Lynn Margulis: "Definitely a Darwinist"

Various ID proponents have ‘argued’ that Margulis doubts ‘Darwinian theory’:

Dembski wrote:

“And yet, Harold continued, ““But we must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations.”

James Shapiro, Stuart Kauffman, and Lynn Margulis have raised similar doubts” Source Unintelligent Evolution

Let’s explore these arguments in more depth. Is Margulis anti-Darwinian, anti-Neo-Darwinian? And if lack of details is such a problem for a scientific theory then how come ID has no details to offer at all? What does this say about the nature of Intelligent Design?

It has been well documented how ID proponents quote people and papers as somehow supporting intelligent design or as evidence of people disagreeing with Darwinian theory. In case of Margulis however we find an unambiguous statement that she considers herself a Darwinist

Michod’s talk was the perfect lead-in for the penultimate lecture of the conference by the acknowledged star of the weekend, Lynn Margulis, famous for her pioneering research on symbiogenesis. Margulis began graciously by acknowledging the conference hosts and saying, “This is the most wonderful conference I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a lot of conferences.” She then got to work, pronouncing the death of neo-Darwinism. Echoing Darwin, she said “It was like confessing a murder when I discovered I was not a neo-Darwinist.” But, she quickly added, “I am definitely a Darwinist though. I think we are missing important information about the origins of variation. I differ from the neo-Darwinian bullies on this point.” She then outlined the basis of her theory of the origin of the cell nucleus as a fusion between archaebacteria (thermoplasma) and Eubacteria (Spirochaeta). “We live on a bacterial planet,” she reflected. “The cell is the fundamental unit of life. A minimal cell has DNA, mRNA, tRNA, rRNA, amino acylating enzymes, polymerases, sources of energy and electrons, lipoprotein membranes, and ion channels, all contained within a cell wall, and is an autopoietic (self-regulating feedback) system.” The biggest break in life, she explained, was between the prokaryotes (cells with nucleoids: monera, prokaryota; archaebacteria, eubacteria) and eukaryotes (cells with nuclei: protoctista, fungi, plantae, animalia).

In this framework, Margulis continued, all of life’s history can be divided into three major eons: Archean (3,500 to 2,500 million years ago), Proterozoic (2,500 to 540 mya), and Phanerozoic (540 to 0 mya). “Most evolutionary biologists deal with the Phanerozoic, which is like saying that history began in 1909 when the Ford Motor Company opened shop in Dearborn, Mich,” Margulis quipped. The major steps in evolution involved symbiogenesis, which Margulis described succinctly as “the inheritance of acquired genomes” and more formally in its relationship to symbiosis, “the long-term physical association between members of different types (species).” The problem with neo-Darwinism, Margulis concluded, is that “Random changes in DNA alone do not lead to speciation. Symbiogenesis–the appearance of new behaviors, tissues, organs, organ systems, physiologies, or species as a result of symbiont interaction–is the major source of evolutionary novelty in eukaryotes–animals, plants, and fungi.”

There were no direct challenges to Margulis in the discussion period that followed, so I once again queried a number of the experts in this area after the lecture. The overall impression I received was that Margulis goes too far in her rejection of neo-Darwinism, but because she was right about the role of symbiogenesis in the origin of the first eukaryote cells, they are taking a wait-and-see approach. One scientist added that since Margulis was to receive an honorary doctorate that afternoon, it seemed inappropriate to challenge her in this venue.

Source: Michael Shermer, The Woodstock of evolution, Scientific American June 27, 2005

ID-C literature is full of such references

Dembski wrote:

In fact, it would tell students more about Darwinian evolution than Darwinists typically want them to hear, notably about the theory’s problems and weaknesses (and we don’t even need to cite ourselves here; critics within evolutionary biology’s own ranks, like the late Stephen Jay Gould and now Lynn Margulis with her theory of symbiogenesis, have saved us the trouble).

Source: William Demsbki Becoming a Disciplined Science: Prospects, Pitfalls, and Reality Check for ID

It should have been a reality check indeed…

Dembski wrote:

Right now, the basal biology textbooks from which most people in the English-speaking world receive their first serious exposure to evolutionary theory explain the origination of biological forms in terms of the neo-Darwinian mechanism of natural selection ad random genetic errors. This mechanism, however, is now increasingly seen as inadequate to explain the diversity of biological forms, and not just by design theorists. For instance, Lynn Margulis (2002, 103), a biologist who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, criticizes the neo-Darwinian theory as follows: “Like a sugary snack that temporarily satisfies our appetite but deprives us of more nutritious foods, neo-Darwinism sates intellectual curiosity with abstractions bereft of actual details—whether metabolic, biochemical, ecological, or of natural history.”

Source: William Dembski In defense of intelligent design

Or see how the SciAm article is presented at ARN by Fernando Castro-Chavez

Barham presented the following testimony at the Topeka hearing on May 7, 2005.

It is interesting than recently an increasing number of scientists have been willing to abandon the false comfort of Darwinism and to begin the search for a more adequate metaphysical worldview. Here are some characteristic quotes. All of them are from reputable—in some cases, highly distinguished—scientists, none of whom has a religious axe to grind:

And continues to quote Lynn Margulis. Despite his claim of ‘false comfort of Darwinism’, Margulis considers herself a Darwinist. Quote Mining at its best or worst?

Margulis at Wikipedia describes Margulis’s perspective

“She is best known for her theory of symbiogenesis, which challenges a central tenet of neodarwinism. She argues that inherited variation, significant in evolution, does not come mainly from random mutations. Rather new tissues, organs, and even new species evolve primarily through the long-lasting intimacy of strangers. The fusion of genomes in symbioses followed by natural selection, she suggests, leads to increasingly complex levels of individuality.”

In other words: Variation and selection.

Margulis homepage

A review of Margulis can be found at the excellent site of Gert Korthof


* Lynn Margulis’ symbiosis theory is a proven theory in biology. * The claim in Acquiring Genomes that symbiosis is the main mechanism for creating new species in evolution is an unjustified extrapolation from a number of well-documented cases to all domains of life. * The claim that the accumulation of mutations do not lead to anything useful is refuted by the facts of molecular and evolutionary genetics. * Margulis unambiguously rejects creationism, despite her criticism of the fundamental neo-Darwinistic mechanisms, and her alternative theory is a fully naturalistic evolutionary theory.

Korthof provides us with a quote from Margulis which indicates that she is by no standard a supporter of Intelligent Design

“Anthropocentric writers with a proclivity for the miraculous and a commitment to divine intervention tend to attribute historical appearances like eyes, wings, and speech to “irreducible complexity” (as, for example, Michael Behe does in his book, Darwin’s Black Box) or “ingenious design” (in the tradition of William Paley who used the functional organs of animals as proof for the existence of God). Here we feel no need for supernatural hypotheses. Rather, we insist that today, more than ever, it is the growing scientific understanding of how new traits appear, ones even as complex as the vertebrate eye, that has triumphed. What is the news?” (quote from the book, page 202).

In Endosymbiosis, cell evolution, and speciation Kutschera et al argue that:

The currently popular book of Margulis and Sagan (2002), which is quoted by many anti-evolutionists around the world, delivers the basic message that genomic variation and natural selection are of subordinate importance in the process of speciation. This erroneous conclusion is not based on solid empirical evidence and it has provided cannon fodder to an anti-Darwinian ideology that has no place in modern science.

PS: AG Evolutionsbiologie im Verband deutscher Biologen is a German website focused on evolutionary theory with some excellent links to literature

It seems clear to me that Margulis is not Anti-Darwinian as she considers herself a Darwinist. She considers herself an anti-Neo-Darwinist but that position seems to be harder to support.

Margulis’s main objections seem to be that evolutionary theory is incomplete and focuses on the wrong aspects.

“What excites Margulis is the remarkable incompleteness of general Darwinian theory. Darwinism is wrong by what it omits and by what it incorrectly emphasizes. A number of microbiologists, geneticists, theoretical biologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists are saying there is more to life than Darwinism. They do not reject Darwin’s contribution; they simply want to move beyond it. I call them the ‘postdarwinians.’” (Kelly, Kevin [Executive Editor of Wired], “Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines,” [1994], Fourth Estate: London, 1995, reprint, pp470-471. Emphasis in original)

It’s not so much that Margulis doubts (neo-)Darwinian theory but rather believes that the source of variation is not provided solely by ‘random mutations’. In other words, Margulis’s comments are about failings of mechanisms not about the failings of the theory of evolution.

Concepts such as cooperation and competion need to be more carefully addressed and evolutionary science has come a long way in this area. Having recently watched “A beautiful Mind”, I would like to mention the work by John Nash.