Dr. Lynn Margulis: A Legacy of Learning
November 28, 2011
Dr. Paul Rea
Dr. Lynn Margulis was always an iconoclast–and now, even after her tragic passing, she continues to teach us a great deal. While many know that Lynn Margulis was once married to astronomer Carl Sagan, in scientific circles she was best known for her theory of symbiogenesis. This theory proposes that inherited variation does not come from random mutations in genes but from long-lasting interaction between organisms.
Steve Goodwin, Dean of Natural Resources at the University of Massachusetts, understands that his colleague would “take the theory of evolutionary biology and see how far she could push it.” Given the prevailing Darwinian dogma, her challenge was very gutsy indeed. Strict Darwinists, Margulis pointed out boldly, “miss bacteria, protoctista, fungi, and plants. They take a small and interesting chapter in the book of evolution and extrapolate it into the entire encyclopedia of life.”
Predictably, Lynn Margulis affronted the dogmatists; some of them even called her a throwback to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who’d argued for a theory assuming the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Given the attitudes of conventional biologists, this was a damning dismissal. Thus when Margulis insisted on exploding the reigning paradigm, she was risking her professional reputation, even her career. Today it seems clear that it’s not either/or–that a fuller understanding of life needn’t discard all the Darwin/Wallace doctrine, but it does require looking at the full range of evidence.
David Ray Griffin has recently reminded us that for Margulis, the most difficult challenge was not the scientific question but the “science-education problem”: “How to wake up public awareness, especially in the global scientifically literate public, of the overwhelming evidence that three buildings collapsed by controlled demolition” (Lynn Margulis: 1938-2011).
Whether in science or politics, Margulis’s iconoclasm speaks to those of us who carry forth the struggle. Her restless mind inspires those of us similarly committed to increasing public awareness and surmounting public denial, whether it be of alternative hypotheses in biology, of increasing climate chaos, or of the 9/11 tragedy. We often hear about the cluster of mental traits characterizing the mindset of deniers — the absolutism, the black-and-white thinking, the comforting adherence to conventional wisdom.
But we less often look for the habits of mind we’d prefer to see: the ability to consider all the evidence, to think out of the box and to ride the paradoxes. Sure, we could say, “Well, how many critical and creative thinkers like Lynn Margulis are out there? How many is our consumer culture likely to produce?”
But to sigh in resignation would be to miss a grand opportunity: We can follow the example of Dr. Lynn Margulis, becoming the change we want to see.
Paul W. Rea, PhD, is the author of Mounting Evidence: Why We Need a New Investigation into 9/11.