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Lynn Margulis

November 28, 2011

The superstars in scientific fields are often lionized by the public, but the second stringers are generally unknown. Of course, second-stringers in science do make some very important contributions. The public knows Albert Einstein, but if you mention George Smoot to members of my generation, they are more likely to associate the name with the protectionist Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, the history of which, for some reason, was much beloved by our American History teachers.

I think it was James Thurber who thanked a critic for his comment that he was a third-rate author. Thurber reasoned as follows: if Shakespeare was first rate, then authors such as Herman Melville would necessarily be second-rate. Thurber was very comfortable being third-rate in such a hierarchy.

Everyone knows Charles Darwin, and a few outside the field of evolutionary biology might recognize Stephen Jay Gould because of his numerous books for general audiences. Then there's Lynn Margulis, known among biologists for her theory that the eukaryotic cell began as a symbiotic union of primitive prokaryotes, but likely unknown to the general public.

Margulis gave a talk at our institution about twenty years ago. She was likely passing through our area on the way to a more prestigious venue, and she presented a talk about the Gaia hypothesis at a proper level for scientists who were not biologists. She must have been in her mid-fifties at the time, but she seemed to have the energy and enthusiasm of a young graduate student. Lynn Margulis died on November 22, 2011, at age 73.[1-5]

Lynn Margulis, November, 2005

Lynn Margulis, November 9, 2005, at the third Congreso sobre Comunicación Social de la Ciencia at La Coruña, Spain.

(Photo by Javier Pedreira, via Wikimedia Commons))

Lynn Margulis was born in Chicago on March 5, 1938, as Lynn Petra Alexander.[1] A precocious student, she entered college at the University of Chicago at age fourteen, graduating with an A.B. degree in liberal arts at age eighteen in 1957.[4] She met her first husband, Carl Sagan, while passing on a stairway at the University of Chicago.[2]

She went on to the University of Wisconsin to earn a joint master's degree in zoology and genetics in 1960. From there it was graduate study at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was granted a Ph.D. in genetics in 1963; and then a postdoctoral position at Brandeis University. After Brandeis, Margulis joining the faculty of the Department of Biology at Boston University, where she remained for twenty-two years. She was Distinguished University Professor of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst since 1988. [1,3-4]

Margulis' claim to fame was her 1967 paper in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, "On the origin of mitosing cells," on the endosymbiotic theory of the origin of organelles. This theory was polished and republished in two books, "Origin of Eukarytic Cells," and "Symbiosis in Cell Evolution." [2] The 1967 paper was rejected by fifteen journals before being published, but this "serial endosymbiotic theory" is now generally accepted for mitochondria and chloroplasts.[4]

The theory posited that Darwinian straight-line evolution wasn't the only mechanism available at the pre-organism, cellular level. Eukaryotes (cells with nuclei) may have evolved in symbiosis with bacteria; that is, different organisms fused to create a fitter organism.[1] Her theory was typically rejected without critical review, merely because it was somewhat Lamarckian. Margulis thought that Lamark's ideas were rejected simply because he was French, and Darwin was English.[5] Margulis said that cellular symbiosis was not completely original with her, since it was proposed earlier in the twentieth century by the Russian biologist Marachovsky; and, in a book, "Symbioticism and Origins of Species," by Ivan Emmanual Wallin.[5]

Before Margulis hit the scene, evolutionary biology, as so effectively practiced by Gould, Richard Lewontin and Richard Dawkins, among others, was concerned with the fossil record of organisms that inhabited the Earth in the last 500 million years. This ignored earlier organisms that flourished 3.5 billion years before that time.[2] This ignored four of the five kingdoms of life.[3] However, I think they can't be criticized too much, since the tools for in depth study of evolution in the distant past didn't exist until recently.

Margulis and son, Dorion Sagan, wrote in their 1986 book, "Microcosmos,"
"More than 99.99 percent of the species that have ever existed have become extinct... But the planetary patina, with its army of cells, has continued for more than three billion years. And the basis of the patina, past, present and future, is the microcosm — trillions of communicating, evolving microbes." [2]

Perhaps because it was the macro version of her symbiosis theory, Margulis supported the Gaia hypothesis of British chemist James Lovelock. The Gaia hypothesis is that the Earth, taken as a composite of its atmosphere, geology and living organisms, is a self-regulating system the seeks to maintain a stasis.[1,3] Gould and Dawkins rejected Gaia by claiming that it wasn't a scientific theory, and it was actually poetry posing as a theory.[5] I confess that I thought Gaia to be too much of a hippie love fest when it was proposed. Margulis tempered her support of Gaia by rejecting the same interpretation that I found troubling, that the Earth, in toto, is a living organism.[5]

In a quotation that would also describe society's response to global warming, Margulis said,
"If science doesn't fit in with the cultural milieu, people dismiss science, they never reject their cultural milieu! If we are involved in science of which some aspects are not commensurate with the cultural milieu, then we are told that our science is flawed."[3]

Margulis' marriage to Carl Sagan ended in divorce. Her second marriage to Thomas N. Margulis, a chemist, also ended in divorce.[1] Lynn Margulis wrote, "I quit my job as a wife twice. It's not humanly possible to be a good wife, a good mother, and a first-class scientist."[3] Prominent physicist, Mildred Dresselhaus, whom I profiled in a previous article (Ms. Carbon, March 12, 2007), would disagree.

Margulis didn't like her being characterized as a scientific feminist, or someone who endeavored to replace "red in tooth and claw" masculine concepts of nature with feminine ones.[5] Margulis was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1983. She received the Darwin-Wallace Medal from the Linnean Society and the 1999 National Medal of Science.[3]


  1. Bruce Weber (The New York Times), "Obituary: Lynn Margulis / Trailblazing evolution theorist," Pittsburgh Post Gazette, November 25, 2011.
  2. Bruce Weber, "Lynn Margulis, Evolution Theorist, Dies at 73," The New York Times, November 24, 2011.
  3. Kelly Fiveash, "'Rebel' biologist and neo-Darwinian skeptic Lynn Margulis dies," The Register (UK), November 24, 2011.
  4. Lynn Margulis dies, National Center for Science Education, November 23, 2011.
  5. John Horgan, "R.I.P. Lynn Margulis, Biological Rebel," Scientific American Blog, November 24, 2011

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