So it’s farewell then, Lynn Margulis

Some quotes from the enfant terrible and rebel-with-a-cause of evolutionary biology, Lynn Margulis, who died on Tuesday of this week aged 73…

“If science doesn’t fit in with the cultural milieu, people dismiss science, they never reject their cultural milieu! If we are involved in science of which some aspects are not commensurate with the cultural milieu, then we are told that our science is flawed.”

This statement beautifully illustrates the objection to Margulis from some of her peers, including those who occasionally veered from substantive criticism of the arguments into condescension and ad-hominem attacks. “Fruitfully wrong” is how one particularly snotty scientist is said to have described Margulis.

The statement also sums up much of the widespread popular reaction to scientific controversy in more general terms.

One of Margulis’ strengths – or character flaws, depending on your personal prejudice – was her brutal honesty. Again, on cultural bias…

“I suspect that all people have cultural concepts into which science must fit. Although I try to recognise these biases in myself, I’m sure I cannot entirely avoid them. I try to focus on the direct observational aspects of science.”

“Scientists are no cleaner with respect to being untouched by culture than anyone else.”

What annoyed Margulis’ critics most was her forthright views on “neodarwinian” orthodoxy. That is a fancy way of labelling the currently dominant strand of the theory, in which the bones of Charles Darwin’s hypothesis are fleshed out with details from subsequent discoveries in genetics, together with creative thinking on the fundamental driving force of evolution, and, on more philosophical and cultural levels, the nature of life itself. I refer in particular to the selfish-genes-or-death brigade.

That said, Margulis also managed to rile Richard Dawkins’ longtime sparring partner Stephen Jay Gould, who with Dawkins ridiculed the Gaia hypothesis which Margulis developed along with the environmental chemist James Lovelock. The irony is that Margulis was trashed by those who openly engaged in off-hand speculation on the nature of extra-terrestrial life!

As for the Gaia hypothesis, Margulis held no truck with the new-agers for whom it became a kind of secular religion with a scientific imprimatur…

“The earth is obviously not a live organism, because no single living organism cycles its waste. That’s so anthropomorphic, so misleading.”

Quite, but Margulis did herself dabble in a spot of anthropomorphising…

“Gaia is a tough bitch – a system that has worked for over three billion years without people. This planet’s surface and its atmosphere and environment will continue to evolve long after people and prejudice are gone.”

As a statement of fact this is difficult to dispute, but at the same time you can see how this tough, gobby bitch Margulis managed to make enemies within the science establishment. But never mind the scientific arguments and personality squabbles. Lynn Margulis was an eminent biologist who contributed a great deal to her scientific field and cultural life, and she will be missed.

RIP Lynn Margulis (1938–2011)