Margulis does it again

We all know of once-respected scientists who ended up going off the deep end, adhering to an unproven idea despite massive evidence to the contrary. Linus Pauling and his advocacy of megadoses of Vitamin C, or Peter Duesberg’s descent into HIV denial. It’s all the more disappointing when the one taking a dive is a woman, since there are, compared to men, relatively fewer female “big names” in the sciences. So when one goes from views that were, perhaps, outside of the mainstream (but later proven largely correct) to complete science denialism, it makes it all the more depressing. Even worse, mainstream popular science magazines like Scientific American (with this article by Peter Duesberg) and Discover (Duesberg again) give these ideas reputable press. And now Discover has done it again by giving “maverick” biologist Lynn Margulis a profile in their latest issue. More after the jump.

Just in case there’s anyone out there who’s not familiar with Margulis’ work, her biggest claim to fame is her recognition (and long-time advocacy of) the idea that life has evolved by symbiogenesis–using symbiosis as a way to make new species. The classic–and probably best supported–example of this is the engulfment of bacteria by eukaryotic cells to power their metabolism (chloroplasts for plants, mitochondria for animal cells). Though this is now largely accepted, many of her other ideas–such as a symbiotic origin of flagella from spirochetes–have received less support.

Margulis has more recently moved into other areas which put her in serious conflict with the mainstream scientific community–and unlike organelle evolution, the evidence isn’t on her side–no matter how the loaded questions from the interviewer seem to portray it. (And they are reeeaaallly loaded). From the interview–first, on evolution, and how natural selection doesn’t cut it:

Interviewer: Did the Grants document the emergence of a new species?

Margulis: They saw this big shift: the large-beaked birds going extinct, the small-beaked ones spreading all over the island and being selected for the kinds of seeds they eat. They saw lots of variation within a species, changes over time. But they never found any new species–ever. They would say that if they waited long enough they’d find a new species.

Interviewer: Some of your criticisms of natural selection sound a lot like Michael Behe, one of the most famous proponents of “intelligent design,” and yet you have debated Behe. What is the difference between your views?

Margulis: The critics, including the creationist critics, are right about their criticism. It’s just that they’ve got nothing to offer but intelligent design or “God did it.” They have no alternatives that are scientific.

Sigh. An entire book could be written about the wrongness of that statement, and her whole discussion of evolution. In other parts of the interview, she ridicules the whole idea of population genetics, calling it “numerology.” She later describes her theory of how spirochetes are ancestors of flagella such as sperm tails, and when asked why her ideas on this topic are not generally accepted, certainly it can’t be because the evidence is lacking, right? No…it’s because men don’t want to believe their sperm tail came from spirochetes.

I wish I was kidding.

Finally, going on her spirochete tangent, she discusses a twist on her already-established HIV denial: it’s all syphilis.

There is a vast body of literature on syphilis spanning from the 1500s until after World War II, when the disease was supposedly cured by penicillin. It’s in our paper “Resurgence of the Great Imitator.” [I’m going to have to blog on that one another time–so much crazy…-TS] Our claim is that there’s no evidence that HIV is an infectious virus, or even an entity at all. There’s no scientific paper that proves that the HIV virus causes AIDS. Kary Mullis said in an interview that he went looking for a reference substantiating that HIV causes AIDS and discovered, “There is no such document.”

I’ll note that her views on this put her at the extreme end of even the most extreme HIV denialists. Most of them at least acknowledge that HIV exists; they just claim it doesn’t cause AIDS.

So if Treponema pallidum causes AIDS, why isn’t syphilis universally detected in AIDS patients? Well, it’s the symbiosis, stupid!

The idea that penicillin kills the cause of the disease is nuts. If you treat the painless chancre in the first few days of infection, you may stop the bacterium before the symbiosis develops, but if you really get syphilis, all you can do is live with the spirochete. The spirochete lives permanently as a symbiont in the patient. The infection cannot be killed because it becomes part of the patient’s genome and protein synthesis biochemistry. After syphilis establishes this symbiotic relationship with a person, it becomes dependent on human cells and is undetectable by any testing.

Sounds fascinating. Unfortunately she has absolutely zero evidence of any kind to back up this idea, which she puts forth as documented fact. And the Discover interview doesn’t even ask for any. Seriously, why is this type of platform for pseudoscience published in a supposedly respectable science magazine?

I get that Margulis feels she got the short end of the stick from the scientific establishment. I get that she sees herself as a maverick, a radical, a perpetual outsider. I also get that she has an ego the size of Texas. The last question she’s asked in the interview is “Do you ever get tired of being called controversial?” Her response: “I don’t consider my ideas controversial. I consider them right.” While confidence is certainly an important trait in a scientist, so is the ability to twist your ideas around, look for the holes, test them, revise them, lather rinse repeat. You can’t let your ego blind you to the fact that, hey, *you might be wrong.* Margulis not only refuses to consider this, she admits that she has “no interest in the diseases” she’s discussing, even while she claims to know more about their causes than the scientists who have spent decades studying them. In a lot of ways, this makes Margulis worse than the creationists she dismisses.

Paul Feyerabend has a great quote on this (from this book):

The crank is usually content with defending the point of view in its original, undeveloped, metaphysical form, and is not at all prepared to test its usefulness in all those cases which seem to favour the opponent, or even to admit that there exists a problem. It is this further investigation, the details of it, the knowledge of the difficulties, of the general state of knowledge, the recognition of objections, which distinguishes the “respectable thinker” from the crank. The original content does not.

Margulis’ ideas alone are not the issue–it’s her devotion to them, her certainty that she is right, evidence be damned, and her presentation of them as established scientific certainty. And that puts her squarely into the camp of Behe et al.

41 Replies to “Margulis does it again”

  1. She later describes her theory of how spirochetes are ancestors of flagella such as sperm tails, and when asked why her ideas on this topic are not generally accepted, certainly it can’t be because the evidence is lacking, right? No…it’s because men don’t want to believe their sperm tail came from spirochetes.


    I liked the idea a lot before I found out there’s… just… no evidence for it.

    [BTW, I was logged in at Movable Type in order to be able to comment at Pharyngula. I had to log out to be able to comment here; logged in, I get a “permission denied” error.]

  2. Are there even still so few women in the relevant fields that it’s possible they simply don’t know about the “oh, look how similar undulipodia and spirochaetes are in shape, and never mind the difference between actin and tubulin” just because the men don’t talk about it? I don’t doubt that this was the case when Margulis started promoting the endosymbiosis hypothesis for mitochondria and plastids — but today? That’s hard to imagine.

  3. The Girl From Treponema is also a 9/11 conspiracy theory Truther, claiming it was a “false flag” operation conducted by our government

    Apparently even Discover knew this would be too embarrassing to mention.

    The introduction to the Discover article suggests that Margulis originated the idea of endosymbiosis. Actually, the idea had been kicking around for a long time. (See the work of Konstantin Mereschkowski as one of several examples.) Margulis further advanced the idea through microbiological studies, but she certainly didn’t originate it.

    (My apologies to the late Antonio Carlos Jobim for dragging his good name into this muck.)

  4. i can’t speak for any other men than myself, but… i honestly don’t give a damn about “my” sperm tails, not even to claim any ownership in them. if by some chance they did come from spirochetes, well, whatever.

  5. Dick Teresi, former editor at Omni which was also a home to AIDS denialism. The Guccione family is the thread that runs through Omni, SPIN & Discover. Discover also published an interview with Celia Farber in 2006.

  6. Margulis further advanced the idea through microbiological studies, but she certainly didn’t originate it.

    What’s more, in her public talks on the subject, she all but ignores the genetic evidence that really nails it home.

  7. Very nice piece. Margulis has been off the deep end for a while. She wrote a book on speciation that maintained, contrary to all evidence, that it was completely due to endosymbiosis. She made a wonderful discovery, but now feels that she has a license to pronounce on everything. And she’s nearly always wrong.

  8. I agree: nice piece; crazy ideas.

    One quibble:

    (chloroplasts for plants, mitochondria for animal cells)

    Mitochondria are also in plant cells and indeed in nearly all eukaryotes; chloroplasts too also much more widely distributed than just ‘plants’.

    Those endosymioses were indeed of fundamental importance in the story of life on Earth so far.
    But, yeah, the rest is crazytalk.

  9. A slight correction, The endosymbiotic event that led to the generation of mitochondria is at the root of all known extant eukaryotes, not just animal cells. All eukaryotes have, or once had, a mitochondrion (if we include the “reduced” hydrogenosomes and mitosomes in our broad definition of mitochondria, which they are derived from).

  10. Holy cow on the “syphilis is never cured” lady. Apparently the last 60+ years of “one shot and you’re out the door” (somewhat more if it’s neurosyphilis) never happened.

    I mean…. where does she think the historical decline in congenital syphilis — with interruptions, including in 2005, damn it — came from?

  11. Margulis was my first Science Hero as a kid, and that was because of the awesomeness of her discovery and her triumph over criticism and (at least as I understood) sexism.

    I don’t remember much detail about what she faced back then. Today I wonder if some of her detractors knew then that she was more in love with the idea than the data. It’s so disappointing.

    And I share Dave W’s take on Discover. I lost interest some years ago when it seemed to just be lower-quality than I remembered. Since then, weird stuff like this has kept me away.

  12. always sad to see this. It seems that the desire to be a special snowflake and knowing special “secrets” about the universe has brought one more person down.

  13. I’ve seen the “There is no such document” (or paper or article) meme before. It is used for things like CO2 is a greenhouse gas (no such paper), smoking causes cancer (no such paper), CFCs don’t deplete the ozone (no such paper) etc. It doesn’t matter if there are lots of papers on the subject, or if the evidence has been put together over several decades so doesn’t appear in its full form in any one actual paper (but does appear in a synthesis of the literature)–it’s all “There’s no such paper”.

  14. Daniel:

    Huh. Y’know, that’s kinda analogous to evolution. Creationists insist there’s no transitional fossils, you show them transitionals, and suddenly they start babbling about crocoducks and you realize they don’t even understand the field, let alone what they were asking for in the first place.

  15. I agree with Margulis.I am atheist,fully accept evolution,but cannot see how nat select alone created species.It is dogmatic to assume you know all the answers.She is right that creos questions are right for all the wrong reasons.

  16. Richard,
    That you “cannot see how natural selection create”(s) species, does not mean that it isn’t true or that Margulis is correct. Propose a better hypothesis and provide evidence for it. Which I presume both you and Margulis care little about.

  17. Really disappointing because, once upon a time, when I was but a wee lad, my family subscribed to Science ’81 (the name of the magazine was a bit funny in that it always included the last two digits of the current year; I wonder how bibliographers deal with that?), which was where I first learned of AIDS, back when it was primarily a disease of Haitians & IV drug users, and was just starting to get a foothold in the gay community, and most people hadn’t heard about it yet. A couple of years later, Science ’83 (or so) was swallowed up by Discover magazine, I believe, and as subscribers we got a few issues of that magazine instead, until our subscription would have run out. We didn’t bother renewing that one.

    And now, this is what we get instead.

  18. Just a bit of follow-up, since I decided to do some basic research on my old memories after commenting, it seems that the magazine both started slightly later and ended well later than I misremembered. First issue was Science 80, but published in November 1979. Last was July 1986. I was correct about it being folded into Discover, at least, after it was bought up by Time Inc.

    What I didn’t remember at all was that it was published by the AAAS, which would go a long way towards explaining why it was better than Discover.

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  20. Richard Benton:

    Natural selection does not create species. Natural selection winnows or filters species; that is, it determines which species will thrive. Genetic drift and population isolation create species.

  21. It really saddens me that arguably the most famous protistologist around today to those outside the field happens to be completely batshit insane and moronic in the extreme, but also excessively influential in contaminating other fields with her insanity (eg. Serial Endosymbiosis Theory for the origin of eukaryotes, which is uncritically mentioned as THE [sole, only, accepted, proven] explanation for eukaryotgenesis. Fuck that.) Just for the record, the rest of us have nothing to do with her. I must admit to going out of my way to avoid using and citing her stuff, even though some of it may contain useful details about rarely-studied organisms no one talks about (eg. Mixotricha paradoxa) – simply cannot trust her data and especially interpretations.

    Gossip has it that she also treats her students like slaves, and is a rather entitled person. Irrelevant to her science, but often goes hand-in-hand with insanity and a loss of a grip on reality.

    As for speciation, I agree that selection does not explain everything, and that mutation and drift are the driving forces beyond divergence (with speciation playing an important role for constrains), but to say that you must accept population genetics. If Margulis dismisses it as numerology, she has no right to opine on the subject at all. In fact, selection also doesn’t make any sense without popgen, nothing in evolution ultimately does. Way to cast the rest of us non-‘Darwinian’/Modern Synthesis supporting evolutionists in a bad light…

  22. richard benton:

    Natural selection alone is NOT the only mechanism of evolution, nor of speciation. I appreciate your curiosity, and I suggest you go feed it much more. There’s a lot of great reading out there to do, let alone actual classes; genetics, ecology, biochemistry… When aimed at scientists, statements like “it is dogmatic to assume you know all the answers” betray a great lack of knowledge and experience. That’s okay! The good news is that it’s fun to remedy the problem.

  23. @ richard benton:

    Pity you commented after Coyne, who seems to have written a book on the subject of speciation (Speciation, 2004, Coyne & Orr). I haven’t read it, but one review said:

    “… Coyne and Orr argue that data provide little evidence that various controversial models operate in nature. They see selection as playing a far more important role in speciation than does drift.”

    So not selection alone I take it, but it may be more important than comments here make it seem.

    Perhaps Coyne will return and expand on this.

  24. Allopatric speciation (which is the common sort as far as we can tell) happens because different alleles get fixed in isolated populations, and some of those alleles are incompatible in some way. This could happen by drift or by selection, but fixation is a lot faster by selection than by drift. So if populations are under different selection regimes, they will diverge in phenotypically noticeable ways more quickly than if they aren’t, and so are more likely to develop isolation in a given period. Note that isolation in this case is a byproduct of selection, not its target.

    That’s more or less what Coyne & Orr said.

  25. The classic–and probably best supported–example of this is the engulfment of bacteria by eukaryotic cells to power their metabolism (chloroplasts for plants, mitochondria for animal cells). Though this is now largely accepted …

    You can stop there.

    Name something you’ve done so fundamental to our understanding of evolutionary biology.

  26. I agree with Margulis.I am atheist,fully accept evolution,but cannot see how nat select alone created species.It is dogmatic to assume you know all the answers.She is right that creos questions are right for all the wrong reasons.

    This is so full of stupid and intellectual dishonesty. Margulis is the one who assumes — claims — that she knows all the answers, and by making the assertion that creos questions are right, so do you.

  27. You can stop there.

    Name something you’ve done so fundamental to our understanding of evolutionary biology.

    What an incredibly moronic ad hominem fallacy.

  28. @Torbjörn – the question of relative importance of selection in speciation as well as evolution at large is actually far from resolved, despite how Coyne makes it seem. Coyne is generally considered a bit of an extremist among evolutionary biologist circles – he’s an adamant adaptationist. While I disagree with it, as do many others, his position has its place in the discussion, but it is far from the sole accepted position, and the question is far from resolved.

    Of course, adaptationist and selectionist stories are more fun to write about in popular science (since they’re stories), so they get disproportionately more attention. After all, molecular biology and population genetics don’t really make great party talk.

    Basically, Coyne has an informed opinion on speciation and considers selection of utmost importance, but his is by far not the only informed opinion on the subject.

    @Douglas Watts – as someone currently associated with a prominent endosymbiosis lab (disclaimer: I don’t work in the area myself), I can tell you that Margulis is not all that important to the field, and her contributions lie more in the realm of the sociology of science rather than science itself – she *convinced* people. That’s important, sure, but not enough to warrant your snide remark there. Mereschkowsky is considered the originator of the idea, back in 1905 (translation to English by Bill Martin here:; if only he could have half the credit Margulis gets…

  29. @Psi Wavefunction: I’d go beyond even that. It’s more that she popularized it and brought it back to the attention of scientists. Most of the data proving the endosymbiotic origin of chloroplasts and mitochondria cam from the work of others groups.

  30. The problem with the comments of Margulis is that by giving a cautioned “hat-tip” to creationists, she brings them on board with her tomfoolery.
    I have a YEC friend who handed me this article as if to say “see! There is a giant conspiracy in the scientific community! Here is a scientist who is being shut out for doing controversial science!!!”. Knowing about Margulis and the work she did in revolutionizing biology as well as her need to take a good idea way too far, I not so skillfully had an all out facebook war about whether HIV was real and whether it caused AIDS.
    It is nice to see that some in the scientific community are addressing her remarks, I had a difficult time as a layperson trying to dissect the idiocy of her remarks, though I knew them to be idiotic.
    This article is destined to be an oft pullquoted work (can anybody say “The critics, including the creationist critics, are right about their criticism.”?). It would be nice if the science was addressed for those of us interested in defending it….

  31. Her ideas are right… lol. My wife and I were discussing her new undergraduate student. The young lady is great when it comes to reading and summarizing papers, as she should be considering she’s been admitted, and is succeeding wildly, at one of the Top-100 Universities in the world.

    However, when she runs her experiments, she fails. She’s sloppy, doesn’t pay attention, etc. And seems to be incapable of realizing that the reason her experiments fail is she makes errors.

    Instead, she blames the equipment, the materials, the fish embryos. Doesn’t matter, she’s never wrong.

    Today my wife will have the ‘science talk’ with her — that is, in science YOU ARE MOSTLY WRONG and when things don’t work, IT’S MOSTLY BECAUSE YOU MADE MISTAKES. And then when things do work, YOU BETTER BE SURE YOU DIDN’T MAKE A MISTAKE.

  32. The career of Lynn Margulis seems to be taking a remarkably similar direction to that of the late Fred Hoyle. Both of them started by making important scientific discoveries. (Hoyle made significant contributions to astrophysics.) However both of them later became obsessed by crazy ideas contradicted by the evidence. Hoyle became notorious when he made a fool of himself attempting to debunk “Archaeopteryx”. Unfortunately creationists will claim that the statements of Margulis support them just as they do with the writings of Hoyle. Both Margulis and Hoyle seem to confirm the saying that it may take fifty years to gain a good reputation but only five minutes to lose it.

  33. Other parallels with Margulis include Linus Pauling’s denial of quasi-crystals and Werner Heisenbeg’s rejection of quarks. In the case of Margulis, Hoyle, Pauling and Heisenberg we have people who made brilliant, seminal discoveries and were (are) incapable of accepting that the world has moved on.

  34. Hi Tara. I’m lpetrich at IIDB, now FRDB; I’m now an admin at the Secular Cafe:

    I like your entry on Lynn Margulis. She went from reviving endosymbiosis to seeing symbiosis just about everywhere. But hypotheses like her spirochete hypothesis of eukaryotic flagella can now be tested with genome sequences — I’ve yet to see anyone claim that there are lots of spirochete genes in eukaryotic genomes. Especially since comparing large numbers of genes has convincingly supported endosymbiosis for mitochondria and chloroplasts, and has even identified their closest prokaryotic relatives.

    I’ve also seen the hypothesis that the eukaryotic nucleus is the result of endosymbiosis, but there’s some actual evidence which points in that direction: eukaryotes’ informational systems are most closely related to the prokaryote division Archaea, while their metabolic systems are most closely related to Eubacteria, where mitochondria and chloroplasts come from. There’s also the possibility that some eukaryotic systems are derived from neither group, as Hartman and Fedorov have proposed in their “chronocyte” hypothesis. It features an RNA-protein organism with elaborate processing that “ate” an archaeon that became its cell nucleus.

    The sequencing of whole genomes is still rather patchy in eukaryotedom, but as sequencing technology improves, it will become more and more affordable to sequence relatively obscure organisms, thus giving Eukarya the sort of sequencing coverage that Eubacteria and Archaea already have.

    As to speciation, is she claiming that much of it is due to hybridization? That’s not very controversial for origin from closely-related species, but distant ones are another story. Her colleague Donald I. Williamson has proposed that lepidopterans’ caterpillar phase is the result of hybridization with an onychophoran. She even recommended his paper on that hypothesis for publication in PNAS, an action which provoked some controversy.

  35. Ah, the old familiar “And that’s why it can’t be detected on tests, so my pet theory is impossible to verify”.

    Its a pity to see her continue down that road, and Discover to report things like that.

  36. Regrettable this petty assault on a great scientist–linking her with a broad brush as many of you do to people who despise scientific thought. You will tar and feather her for the sin of pride. But perhaps, it is for the best that she not be so great. After all, you can tell how great a scientist is by the degree to which she retards scientific advancement. Take a look at the orthodoxy surrounding Darwin’s concept of evolution. How about the political ground of taxonomy–Woese wasn’t exactly embraced was he?

  37. I am really disappointed. I wanted to read more on LM recently because her ideas on symbiogenesis were so fundamental to my interest in biology years ago. I wanted to see how far her ideas had come because they made so much sense, that at least a part of evolution was caused by these factors.. ..even now, I would be willing to bet there’s evidence out there for the flagella tails.

    I base all my statements on evidence but I am willing to listen to theories based on educated assumptions. I would even have taken on a research project back in the day based on an educated assumption.

    How sad to find out that she seems to have seriously lost her way, and scientific integrity in some areas of her theoretical work 🙁 Even sadder to find out she married that crack pot Carl Sagan ;( no wonder her ideas have gone that way knowing the company she now keeps.

    Anyone know any decent recent scientific research on symbiogenesis? Or any books not co-written with crack pots?

    It’s like waking up one day to find out you were adopted 🙁

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