier the number probably was lower. These elements can’t be substituted for each other.

If manganese is needed, magnesium won’t work. And if magnesium is required for a certain enzyme, selenium won’t substitute.

And the thing about the crystals of the elements, their mineralogical features, is that unlike components in biology when a pure substance is made of those chemical elements – there is identity. Elements are as identical as anything can be; this is not true of cells.

Suzan Mazur: Do you find the concept of morphogenetic fields interesting, which Scott Gilbert and Rudolf Raff have given some thought to, as well as Stuart Pivar with his focus on “biological structuralism” based on evolutionary changes of the torus? And Mark McMenamin’s recent description in Paleotorus of the Seilacher tongue fossil as a flattened metazoan torus (convergence of longitudinal lines near the poles), an Ediacaran toroid? Mark McMenamin says this is an example of morphogenetic fields.

Lynn Margulis: The person who does promote the “morphogenetic fields” concept is Rupert Sheldrake, of course.

I haven’t had a chance to look at the Paleotorus manuscript. I’m unfamiliar with torus thinking. But I’m very familiar with Mark McMenamin and his work. I’ve been in the field with him, he is a co-author. His analysis of Ediacara biota “metacellularity” is excellent. It is a kind of multicellularity but it’s not “metazoan metacellularity“. I think he’s probably right that Ediacaran metacellularity differs from both plants and the familiar animal multicellularity. Animal tissue cells differentiate specific structures that include desmosomes, septate junctions, synapses, tight junctions and others. Plant cells are connected by plasmodesmata. I suspect the Ediacara biota comprised mostly syncitial protoctists that, in any case, as McMenamin and Dolf Seilacher show, were not animals.

Suzan Mazur: I believe you’ve made the statement that the “neo-Darwinists are a minor twentieth-century”, now twenty-first century, “religious sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon Biology.”

Lynn Margulis: I did.

Suzan Mazur: Richard Dawkins gave a speech last year at the School of Ethical Culture in Manhattan where he was questioned from the audience about his embracing Darwinism as a religion And he said “I’m guilty” and I will make an effort to “reform”.

Lynn Margulis: Good! Let me mention a marvelous book by Ronald W. Clark called The Survival of Charles Darwin. The first half or so of the book is Darwin, Darwinism and Darwin in his day. The second half is neo-Darwinism as it happened after Darwin’s death. It describes beautifully the political and social pressures on neo-Darwinism.

The story is connected to Mendelian genetics. Gregor Mendel was no monk in some very quiet garden in Brno in what is now the Czech Republic. He was a well-educated, fine naturalist who stayed in touch with the pope. He was aware of Darwin’s views of change. Mendel’s concepts were marvelous, scientifically impeccable.

I’ll give you a simplified example comparable to Mendel’s sweet pea botanical breeding work. Red flowers and white flowers breed true generation after generation. Red have red offspring. White crossed with white have all white offspring. But a hybrid cross of the breeding red with the breeding white flowers yields all pink flowers. When you cross the pink ones amongst each other, the offspring flowers are just as red or just as white as the parents or the grandparents.

The point is Mendel showed that the changes in heredity are mixtures, but they’re pure. Pink parents produce red, white and pink offspring like parents or grandparents. No evolution of novelty occurs at all because exactly the same hereditary “factors” begun with are transmitted and remain pure through all subsequent generations. Mendel envisaged “factors” (now “genes”) that do not change through time.

Mendel rejected the evolution stuff in the air at his time as bunk. He states the laws of heredity yes, but none leads to change or speciation.

Then Darwin writes that if there are no “gradual changes through time”, his theory is wrong. So whatever else Darwin said, he certainly made it very clear that there were changes in life through time and those changes can be inherited. The basic point was the perceived contradiction between Mendel’s claim of heritable total stability and Darwin’s description of change. Only the inherited changes, he wrote, “are of interest to us”.

What I think is that both Mendel and Darwin, except for Darwin’s insistence on gradualism at the fossil record level, were correct. The changes through time are absolutely documented. The sciences of paleontology and paleobiology document change and common ancestry through time. But in detail those changes tend to be more discontinuous, saltatory (“punctuated equilibrium”) than Darwin’s great expectations of them.

Then some smart-ass Cambridge mathematicians cocktail-party types J.B.S. Haldane, who was brilliant beyond words, and R.A. Fisher, an algebraicist as well, tried to reconcile the stability of Mendel’s inheritance “factors” (which Johannsen later called “genes”) with Darwin’s insistence on change.

Darwin was a geologist. He tried to trace lineages through time. He observed examples of extinction and appearance of life forms in the fossil record. Much fossil life is not like that of today but it’s close enough so that we know that the extinct organisms were directly related to descendants of today, e.g., that dinosaurs were related to today’s reptiles, etc.

And what Haldane, Fisher, Sewell Wright, Hardy, Weinberg et al. did was invent. They took genetics and made up “population genetics”, based on the extrapolation of Mendel’s rules. The superstructure is a theoretical one that ran away with the entire so-called “field”. The neo-Darwinism after Darwin’s death claimed to have resolved the Darwin (change)-Mendel (no change) contradiction.

X-rays were then revealed by Hermann J. Muller to cause mutation. Those genes do change. Any organism was envisaged to be made of its alphabet of genes: A, B, c, d, E, F, G, h, I, J, k . . . all the way to Z. (The A-to-Z-total is the organism’s genome.) “Big A” mutates back to “little a” and “little a” changes back to “big A” in a reciprocal fashion at a measurable rate. The notion is that if we accumulate enough gene change, enough genetic mutations, we explain the passage from one species to another. This is depicted as two branches in a family tree that emerge from one common ancestor to the two descendants. An entire Anglophone academic tradition of purported evolutionary description was developed quantified, computerized based on what I think is a conceptual topological error.

Suzan Mazur: How are you doing at Oxford?

Lynn Margulis: I’m thriving, I have found excellent colleagues and friends in this place of the three “B’s”: biophilia, bibliophilia and bicyclophilia. However, I admit I feel burdened by neo-Darwinist tradition that still prevails among so many that has little to do with me, and what I feel compelled to ignore as useless for my own research.

The Anglophone tradition was taught. I was taught and so were my contemporaries. And so were the younger scientists. Evolution was defined as “changes in gene frequencies in natural populations”. The accumulation of genetic mutations were touted to be enough to change one species into another.

Furthermore, it was admitted, from the very beginning because it was measurable, that more than 99% of all detectable mutations, heritable changes were negative, mutations were mainly deleterious. They rationalized. One sees that less than 1% of genetic mutations, measurable heritable change, are not deleterious. They are presumably favorable. If enough favorable mutations occur, was the erroneous extrapolation, a change from one species to another would concurrently occur.

Suzan Mazur: So a certain dishonesty set in?

Lynn Margulis: No. It was not dishonesty. I think it was wish-fulfillment and social momentum. Assumptions, made but not verified, were taught as fact.

Suzan Mazur: But a whole industry grew up.

Lynn Margulis: Yes, but people are always more loyal to their tribal group than to any abstract notion of “truth” — scientists especially. If not they are unemployable. It is professional suicide to continually contradict one’s teachers or social leaders.

Suzan Mazur: Frank Turner, director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale has told me that scientists are “the most successful intellectuals in securing public funds” and in exchange for government grants agree to work to “ensure better health, economic stability and national security”. Do you agree with that description and how do you feel about scientists in effect having to take a pledge to ensure national security in order to get funding for their labs?

Lynn Margulis: We did research that’s directly related to the anthrax bacteria. First, you’re talking here about American science. And secondly, you probably mean NSF, and even worse DARPA-funded science.

Scientists in general need funds. An aspect of science that is less true of the humanities or arts, is that they must chase money because the rate of cash flow must increase to increase research activity. Scientists almost always need equipment, materials, man-power, in short, money. All except some theoretical scientists need money and, for research results to be accurate and meaningful even the “theoretikers” must work with experimentalists who always need money.

So the economic system to me is such that university people, like most everyone else, maximize the rate of cash flow per square foot of institutional space. That is the main pressure. Scientists, like anyone else, follow the money flow. Many are entirely honest about it. Some of them will make bombs. Most won’t go that far. The humanities and philosophy scholars receive far less public and corporate money because, in general, what they do is not perceived as practical. All they do is make books and teach esoterica to students.

Suzan Mazur: But in making this agreement to ensure better health, economic stability and national security — does this affect the science? Does it constrain science? Is this one of the problems we have, why we’re stuck in old science regarding evolution? Is there a certain “cycle of submission” at play here?

Lynn Margulis: Yes, some aspect of this prevails. But evolution in addition has peculiar problems. Yes, science is traditional. But I think it does have a self-correcting feature to it people die basically. It takes a few generations to self-correct.

Suzan Mazur: Is it too soon for an international gathering of holistic evolutionary science where mineralogists powwow with cell biologists, etc. and the conference is streamed over the Internet? Or is there still not enough of a common language?

Lynn Margulis: Yes there is some common scientific language but only among a limited number of people. Some have already met. Do you know Lisdisfarne’s William Irwin Thompson?

Suzan Mazur: No I don’t.

Lynn Margulis: He’s an honest guy, profoundly well-educated, he is a scholar who founded the Lindisfarne Fellowship that for 25 years or so was funded mainly by Laurance A. Rockefeller, who had great confidence in Thompson. He admires science and thinks broadly, like a scientist, but enjoys many other intellectual concerns. He tends to learn science although he’s not a scientist himself. He’s just a fabulous intellectual. Basically he’s a cultural critic.

Suzan Mazur: But we haven’t had a conference where all these people come together and it’s streamed on the Internet. We’ve had conferences with books, CDs and videos generated where most of the public is not let in.

And mainstream media is retarded when it covers evolutionary science.

Lynn Margulis: Individual people in the mainstream media try to report comprehensively but are stopped because the mainstream media won’t publish what it doesn’t like or understand. Also, often the excellent scientists can’t explain themselves in a way other people understand.

Suzan Mazur: Should the language be broken down a little like legal jargon has been simplified?

Lynn Margulis: Let’s finish our conversation about the components of evolution and with what aspect I disagree. So much of evolution can not be disagreed with by someone who calls himself a scientist. One component is natural selection. Natural selection occurs.

Suzan Mazur: Lima-de-Faria’s definition of evolution includes the nonbiological and does not include natural selection. Mineralogist Bob Hazen has said that we need to define these terms. People are not in agreement about what evolution or selection is.

Why should Bob Hazen be left out of the conversation because he’s a mineralogist?

Lynn Margulis: He isn’t left out.

Suzan Mazur: Well he is in the sense that his friend Niles Eldredge told me: “He’s [Bob Hazen's] a mineralogist. He’s not an evolutionary biologist. So be careful.”

Lynn Margulis: Well Niles Eldredge, a wonderful friend and colleague of mine, is talking about those scientists who derive from zoology. He probably refers to the deliberate intellectual activity that reconciles Mendelian stability with Darwinian gradual change and tries to force it into this procrustean population genetics neo-Darwinism.

Francisco Ayala is presenting at the “evolutionary mechanisms session” in Rome. He was trained in Catholicism, Spanish-style, as a Dominican. We were in California at a meeting with Whiteheadian philosopher John Cobb. At that meeting Ayala agreed with me when I stated that this doctrinaire neo-Darwinism is dead. He was a practitioner of neo-Darwinism but advances in molecular genetics, evolution, ecology, biochemistry, and other news had led him to agree that neo-Darwinism’s now dead.

The components of evolution (I don’t think any scientist disagrees) that exist because there’s so much data for them are: (1) the tendency for exponential growth of all populations — that is growth beyond a finite world; and (2) since the environment can’t sustain them, there’s an elimination process of natural selection.

The point of contention in science is here: (3) Where does novelty that’s heritable come from? What is the source of evolutionary innovation? Especially positive inherited innovation, where does it come from?

It is here that the neo-Darwinist knee-jerk reaction kicks in. “By random mutations that accumulate so much that you have a new lineage.” This final contention, their mistake in my view, is really the basis of nearly all our disagreement.

Everybody agrees: Heritable variation exists, it can be measured. Everybody agrees, as Darwin said, it’s heritable variation “that’s important to us” because variation is inherited. Everyone agrees “descent with modification” can be demonstrated. And furthermore, because of molecular biology, everybody agrees that all life on Earth today is related through common ancestry, as Darwin showed.

Everybody agrees with ultimate common ancestry of Earth’s life, because the DNA, RNA messenger, transfer RNA, membrane-bounded cell constituents (lipids, the phospholipids) that we share – they’re all virtually identical in all life today, it’s all one single lineage. So that part of Darwinism – that we’re all related by common ancestry –no scientist disagrees with.

The real disagreement about what the neo-Darwinists tout, for which there’s very little evidence, if any, is that random mutations accumulate and when they accumulate enough, new species originate. The source of purposeful inherited novelty in evolution, the underlying reason the new species appear, is not random mutation rather it is symbiogenesis, the acquisition of foreign genomes.

When Salthe says we haven’t seen that, he’s talking about new species. He’s not saying we haven’t seen natural selection, he’s saying we haven’t seen natural selection produce new species, this particular aspect of neo-Darwinism.

Suzan Mazur: Were you invited to the Altenberg event? The Extended Synthesis meeting in July in Altenberg, Austria?

Lynn Margulis: No. I don’t know anybody who was.

Suzan Mazur: Stuart Newman.

Lynn Margulis: I don’t know Stuart Newman.

Suzan Mazur: His theory of form based on a pattern language he calls dynamical patterning modules was the centerpiece at Altenberg.

He proposes that all 35 or so animal phyla physically self-organized from single-celled organisms without a genetic recipe by the time of the Cambrian explosion half a billion years ago using this pattern language of DPMs. Natural selection supposedly followed.

Lynn Margulis: But they all use the word “multicellular” when they really mean “animal” — since there are no unicellular animals, and since multicellularity, genuine multicellularity, details of multicellularity, are known in protoctists, bacteria and all the major groups of life. He can’t be correct in his claim of a lack of “genetic recipe” in life prior to animals. Every single cell lineage has DNA genes and has generated multicellular descendants. Some bacteria like Gomphosphaeria are always multicellular in all stages of development.

Many are unaware of this. Zoologists often display their dangerous ignorance; they play with 1/5th of the deck in biology. They belong to a thought style I don’t share.

The problem is that many fine scientists recognize genuine difficulties with the “standard model” of evolution, so to speak. However, most lack conceptual tools to solve the difficulties they legitimately recognize. They think they understand processes, like speciation [which in fact, is due mostly to karyotypic fissioning, symbiogenesis and cross-species hybridogenesis (as larval transfer)]. All of these are anastomoses. They are mergers of ancestral lineages. They can not realize that “development” is really microbial ecology and community successional change. These are entire traditions dismissed as “of historical interest only”, fields “modern scientists” tend to know little or nothing about.

Suzan Mazur: Do you have any comment on various numbers of genes humans are reported to have?

Lynn Margulis: What is the current number? 25,000?

Suzan Mazur: Well they’re saying 20,000 – 25,000 up to 30,000. Then I interviewed industrialist and philanthropist David Koch, who’s on the board at MIT, and he said he sat in on a meeting with some Nobel Prize winners there and in their discussion of genes the numbers ranged from 15,000 to 30,000.

Lynn Margulis: That is only a factor of two, nearly nothing. When they are off by factors of a million (105th or 106th) or, for example, off by 1020th, then it is serious, it is time to examine the inevitable unstated assumption or unjustified extrapolations.

Suzan Mazur: But they don’t know what the gene really is at this point or what its origin is.

Lynn Margulis: I wouldn’t say that. Many know the genes as nucleotide sequences in DNA. But they have pre-conceived notions about “programmed organisms determined by DNA” and “accumulation of random mutations”, etc. that interfere with learning. These are scientific beliefs that, in their preconceptions, are like all the rest of the religions to which people are prone.

I have not explicitly told you what I think is the major source of novelty in evolution, i.e., what heritable genetic variation does lead to speciation? If, as I claim, heritable variation mostly does NOT come from gradual accumulation of random mutation, what does generate Darwin’s variation upon which his Natural Selection can act? A fine scientific literature on this theme actually exists and grows every day but unfortunately it is scattered, poorly understood and neglected nearly entirely by the money-powerful, the publicity mongers of science and the media. Worse, much of it is not written in English or well-indexed. This literature shows that symbiogenesis, interspecific fusions (hybridogenesis, gene transfers of various types, karyotypic fissioning, and other forms of acquisition of “foreign genomes” or epigenesis) are more important than the slow gradual accumulation of mutation or sexual mergers. If you are interested at all in this literature start with our Sciencewriters book Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species (Margulis & Sagan, Basic Books, NY paperback).

Suzan Mazur: I know you don’t make an issue of being a woman in science and your concept of symbiogenesis is rooted in your predecessors who you think got it right (like Boris Mikhailovich Kozo-Polyansky’s 1924 analysis soon to appear in English translation), but would you say the idea of evolution by cooperation is still largely something difficult for men of science to embrace and that may be why the “survival of the fittest crowd” are still so dug in?

Lynn Margulis: The problem is NOT “competition versus cooperation”. Those words are totally inappropriate for life. The language of life is metabolic chemistry. Even bankers and sports teams have to cooperate in order to compete. It’s crucial to realize that it doesn’t matter what team you’re on, when you compete, even in sports where the term is valid, you still cooperate!


Suzan Mazur is the author of Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry. Her interest in evolution began with a flight from Nairobi into Olduvai Gorge to interview the late paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey. Because of ideological struggles, the Kenyan-Tanzanian border was closed, and Leakey was the only reason authorities in Dar es Salaam agreed to give landing clearance. The meeting followed discovery by Leakey and her team of the 3.6 million-year-old hominid footprints at Laetoli. Suzan Mazur’s reports have since appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. Email: sznmzr @

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