compassion, collaboration & cooperation iN transistion
Lynn Margulis, who has died aged 73, was a microbiologist whose
work on the origin of cells transformed the study of evolution - with
James Lovelock, she also developed the "GAIA theory" of Earth as a
Though advancing such theories exposed her to enormous hostility from
within the scientific community, she came to be regarded as one of the
most creative and respected researchers of her generation.
In the 1960s Lynn Margulis became convinced that, while Darwin had
successfully proved that all species of living things are descended from
earlier ones, neither he nor his followers had ever satisfactorily explained
the source of the variation that gives rise to new species.
Lynn Margulis’s theory of “symbiogenesis” challenged the Neo-Darwinist
consensus by suggesting that inherited variation does not come, or does
not come exclusively, from random genetic mutation but from long-lasting
interaction between organisms.
At first the idea met with scorn: her findings were rejected by 15 academic
journals and grant applications were brusquely rebuffed. The response to
one application was...
“Your research is crap. Don’t ever bother to apply again.”
It did not help that Lynn Margulis did not conform in any way to the calm,
collaborative ideal of the research scientist - or that she was a woman.
Provocative, quick-tempered and prone to hyperbole, she was a self-
confessed misanthrope who never bothered to disguise her contempt for
her critics. She once described the great British Darwinian John Maynard
Smith as “codifying an incredible ignorance”, his research “reminiscent of
Her view of the Neo-Darwinists in general was equally withering. They
were, she said members of “a minor 20th-century religious sect within the
sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon Biology. Neo-Darwinism is
... complete funk.”
Lynn Margulis continued collecting data, reworked her paper and, in 1967,
published her theory in The Journal of Theoretical Biology. The response
was total silence. As she put it later, her theory “crossed willy-nilly the
boundaries that people had spent their lives building up. It [hit] some 30
subfields of biology, even geology.” But she persisted, and in 1970
expanded her original paper into a book, The Origin of Eukaryotic Cells.
Gradually scientists began to accept as a near certainty that the
mitochondrion was once a free-living bacterium that invaded another
larger bacterium to form a stable symbiotic relationship. Similarly, the
chloroplast — the organelle found in green plant cells that enables
photosynthesis — was also once a free-living bacterium that entered into
a symbiotic relationship with another cell.
Eventually Lynn Margulis’s theory became scientific orthodoxy.
In 1979 she won a Guggenheim fellowship and two years later she
rewrote her book and renamed it Symbiosis in Cell Evolution.
The book is now regarded as a classic of 20th-century biology.
It was Lynn Margulis’s expertise in microbes that led her, in the mid-
Seventies, to the British atmospheric chemist James Lovelock, who had
come to suspect that living organisms had a greater effect on the
atmosphere than was commonly recognised. Together they proposed a
theory that Earth itself — its atmosphere, the geology and the organisms
that inhabit it — is a self-regulating system in which living organisms help
to regulate the terrestrial and atmospheric conditions that make the planet
In particular they suggested that plankton act as a living thermostat,
helping to regulate global temperature; that bogs and peat lands affect
glaciers as the organisms within them release and absorb greenhouse
gases; and that colonies of bacteria and other microbes in tidal mud flats
process enough salt to help keep ocean salinity fairly constant. It was
Lovelock who suggested they call their hypothesis Gaia, after the ancient
Greek goddess of the Earth.
While scientific opinion came round to Lynn Margulis’s theory of
symbiogenesis, however, many scientists continue to regard the Gaia
theory as unconvincing — closer to philosophy than to falsifiable scientific
Lynn Margulis lived her life at a frenetic pace. As well as her research work
she churned out scientific articles, videos, reviews and 20 or so books,
some of them co-authored with her son, Dorion Sagan.
She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983
and received the National Medal of Science in 1999.
Lynn Margulis is survived by a daughter and three sons.
Lynn Margulis, born March 5 1938, died November 22 2011
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