Lynn Margulis dies

| 11 Comments

The eminent biologist Lynn Margulis has died at 73. Dr. Margulis is best known for promoting the theory, now generally accepted, that organelles such as the cell nucleus mitochondrion (I knew that!) and the chloroplast are the result of symbiosis between different species. You may read the Times obituary here.

11 Comments

Lynn Margulis was known for both important, brilliant ideas that were subsequently confirmed by multiple independent investigators, and for later holding on to rather blatantly wrong ideas.

This isn’t an uncommon combination. She should be remembered for her brilliant contributions. Everybody can be wrong once in a while.

Most famous, ground-breaking scientists continued to work within the format of defending ideas with evidence and responding to feedback, but there have been enough cases of ground-breaking scientists later taking irrational positions to make me wonder why.

One possibility is that a personality that is well-equipped to forcefully defend new ideas can be a two-edged sword; it can be a boon when defending ideas that are valid, but a curse if excess emotional loyalty to ideas that aren’t supported develops. However, this doesn’t explain why the later ideas are often of poorer quality, for example, less original and at odds with the evidence that already exists, than the earlier ideas.

Another thought is that exposure to high levels of praise can reduce tolerance for criticism, at least in some psychological settings. I certainly think that this is a frequent problem for people some people who are academically very successful at the levels through high school, and it probably contributes to some individual cases of denialism. Ironically, for some people, having their academic achievements praised may predispose to an emotional pathology that inhibits high level original academic performance in the future.

Finally, it’s worth noting that, although in general mental illness has tragic impact and derails promising careers, and although mental illness impacts people at all educational levels, there is some controversial evidence linking familial risk for some types of mental illness to high levels of academic or artistic creativity. Such linkage is mainly weak or anecdotal, but of course, “famous” scientist status is very rare, usually not recognized until mid-career, and there is no strong rationale for researching this other than curiosity, so the weakness of the evidence might be expected, even if a valid trend is present.

At any rate, Lynn Margulis made incredibly important contributions on many levels.

I think the reason she supported those ideas had more to do with the fact that she saw the scientific skepticism of those ideas, and equated them with the initial skepticism of her contributions, rather than considering where the skepticism came from.

Golkarian said:

I think the reason she supported those ideas had more to do with the fact that she saw the scientific skepticism of those ideas, and equated them with the initial skepticism of her contributions, rather than considering where the skepticism came from.

I have no disagreement with that, in this particular case.

Lynn Margulis had to deal with unusually (although not uniquely) strong resistance to her good ideas, as well as being a woman in science.

On a more general level, the “brilliant breakthrough first and then later stubborn commitment to obviously bad ideas” pattern has occurred with people who didn’t face the same early career challenges that she did. So there may be more to it than just that.

Gil Dodgen has posted a reply to Dawkin’s response to Marguilis’ death at UD. (Incidently, UD has now confined comment of their ‘tales’ to the initiated. The site has gone from proud defender of ID in 2003, to whiny, ‘don’t be nasty to my irrelent thought’ in 2005,to Dodgen and Denyse drivel)The response makes perfect sense if you are a rational individual. Unfortunatey, Dodgen, being the self absorbed twat that he is, can’t see the irony of his clear description of his particularly pointless existance, and the wonder of ‘being’, at all. Why is it that religious people of any sort are so damned confident that the universe revolves around them; surely this is the ultimate vanity, and therefore a sin?

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall.

Is it really accepted now that the nucleus is the consequence of endosymbiosis? I would think that work by Rout et al. in the past years has at the least given a quite credible alternative.

I wrote about Margulis here:

http://dalehusband.wordpress.com/20[…]do-research/

It is telling that by her own admission, she never tested her assumptions about AIDS, but merely took them at face value from others she happened to trust, which NO scientist should ever do, even while she was claiming to be a skeptic about the issue. Ironic!

What is an HIV/AIDS denier? Or HIV/AIDS denialist?

Peter Duesberg is a fine scientist, I have read his book and examined some of the scientific papers upon which it is based. From the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in Atlanta I have requested the scientific papers that prove the causal relationship between the HIV retrovirus and the IMMUNODEFICIENCY SYNDROME commonly known as AIDS. They have never sent even references to the peer-reviewed primary scientific literature that establishes the causal relationship because they can’t. Such papers do not exist.

I have seen all four of the films made by Coleman Jones and colleagues in Toronto. Film #3 in the series is most telling. Although no strong evidence exists for any simple causal relationship what is clear is that the HIV claim is erroneous by the standards of microbiology and virology. When I saw the glowing review of George Miklos, a colleague and a fiercely honest scientist, of Harvey Bialy’s book on the scientific life of Peter Duesberg I bought and read Harvey’s book. I have also read Celia Farber’s superb article in the Lewis Lapham “swansong” issue of Harper’s magazine, last March, I believe. Rebecca Culshaw’s paper on why she quit AIDS statistical research and Dr. Geschachter’s unpublished ms about African AIDS, accepted by the editor and then rejected both substantiated my reluctance to accept the glib “HIV/AIDS” term. I found all of these readings far more convincing than any literature proported to show a HIV-AIDS causal connection. I heard a talk by a “medical scientist” from the Harvard Medical School at a meeting at Roger Williams Univ in Rhode Island from a supposed expert who attempts to design an HIV vaccine. He claimed the HIV virus mutates a billion times in 48hours. It became clear that the HIV virus has no clear identity. The HIV tests, nearly always positive for pregnant women, that vary significantly in the US, Europe and Australia are particularly disturbing. My son-in-law, James di Properzio spent several months researching this story for the Common Review (the Great Books Foundation in Chicago). His findings were consistent with Celia Farber’s and after encouragement from the editor the board reviewed and rejected his draft.

“Science is the search for truth” said David Bohm, “whether we like it [the truth] or not. From my readings, discussions with knowledgable scientists close to the story, I simply conclude, as does Kerry Mullis, the Nobel Lauriate who wrote a foreword to Duesberg’s classical work that there is no evidence that “HIV causes AIDS”. I have no special expertise. I simply seek the evidence for scientific claims, especially when they have dire consequences for the science itself and the treatment..not just medical..of so many people.

I have observed that the closer one comes to the study of humans the shoddier the quality of the scientific evidence. Maybe that is one of the reasons that I work with bacteria and protoctists (the eukaryotic microorganisms and their immediate descendants exclusive of plants, animals and fungi). The vast majority of these are harmless to human health.

Although I have written about the natural history of the anthrax bacterium, Beethoven’s and Nietzsche’s syphilis and the work of Hentry Taylor Ricketts with insect-borne pathgens (eg.g, ticks carrying Rocky Mt Spotted fever), in general I avoid the last 3 million years of evolution and any other studies thatrequire detailed knowledge of mammalian, including human, biology. Why? Because political bias, hearsay and gossip are inevitable whereas in the first part of the evolution story (from 3800 until 3 million years ago) politics intervenes far less obtrusively. In pursuit of the story of life and its effects on planet Earth one can be more honest if the earliest atages of evolution are the objects of study.

And this way I can lay low and not be “name-called” (i.e., “denialist”) because I ask hard questions and require solid evidence before I embrace a particular causal hypothesis. Indeed, is not my attitude of inquiry exactly what science is about? Posted by: Margulis | March 12, 2007 10:21 AM

Scientists can be just as corrupt, dogmatic, and hypocritical as anyone else, as individuals. That’s why as a community, they need to keep such problems in check. Margulis failed to consider that, putting the esteem of certain individuals over the value of the workings of the community.

mario said:

Is it really accepted now that the nucleus is the consequence of endosymbiosis? I would think that work by Rout et al. in the past years has at the least given a quite credible alternative.

No, it is not now and never has been strongly accepted that the nucleus is a product of endosymbiosis. Here is a Wikipedia summary article section with selective but high quality references. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_n[…]us#Evolution

However, the endosymbiotic origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts is very, very strongly supported by multiple lines of evidence.

HIV denial is deeply offensive to many people, including me, because of the brutal damage it has done.

Real science allows us to discover and study HIV.

Margulis held some other misguided views. She also believed that the World Trade Center attack was actually due to bombs planted inside the building. Most people who believe that blame George W. Bush and/or Dick Cheney. I find that view ludicrous but not offensive. As far as I’m concerned, OBL, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney are all so guilty of so many offenses against human decency that if you blame one for something the other did, no reputation is particularly changed.

However, Margulis did, and this is undeniable, make a major, insightful contribution to real science. That should not be downplayed or overlooked.

No, it is not now and never has been strongly accepted that the nucleus is a product of endosymbiosis. Here is a Wikipedia summary article section with selective but high quality references. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_n[…]us#Evolution

That’s what I thought. It seems the OP is just a bit off (probably should be edited). What I was referring to was the hypothesis that the NPC and coated vesicles share common ancestry and by extension the nucleus likely evolved from deep invaginations of the plasma membrane.

mario said:

No, it is not now and never has been strongly accepted that the nucleus is a product of endosymbiosis. Here is a Wikipedia summary article section with selective but high quality references. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_n[…]us#Evolution

That’s what I thought. It seems the OP is just a bit off (probably should be edited). What I was referring to was the hypothesis that the NPC and coated vesicles share common ancestry and by extension the nucleus likely evolved from deep invaginations of the plasma membrane.

You are right. I did not notice that the OP said “nucleus”. “Mitochondria” would make more sense. Mitochondria and chloroplast are the organelles for which endosymbiotic origin is most strongly supported.

harold said:

HIV denial is deeply offensive to many people, including me, because of the brutal damage it has done.

Real science allows us to discover and study HIV.

Margulis held some other misguided views. She also believed that the World Trade Center attack was actually due to bombs planted inside the building. Most people who believe that blame George W. Bush and/or Dick Cheney. I find that view ludicrous but not offensive. As far as I’m concerned, OBL, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney are all so guilty of so many offenses against human decency that if you blame one for something the other did, no reputation is particularly changed.

However, Margulis did, and this is undeniable, make a major, insightful contribution to real science. That should not be downplayed or overlooked.

Actually, the tendency in popular science books is to report only the positive depictions of scientists and their work. For example, Sir Richard Owen is credited with coining the term “dinosaur”, but his opposition to Darwin and attempts to ruin the reputation of rivals like Gideon Mantell (discoverer of Iguanadon) don’t get nearly as much press.

And to put it bluntly, Margulis understood bacteria and cells of higher organisms, she did NOT understand viruses, which are not the same at all!

From the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in Atlanta I have requested the scientific papers that prove the causal relationship between the HIV retrovirus and the IMMUNODEFICIENCY SYNDROME commonly known as AIDS. They have never sent even references to the peer-reviewed primary scientific literature that establishes the causal relationship because they can’t. Such papers do not exist.

A really fair-minded person does not jump to such absurd conclusions. I would have said:

From the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in Atlanta I have requested the scientific papers that prove the causal relationship between the HIV retrovirus and the IMMUNODEFICIENCY SYNDROME commonly known as AIDS. I have heard nothing back from them about the matter, so I have no basis yet for making a judgement on whether or not AIDS is for real.

That’s what a REAL skeptic does! A skeptic is not and must never be a denialist!

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on November 25, 2011 11:12 AM.

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