Monday, 16 March 2009, 5:59 pm
Column: Suzan Mazur
"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
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
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.
Read the whole interview here.