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Nov 23 2011

Lynn Margulis has died

Sad news: Lynn Margulis, advocate of the endosymbiosis theory of eukaryotic origins, has died. She was smart, creative, and promoter of a lot of wild ideas…and to her credit, some of them were even right. I think her greatest strength was her eagerness to step right out to the edge of science and push, push, push — sometimes futilely, but sometimes she really did succeed in pushing back the frontier a bit.

(Also on Sb)

31 comments

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  1. 1
    Glen Davidson

    Too bad she squandered so much of her reputation pushing endosymbiosis to unreasonable and evidence-free extremes.

    Regardless, thanks for the early good ideas (derived from others, but needing new champions), and RIP.

    Oh yeah, and thanks for making Behe whine that although dissent from consensus on evolution is allowed (Margulis has been mentioned by him, I don’t know if she was at that specific time), it’s not when the supernatural is part of the alternative–and then he showed a ghostbusters-like sign, like denying ghosts and their ilk was somehow not legit. Yup, your claims are about as good saying ghosts did it.

    Glen Davidson

  2. 2
    x

    One of my best friends post-doc’ed with Lynn, and I even chatted with her briefly on the phone once when I was staying at his house.

    While it was sad in one sense to see her over-push the endosymbiosis idea, if she hadn’t pushed so hard with mitochondria to start with who knows where we would stand with our knowledge of those and of chloroplasts?

  3. 3
    G.D.

    You weren’t as positive last time you talked about her. But on balance she did make some important contributions, and those are what she’ll be remembered for.

  4. 4
    slc1

    Unfortunately, Prof. Margulis’ reputation went into the shitter when she joined the 9/11 troofers, the HIV/AIDS deniers, and palled around with Holocaust deniers.

  5. 5
    colbyg

    Gosh, G.D., I think that might have something to do with eulogizing the positive contributions of an individual upon their death. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s not inconsistent to complain about the bogus beliefs she held and later praise her accomplishments upon her death. And of course, it’s sad to see her go. I went to UMass, where she taught a couple of lectures of a class I took. She was a valued part of the local community there, with interests in preservation and conservation on top of her (at times whacko) scientific pursuits. On balance, she will be missed. That’s how I see it, anyway.

  6. 6
    andyo

    G.D., Margulis also did a live chat with Pharyngulites before that, so what? People generally don’t go out of their way to list the negatives of someone in an obituary (if they’re notorious for something positive).

  7. 7
    KG

    Sorry to learn that. Despite her later cranking, she should and will be remembered chiefly for establishing the endosymbiosis theory of eukaryote origins.

  8. 8
    peterh

    OK, on occasion she “stepped in something;” who hasn’t? If any of her work can lead to further, productive inquiry, that’s all to the good.

  9. 9
    Steve LaBonne

    Gosh, G.D., I think that might have something to do with eulogizing the positive contributions of an individual upon their death.

    Yes indeed. And hers were undeniably major. And arguably could only have been made by a stubborn contrarian like her.

  10. 10
    G.D.

    Ok, I agree. It was beside the point, unnecessary and arguably tasteless of me to bring it up at this point (and the point wasn’t to accuse PZ of any kind of inconsistency or anything, but to draw attention to the cranky bits – which I again agree was somewhat inappropriate in this context). Sorry.

  11. 11
    procyon

    Sad to hear about the loss of Lynn Margulis. I have enjoyed reading her (and her son’s) books about microbes, sex, symbiosis and evolution, and the Gaia “theory” for years. I believe one of her latest hypotheses is the symbiotic origin of metamorphosis in arthropods, that the larval stage and adult stage have different genetic origins. One scoffs at Margulis’ ideas at their own peril.

  12. 12
    ChasCPeterson

    I believe one of her latest hypotheses is the symbiotic origin of metamorphosis in arthropods, that the larval stage and adult stage have different genetic origins.

    nah, that idea can be blamed on a guy named Donald Williamson; her role was to shamelessly ignore good and standard editorial practices to get it published in PNAS.

    One scoffs at Margulis’ ideas at their own peril.

    with all due respect, that one’s eminently scoffable-at, for many reasons.

  13. 13
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    with all due respect, that one’s eminently scoffable-at, for many reasons.

    I accidentally scoffed at it a little just now.

    Anyway, I’ll be pouring out some liquor.

  14. 14
    Noadi

    No one is without flaws, evolution isn’t a process of perfection after all. Margulis certainly had her fair share of them. They don’t diminish the great work she did anymore than her accomplishments excuse her crank views.

    I definitely admired her and am saddened that she’s gone.

  15. 15
    BinJabreel

    Damn. Saw her give a biology lecture in San Jose years ago, about mixotricha paradoxa. Was one of the coolest experiences I had in quite some time, not to mention being the first science lecture I attended just for the fun of it.

  16. 16
    Lyra

    But I love the endosymbiosis theory of eukaryotic origins! Nooooo!

  17. 17
    Clayton

    It’s ironic that her early theories about endosymbiosis were proven right by the use of genetics, but that she later rejected the same techniques when they did not support her later theories. That along with the HIV denialism, thinking genetics was “numerology”, and supporting the idea that lepidopterans were the result of a radical hybridization between butterflies and velvet worms, will put her on the list of scientists who had a good idea once and then in their arrogance rejected scientific reason to pursue irrational views of their grand ideas.

    Actually, cataloging people with this pathology (Kary Mullis is another, maybe Dyson to to a lesser extent), might make a good book. Non-scientific examples would include George Lucas, the Wachowski brothers, and any other one hit wonder.

    I can’t think of any interesting contribution to science she’s made in the past 20 years. I think its unlikely she would have done anything more.

    Also, I do not find her irrational “spunk” to be inspiring. She’s no more inspiring than any irrational person who denigrates the work of others (without evidence) because they don’t agree with her faith-based views.

  18. 18
    "S.Pelech-Kinexus"

    Lynn Margulis’ endosymbiotic theory was one of the most memorable concepts that fascinated me as an undergraduate student in the 1970′s. As pointed out by others above, gene sequencing studies since then have lent strong support in favour of the hypothesis that the mitochondria and chloroplasts in eukaryotic cells have bacterial origins.

    In a typical mammal cell, such as a hepatocyte, there may be as many as 2000 mitochondrial per cell, each undergoing reproduction by fission. However, some types of cells exist that may have a single mitochondrion. At least 37 gene are found in the human mitochondrial genome, most of which encode mitochondrial tRNA and respiratory proteins. Around a quarter of the total mRNA in a typical cell may arise from transcription of the mitochondrial genes, despite the co-presence of about 23,000 nuclear genes. It appears that there is variation in the precise nucleotide sequences of mitochondrial genes in the same cell, so in a sense, the mitochondria are a heterogeneous colony of independently replicating symbiotic parasites. The ubiquitous presence of mitochondria in eukaryotic cells indicates that they are fundamental to origin of eukaryotic cells. Moreover, their ability to metabolize oxygen, which was toxin to many bacteria in early life on this planet, probably played a major role in forging the endosymbiotic relationship found in eukaryotes. Through oxidative phosphorylation, mitochondria produce ATP, which fuels most of the metabolic reactions in eukaryotic cells. Significantly, any damage to even a few mitochondria that results in the leakage of certain mitochondrial proteins will trigger the suicide of the entire cell. This ensures that if the mitochondria are adversely affected, the entire cell will go down too.

    It seems that the fundamental role of endosymbiotic relationship in complex life forms has even been pickup in many popular science fiction creations. As also noted above, it clearly inspired George Lucas to write in his Star Wars saga about the “Force” that is created by microorganisms found within all living cells that he called “midi-chlorians”.

  19. 19
    David Marjanović, OM

    palled around with Holocaust deniers

    What. Seriously?

    Lynn Margulis’ endosymbiotic theory

    While she has contributed a lot, she didn’t come up with it. It’s from the 1920s or so.

    The ubiquitous presence of mitochondria in eukaryotic cells indicates that they are fundamental to origin of eukaryotic cells.

    Indeed, eukaryote nuclei contain lots of genes that occur in bacteria but not in archaea.

  20. 20
    Glen Davidson
    palled around with Holocaust deniers

    What. Seriously?

    From what I can see, there are plenty of allegations of this on the web, but I didn’t find from where they came. I’m not denying it, and someone may come up with good evidence for it, I just don’t know what basis there is for the claims.

    For what it’s worth, it’s claimed that Margulis was Jewish, and in a book attributed to Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan we read:

    The Black Plague–half-dead bodies moaning and rottingi in the streets, warmer ones flagellating one another and predicting the world–called into question the behavior of a Creator much as the Holocaust has done in our time.

    What is Life? p. 37

    http://tinyurl.com/7s8vxou

    Obviously there’s a very good chance that it was Sagan who wrote it, but one would think that she’d at least have read and tacitly approved whatever he wrote that is now in the book.

    The HIV denial and Truther nonsense appears much firmer, from what I’ve observed.

    Glen Davidson

  21. 21
    Amphiox

    One scoffs at Margulis’ ideas at their own peril.

    What peril?

    There are four possibilites: 1. You’re right, she’s wrong. 2. You’re wrong, she’s right. 3. You’re both partly right and partly wrong. 4. You’re both completely wrong.

    Whatever the answer, science wins, knowledge is advanced, and neither of you lose anything, other than pride.

  22. 22
    Kristjan Wager

    The HIV denial and Truther nonsense appears much firmer, from what I’ve observed.

    She promoted HIV denial on Pharyngula, so yeah, that is much firmer. And there is at least one interview where she promoted 9/11 conspiracy nonsense.

    Margulis is a good example of how one can help progress science while lacking the critical mindset necessary to be a good scientist.

  23. 23
    The Rat King

    Science needs its madmen and madwomen; they will dream up things that no one else could.

    Sure, often the stuff really is just damned nonsense, but every now and then…

  24. 24
    Monado, FCD

    I’m sorry to hear that. Lynn Margulis was a courageous originator of new hypotheses and the endosymbiosis theory greatly advanced our understanding of cell biology. And if some of those hypotheses are wrong, remember that to explore is to err and to do science is to make mistakes.

    The arthropod/worm hypothesis sounds as mad as males and females evolving separately–how were there lepidoptera without a juvenile stage?

  25. 25
    Hannah C

    She was a very courageous and honest person and I admire her sharp (and unfortunately so accurate) analysis on 9 11 events

  26. 26
    David Marjanović, OM

    Science needs its madmen and madwomen; they will dream up things that no one else could.

    Sure, often the stuff really is just damned nonsense, but every now and then…

    Well, has Margulis dreamt up anything that ended up right? See comment 19. She has found previously unknown evidence for endosymbiosis and has made the idea widely known, but that, while praiseworthy, is not the same thing.

    her sharp (and unfortunately so accurate) analysis on 9 11 events

    Details, please.

  27. 27
    G.Shelley

    Sad I guess.
    She had some really good ideas 20-30 years ago, but since fell into crankery and her attacks on the mechanisms of evolution were little different from Creationists. Her recent interview in Discover Magazine was embarrassing in the way she completely disregarded any science that didn’t agree with her conclusions and essentially put resistance to her ideas to a worldwide male conspiracy.

  28. 28
    G.Shelley

    Oh, that should be 30-40

  29. 29
    rebduvid

    @ Glen Davidson

    You seem to imply that Lynn was anti-Semitic or something like that–that’s wrong. Let’s look at that quote you gave:

    “The Black Plague–-half-dead bodies moaning and rotting in the streets, warmer ones flagellating one another and predicting the end of the world–-called into question the behavior of a Creator much as the Holocaust has done in our time.”

    This is a statement about how great tragic upheavals affect human thinking about God. The authors are not saying that the horror of an epidemic is the same evil as that of a conscious genocide carried out by human beings.

    The point they are making in context is that the Gnostics, seeing an evil Creation, determined that God was not part of that Creation.

    I don’t think they’re history is quite right–the Black Plague is way later than the sources of Gnosticism (I supose they are trying to explain the revival of Gnosticism in some sense but I don’t think it holds up)–but I don’t think you can read anything more into this.

  30. 30
    ross0134

    Although I disagreed with many of her ideas, she along with Gould, Shroedinger etc, was responsible for the formation of practically all of the hypotheses I hold dear. Another giant has passed on.

  31. 31
    John Morales

    ross0134, AFAIK, she formulated exactly *one* hypothesis that was correct (endosymbiosis); all the others were wrong.

    (Care to name any others?)

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