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article imageBeyond Darwin: Rebel Scientist Lynn Margulis Honored in Amherst Special

By Victoria N. Alexander     Mar 25, 2012 in Science
Amherst - A three-day symposium, "Celebrating a Life of Science: In Memory of Lynn Margulis," was held this weekend, March 23-25th, at the University of Massachusetts, where Margulis taught evolutionary science for decades.
Lynn Margulis was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983 and received the prestigious National Medal of Science in 1999. In 2011, weeks before her untimely death in November, Margulis was named one of the most influential scientists in the world. She left behind a legacy of achievement and controversy, both of which were celebrated this weekend by several hundred colleagues at the gathering.
In the scientific community, Margulis is best known for having championed the theory of the origin of the eukaryote cell, which had earlier been conceived by a misunderstood and forgotten Russian biologist, Konstantin Mereschcowsky (1855-1921). Her work represents a major advance in evolutionary science, given that all plants and animals consist of eukaryotic cells. Eukaryotic cells have "organelles" inside them, which are actually the evolved descendants of little bacteria that got trapped inside bigger bacteria, and, over the course of evolutionary time, eventually synchronized into a single complex living unit.
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In 1966, when she first began to promote the theory, her colleagues dismissed her. Undeterred, she kept researching and building a case based on evidence. Finally, in the 1980s, genetic analysis confirmed the theory, and biology textbooks had to be rewritten.
Symbiogenesis is the name for the process by which two or more distinct species or kinds of organisms blend their genes and metabolisms and evolve into new species. Whereas Charles Darwin had argued that new species arise only when one species branches into two species, Margulis argued that new species could also arise when different species and/or kinds mix genes. The origin of eukaryotes is a key example, but more recently it has come to light that insects (and perhaps other kinds of animals) can acquire the genomes of bacteria that they host. This process, known as "lateral gene transfer" (LGT) may be a major source of genetic variation, much more significant than the "single point random mutation" or "transcription errors" that neo-Darwinists have claimed, with increasing stridency, provide the major source of variation for natural selection to work on, according to University of Chicago-based bacterial geneticist, James Shapiro, who appeared via Skype from the U.K..
Only reluctantly accepted by neo-Darwinists, some of whom worry that her work diminishes the importance of Darwin's mechanism of natural selection, Margulis was something of an outsider among evolutionary scientists. Although a great admirer and defender of Darwin, she was subject to the misconception that she was anti-Darwin or supported "Intelligent Design" theories. She did reintroduce what some consider a "Lamarckian" concept, arguing that since behavior (for example, eating) can lead to genome acquisition, what organisms do in their lifetimes can have an effect on the kinds of genomic change they can pass on to their descendants. If, for example, an organism has a beneficial symbiotic relationship with bacteria, which can aid in digestion, a lateral transfer of genomic material to the host may prove beneficial to the descendents that inherit it. Most people remember from high school biology courses that Darwin overturned Lamarck's theory, and Margulis's revised Lamarckianism has come under fire from those who do not understand the new research on symbiots or LGT.
Controversy did not stop there. Margulis supported James Lovelock's "Gaia Hypothesis," which was based upon a chemical analysis of the Earth's atmosphere and was later co-opted by climate change activists. She also advocated an investigation into the possible relationship between AIDS and syphilis bacteria. She claimed that pharmaceutical companies, whose products treat the symptoms of AIDS, may not be working toward a cure. In addition, Margulis criticized the U.S. government's investigation into the destruction of World Trade Center building 7 (WTC7) on September 11, 2001. She claimed that the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), who led the investigation, accepted the "least likely hypothesis," gravitational collapse, without conducting empirical tests of the physical evidence, and refused to test the "most likely hypothesis," explosive controlled demolition. "That's not science," she quipped, speaking in support of over 1600 engineers, architects and materials scientists who have recently conducted tests and/or re-examined the evidence and came to the same conclusion regarding WTC7.
Dorion Sagan, Margulis' eldest son from her marriage to noted astronomer Carl Sagan, remarked, "She's been right before," when asked about Margulis controversial views on AIDS and WTC7. "She was the bravest person I knew. She was fearless. And she would not ignore evidence, no matter how much trouble she might get into going against the status quo."
Over forty-five distinguished members of the scientific community spoke at the symposium, including Peter Westbroek, Tyler Volk, and Mary Catherine Bateson. Many of the speakers will be contributing to a volume of essays with the title, Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel, forthcoming from Chelsea Green Publishing, a work which will include contributions from David Abram, Niles Eldredge, James Lovelock, and David Ray Griffin.
Victoria N. Alexander's recently published work, The Biologist's Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature, and Nature, explores the role of non-Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms in creative processes.
More about margulis, Charles Darwin, Evolution, symbiogenesis, Intelligent design
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