Saturday, September 8, 2012

Lynn Margulis and the Pursuit of Knowledge

Rebel with a Cause

by Dorion Sagan

Photo: Victoria Reay

Although my father, Carl Edward Sagan (1934-1996), is still far more famous for being a scientist and popularizing it, I believe that future historians will gauge my mother, Lynn Petra Alexander Margulis (1938-2011) to have made the greater contribution to human knowledge.

Lynn Margulis
Photo: Roshi Joan Halifax

When your parents are famous and they die it must, I think, be different than if they're not. Perhaps it is that way for everybody: instead of expiring, vanishing into the shadows never to return again, they become bigger, their presences enlarge. Living matter, which I take to be a complex open thermodynamic system at Earth's surface, one whose intelligence not only dwarfs but contains humankind, has been saving aspects of its information, memorizing itself as it were, for 3.8 billion years. Indeed, this is part of what my mother studied—she studied the “earliest stages of evolution” because, she said, “in this way I can lay low and not be ‘name-called’ . . . [for example] ‘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?”

Here she was talking about the AIDS-HIV connection, which she had investigated and she found was full of holes and unanswered questions. It also didn’t pass the smell test: If the science was there, and good, why the ad hominem attacks, the obfuscation, the pillorying of those who would ask questions.

She was talking about AIDS, which she felt should be investigated as a crypto-spirochetosis, that is as caused or co-caused by spirochetes, of which she was a world expert. One spirochete species, Treponema pallidum, is the cause of syphilis, an age-old afflicter of humankind. Syphilis is called “the great imitator” in old medical texts, because it can cause so many symptoms, mimicking multiple diseases. And she knew well that spirochetes can form “round bodies,” a quiescent propagule-like stage in which, in the human body, they are “immuno-cryptic,” becoming invisible to the immune system as well as antibody tests. This was not just a tangential sideline for her as she was interested also in Lyme disease, caused by another spirochete, Borelia. But her main interest in spirochetes came from her work on symbiosis, for which she is justly famous. Her laboratory and field studies, as well as deep investigation of the cell biological literature convinced her as a young woman that mitochondria, the oxygen-using organelles in our cells, and chloroplasts, the green parts of plant cells, were once bacteria. Fifteen publishers, including one journal that said her work was “crap,” rejected her 1967 paper, “On the Origin of Mitosing Cells.” Genetic evidence, however, proved she was right, and the symbiotic origin of the cells of animals from amalgams of bacteria and archaea (bacteria-like organisms with distinct RNA) is now taught in textbooks. What is less well known is that she also believed that spirochetes were part of this ancient partnership. Corkscrew-shaped beings that thrive with or without oxygen, these versatile beings, the fastest in the microbial world, are well known to feed on the edges of cells, to enter inside them, and even to form permanent attachment sites, their wriggling movement propelling larger cells along. She argued that, moving into larger cells, and progressively losing parts of themselves, they were crucial to the development of cells with nuclei, the eukaryotic or “mitosing” cells like those in your body that undergo mitosis and meiosis, the “dance of the chromosomes.” Interviewed by Dick Teresi in Discover, she wrote “Do you want to believe that your sperm tails come from some spirochetes? Most men, most evolutionary biologists, don’t. When they understand what I’m saying, they don’t like it.”
Photo: Center for Disease Control

Our friend, John Scythes, former owner of Toronto’s Glad Day Bookstore, an amateur AIDS investigator motivated by the death of many of his friends, told us how medical authorities in England had initially said that spirochetes should be investigated, but then went silent as HIV was decreed to be the cause; meanwhile official deaths from syphilis all but disappeared. I imagine she thought, if these hardy symbiotic corkscrew beings are so deeply embedded in our physiology, and the source not only of pathological diseases but symbiotic partnerships central to our being, what are the chances that they’ve suddenly decided to exit the evolutionary stage?

And this is only one example of her intrepid advocacy. Emboldened by the epic confirmation of the symbiotic bacterial origins idea, she was not cowed or intimidated by naysayers, appeals to authority, or verbal intimidation. For her science was not a popularity contest but an appeal to the empirical. In the above case she questioned the official orthodoxy of pharmacy company-funded science, the Disease Industrial Complex as my friend Tom Munnecke, a computer programmer who revamped the Veterans Administration health system, calls it. She also stood up to the good old Military Industrial Complex, being the only member of the National Academy of Sciences to publicly question the official story of 911. With two buildings being hit by planes, and three imploding, why, she wanted to know, did the National Institute of Standards and Technology not investigate demolition, the “most likely hypothesis”? This was, she said, “not science.” Again, she was not motivated by trying to look good, or make friends. She was motivated by a search for the truth, one based on physical, empirical evidence, not on a tally of opinions, the say-so of experts, or what was the most convenient and comfortable thing to believe. Receiving from President Bill Clinton the National Medal of Science in 2000, she rode to prominence on the horse of empiricism and was not about to abandon it once she arrived at her initial destination.

Photo: Aires Almeida
A tireless advocate of science unimpressed with humanity’s groupthink, she stood up not only for her own unpopular ideas but also for those of friends and acquaintances who, despite their rigor, evidence, and devotion, did not, she felt, receive a fair shake. These include the marine biologist Donald Williamson, whose experiments and comparative anatomical studies suggest that certain marine organisms may have evolved from fertile encounters between members of not only different species, but phyla. Williamson’s work is chronicled by medical and biological historian Frank Ryan in the new book, Metamorphosis: A Scientific Detective Story. They include J. Marvin Herndon, a nuclear physicist who argues that Earth used to be a gas giant the size of Jupiter, and that Earth’s magnetic field is produced not by convection but by natural nuclear fission in our planet’s core. Herndon chronicles his own work in a variety of publications listed and linked on his website at And she encouraged her student, Bruce Scofield, an expert on Mayan astrology, to research further the empirical data connecting some aspects of traditional western astrology to astronomic data about cosmic cycles. What one sees in all these cases is not blind advocacy of unpopular ideas, but selective encouragement of scientific work in fields that are facing the headwinds of orthodoxy. Even in science that has not been co-opted by government or corporate politico-financial agendas, there is significant resistance to new ideas. 

Revising the basic precepts of a field not only makes the old guard look bad, it forces them if a new paradigm is accepted to relearn everything they thought they knew. It not only strips them of their identity as authorities, but threatens to dismantle their field and potentially their job. Her selective advocacy of unpopular (or not even known about) scientific ideas can be seen as a compensatory mechanism, forwarding the open search for scientific knowledge especially in those places where it has met the most resistance.

Scientific evidence in the end should be investigated on its own merits, not rejected on the basis of job security, financial inertia, or the egos of authority figures. In some cases science is too important to be left to the scientists, just as politics is too important to be left to the politicians. In some cases what seems like crazy, mythological thinking turns out to be--amazingly, excitingly, scientifically--right.

Like the helical molecule DNA, history is not just progressive, but more like spiral. Even in science, ideas that were once dismissed as fantasy sometimes turn out to be true at a different level. A nice example of this is Empedocles’ notion that organs once wandered the earth alone, merging into new combinations that sometimes persisted. We know Aristotle understood the idea of natural selection because he mentions this. But Empedocles’ merging organs, reminiscent of the comingling of gods and animals of Greek myth, was not empirical enough for Aristotle, who thought of species as unchangeable types. Darwin in turn dismissed Aristotle’s understanding of natural selection because he associated it with Empedoclean myth. Now, however, we know both that natural selection occurs and that species boundaries can be breached, for example by permanent alliances between different types of bacteria. So, too, the idea of spontaneous generation, for example of worms from meat or mice from rags, was proved wrong by careful experiments. And yet, after origins-of-life experiments showed that amino acids could be produced from simple starting compounds and an electric discharge, it is no longer superstitious to believe that life evolved on Earth billions of years ago. As the spiral turns, some of what we know turns out to be superstition, and some of what we thought was myth turns out to be science at another level.

A couple of years before she died my mother was the Eastman Professor at Oxford University and she flew me out to stay with her. One afternoon we enjoyed a sumptuous lunch with the paleontologist Martin Brasier. Brasier was impressive, pointing out the fossil history of the rocks from which the old building were made by recognizing inclusions within them. Later, after my mother died, during a Symposium in her honor at the University of Massachusetts, I had the privilege again of seeing Martin Brasier. Showing a picture of the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt, Braiser reminded us of the layered irony that this great figure, a depiction of a mixed beast, part man, part lion, was carved from limestone full of fossil foraminifera. These are an extremely widespread form of plankton which, like radiolaria and other forms, are jewels of the sea, using sunlight to turn ambient calcium into miniature skeletons, in their case spiral coin shapes the size of a pinhead although the largest ones, inches across, are still, amazingly, single cells. If you cut them transversely they show beautiful spirals. Forty percent of the yellow limestone that makes up the Great Pyramids of Egypt consists of Nummulites, these fossil foram shells that floated in the Tethys Sea, during the Eocene, 56-34 million years ago. Herodotus, in the 5th century BC, mistook them for fossilized lentils. For as Brasier points out, many of these organisms (whose specific types are of great interest to the oil industry, because they are associated with fossil fuel deposits) are symbiotic, permanently incorporating distinct beings, such as green algae, into their cells. What a beautifully twisted tale, this Giza Sphinx depicting a mythical animal, outdone by the carbonate rock of its body, which contains the fossil remains of real mixed creatures, real chimeras.
Photo: SJ Pinkney

It is no exaggeration to say that my mother, once married to my soon-to-be famous father, was in love with science. She caught the bug in part from him. It is contagious. The search for truth can be impeded, dissimulated, misrepresented. But the intellectual bounty sometimes obtained by those who pursue it undeterred is its own reward. Although she was called names, her work minimized and marginalized, it did not anger or annoy so much as amuse her. When neodarwinists, for example, became apoplectic about her insistence, based on evidence by the way, that symbiosis was not just operative in the origins of our cells, but continues to drive speciation, she said, “It’s not their fault. That’s what they were taught.” Perhaps she intuited that emotional outbursts were often signs that the evidence for the prevailing opinion was scanty; perhaps she realized that those who soldiered forward with their own ideas without support or recognition were more likely to be onto something. Empirical science is not about finding what feels good, what strokes our ego or confirms our correctness. It is not about what is politically expedient, or financially convenient. It is about finding how things are, whether we like it or not.

I’ll leave you with an exchange, between her and Richard Dawkins, that is archived online at the Voices from Oxford website, a recording of a fascinating intellectual gathering in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origins of Species.

Richard Dawkins: “If you take the standard story for ordinary animals, what’s wrong with it, you’ve got a distribution of animals, you’ve got a promontory or an island or something so you end up with two distributions there, just geographical, and then on either side of this promontory you get different selection pressures so this one starts to evolve that way, this one starts to evolve that way and what’s wrong with that? It’s highly plausible, it’s economical, it’s parsimonious. Why on earth would you want to drag in symbiogenesis when it’s so unparsimonious and uneconomical?”

Lynn Margulis: “Because it’s there.” 


Shortly after she died, a young rabbi, David Seidenberg, inquired about her religious views. He was intrigued to read online that she had said, "I remember waking up one day with an epiphanous revelation: I am not a neo-Darwinist! It recalled an earlier experience, when I realized that I wasn't a humanistic Jew," and wanted to know if I could shed more light on it. I told him I thought it was a simple declaration of independence from the surrounding group—the realization that there was a great freedom to be gained not from belonging, but from not belonging. Thinking for yourself means risking ostracization. It reminds me of the caption on the magnet she had on her refrigerator which, depicting a well dressed black man turning his head in shock to see another black man walking naked on the beach, said, “If everyone is thinking the same thing, then someone isn’t thinking.”


  1. Great to learn more about Dorion Sagan. Thank you!


  2. Dorian, I am sorry about your mother's death. It is a great loss not only for you, but for everyone. I have sensed a future when the fate of humanity will depend on what scientists and microbiologists, in particular, can discover about organisms in the Antarctic. It's the findings of scientists who were scrupulous seekers of truth such as Lynn Margulis that lays the foundation for this critical mission ahead.

  3. Thank you Lisa and Ariel for your positive feedback and thoughts. Ariel we at Empirical Magazine agree with you, also believing the fate of our species lies in our pursuit of scientific knowledge and truth.

  4. I read lot of articles but really like this article. This information is definitely useful for everyone in daily life. Fantastic job.
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