back to article 'Rebel' biologist and neo-Darwinian skeptic Lynn Margulis dies

Biologist Lynn Margulis has died, aged 73, at her home in Massachusetts. The prolific writer was at times considered a controversial figure in the scientific community for her views on Neo-Darwinism. Her final place of work was at the University of Massachusetts, whose faculty Margulis joined in 1988. Prior to that she taught …


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  1. Peetje

    My microbiology lecturer claimed on numerous occasions that she was almost insufferable and most possibly insane, though then went on to talk about, in great detail, all of her work.

    A very avant-garde and pragmatic woman, it would seem. Evolutionary biology will miss her.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Your lecturer would be repeating the general, and patently obvious, view.

      Well, except for the "possibly"...

      I find it ironic to see an obituary for her on a tech site. The only time I've had the fortune of dealing with her, was when she appeared shortly before she had to take the stage -- with her presentation on some confoundedly obscure format. It took frantic calls to a video shop specialized in obsolete tech + speed delivery by taxi across the region... but no thanks from her. Oh no. Apparently the format had never been used outside of the US. And an unwatchable thing it was -- the embodiment of TheDailyWTF's "wooden table" meme, but then drained of colour.

  2. Rombizio

    A big loss

    It is always sad to see a fellow scientist die. We need more scientists, not less. Great minds are always hard to come by.

  3. PyLETS

    kind of evolutionist thinker I respect

    By developing ideas (the Gaia hypothesis) around the core Darwinian concept which say something new and which also make a lot of sense. Such a pity Dawkins' earlier promise as an insightful evolutionary biologist was spoiled by his religion once he'd extrapolated Darwin's ideas way beyond the domain of living things where evolutionary biology logically makes sense into culture (memes) and pre-biology.

    1. Richard Wharram

      But it's a crock of shit

      The whole Gaia concept isn't just conceptually nonsense it is plainly not borne out by empirical facts. When George Van Dyne tried to make a computer model of grassland ecology in the 70s to show how the system tended towards equilibrium he found that the more accurate the data they put in the more chaotic the system became. Ecosystems don't work for the benefit of the whole. They frequently tend towards disequilibrium to the detriment of all in the system.

      Viewed from a neo-Darwinian point of view this is exactly what you'd expect. Viewed from a Gaian point of view it can't be accounted for.

      1. Richard Wharram

      2. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

        @Richard Wharram

        All it can show are the limitations of the mathematical model and data collection...

        Just the fact that we are here today means that there is more that 50% probability that disequilibrium in ecosystems will cause changes which will benefit the system rather than being detrimental.

        1. Richard Wharram


          All it means is that mass extinctions never wipe out the entire biosphere which there's no reason to assume they would.

          Furthermore, please propose a mechanism by which changes that are good for 'the whole system' can be transmitted through time. Genes are plainly not candidates as they work in the neo-darwinian way. Perhaps you have something supernatural in mind. Postulate a theory which we can test and is actually falsifiable.

          1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


            Firstly you need a criterion for movement, secondly you need to choose which way is good and which is bad. Movement - change in entropy, good - entropy decreases, bad - entropy increases. How about that?

            This way a "system" forms which is the total aggregate of all subsystems (i.e. every living organism in that system, from virus up to the top of food chain) and whose "good" is the collective "good" of all of its subsystems, just like your body is a collection of individual cells, yet is in itself an entity with identifiable interest in the overall result of its components' activity.

            1. Richard Wharram

              Does not make sense

              What monitors entropy? Where is it monitored? Across the totality of Earth, or the universe or only as far as the monitoring 'thing' can detect, whatever that is.

              What then feeds-back the level of entropy to regulate the system? And how does it do it?

              How is this to be proved? How can it be falsified?

              1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


                Entropy levels must remain constant or increase only in adiabatically isolated systems. When there is energy exchange between the system and its surroundings the entropy decrease is not prohibited. Earth biosphere has constant influx of energy from the Sun and its core + it radiates the heat into space.

                What feeds back? How does it do it? I have no idea. What makes things fall into gravity well?

                1. Richard Wharram

                  I never said that entropy had to remain constant. I was merely questioning the workings of your theory that entropy could provide the mechanism for the regulation of the earth-system for the benefit of the whole system.

                  So you have no testable hypothesis ?

        2. Nigel 11
          IT Angle

          Apparent equilibrium is rarely simple.

          >All it can show are the limitations of the mathematical model and data collection...

          There are two sorts of equilibrium conditions. The intrinsic, such as a passenger jet in straight level flight. And the dynamic, such as a modern fighter jet doing the same.

          The former has swept-back wings with wingtips higher than their point of attachment to the fuselage (when the plane is level, obviously). A moments thought shows this means if it gets tilted down on one side, the wing on that side generates more lift than the other one and the plane levels itself. If it rotates about the vertical axis, the wing on the outside of the turn generates more drag and straight-line flight is resumed. This is intrinsic stability.

          A modern fighter jet has wings that sweep forwards and downwards. It couldn't fly, were it not dynamically stabilized by the millisecond, a computer cancelling out every random twitch before its intrinsic instability can send it tumbling out of the sky. A complex feedback system, instead of a simple one.

          Why? The passenger jet's stability means that it cannot change direction so easily or quickly. A change of direction means fighting its own tendency to maintain straight level flight. A fighter's manouverability is a matter of life and death, and its intrinsic instability gives it a huge edge.

          I've deliberately used a simple and man-made example. Nature has evolved the same solution in many contexts and at many levels. Nature's apparent equilibrium conditions are almost never static. Instead they are chaotic with feedback, or "edge of chaos" self-optimisation to the prevailing conditions prone to avalanche-like changes if those conditions change.

          Try to model a system on the edge of chaos and you won't get deterministic answers. You may get statisticaly significant ones if you run for long enough or do enough runs with different small random perturbations to each. You can forecast tomorrow's weather. You may be able to forecast the climate of the next century given changes to the atmosphere (or maybe not). What you can't ever do is forecast the weather a year hence.

          Model the behaviour of the component parts even slightly incorrectly and your overall results may be dramatically "wrong". But in another sense, they aren't. The real world is unstable. Fighter pilots know not to push the envelope to the limit, until there is hostile incoming. We'd do well not to push ecosystems to the (unknown!) limit of apparent stability, because we don't and can't know what happens when the apparent equilibrium is punctured. And the system starts with the biochemistry and genetics of bacteria, and mixes levels with a vengeance, like the sort of code you absolutely never want to be in charge of maintaining.

          Like a brain does.


          1. Richard Wharram

            Still twaddle though

            A fighter is centrally controlled by the computer and the pilot. An ecosystem is not. It looks to be on the edge of chaos because it often is. There is no purpose.

  4. GaboonViper67


    Now, she knows that she has a spirit, because she looked down and saw her own dead body after her spirit left it.

    I wonder what she thinks about evolution now that she knows that there is life after death? Hopefully, she doesn't think her spirit evolved from a monkey spirit too.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      What the hell has your obvious religious indoctrination and belief got to do with evolution?


      1. crowley

        @A.C. 07:17 GMT

        I'm not sure, but off the top of my head I think her and James Lovelock were into the notion that mutation was driven by the consciousness of the deceased.

        The example I heard was of fish starving to death at the edge of an over-occupied pond, able to see lots of flies and 'thinking' along the lines of 'oh gosh, wouldn't it be great if I had really big flippers so I could reach them flies' as they died - the notion being that the 'biomorphic field' would mutate the fish embryo as it reincarnated into it, and the new fish would get the flies and survive to reproduce the mutation.

        That 'biomorphic field' thing was an attempt to use the frontiers of quantum possibility to explain where the mechanism for reincarnation, ghosts, etc would be hiding.

        Now, that may well be moronic, but the OP was not being a moron.

      2. crowley

        @A.C. 07:17 GMT

        Actually, I just re-read the post and decided it wasn't just referential, it was preachy.

        Yeah - Moron!

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Religious indoctrination?

        What has the Atheist's Creation myth got to do with anything

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      If Andy Hamilton's Old Harry's Game has anything to say on the matter almost everyone, including the popes, goes "downstairs", so I wouldn't worry about it too much!

  5. Marvin the Martian
    IT Angle


    AND you will not be surprised at all to find out there's absolutely f*ck all after curtains.

    No spirit, definitely no soul for you, and no afterlife --- you can't be surprised because you're not there. No down vote for you Mr Troll, because that's what you're after.

  6. Mystic Megabyte Silver badge


    The notion that consciousness can exist outside of the physical body has nothing to do with religion.

    It can also not be scientifically proved or *disproved* .

    It could equally be said that the hypothetical "big bang" was an act of will, i.e the universe willed itself into existence. AFAIK quantum fluctuations last for an instant and then annihilate themselves .

    It's a bit odd that to believe that this one "miraculously" did not.

    1. crowley
      Thumb Down


      The pixies at the end of my garden can't be *disproved* either.

      So what?

      We should build our world-views based on balance of probabilities, not prejudice of improbabilities.

  7. TeeCee Gold badge
    Thumb Down

    Gaia theory.

    Always looked suspiciously like a fairly light reworking of sky-fairy theory to me.

    (Liking the idea of some overarching force looking after everything) + (Not liking the idea of "God") = (Gaia theory)

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      Not so sky-fairy

      I came to conclusion for myself that Earth must be a complex self-regulating and evolving entity long time ago, before I even heard of Lovelock, Margulis and their "Gaia theory".

      I don't have a theory, mine is only a hypothesis and I can't be arsed to develop theoretical backing for it. Someone else please do it, it's not my field.

      What I see in earth is a kind of acorn - it has a shell (atmosphere), nutrient rich kernel (biosphere) and embrio/seed (humans). As it matures, and in the right conditions, the embryo starts to germinate, first using the stores of nutrients in the kernel, then rooting into the soil (the rest of the Solar system). Our role as the seeds is to spread the Earth version of life to other planetary bodies, just like the role of the acorn embryo is spread the DNA of its parent oaks by becoming a new oak tree and so on.

      For all this to appear there is no need for divine intervention. Once you accept the idea that life evolves, you cannot escape the fact that it evolves in a particular direction and not completely at random. That vector of evolution must be scaleable from single cell organisms to planet-wide and may be star system-wide structures. I believe that this is a fundamental property of the physical world, just like charge parity violation, which rid the universe of much of the primordial anti-matter.

      As far as Gaia theory is concerned - for reasons inconceivable to me they stop short of recognising that humans are an integral part of their Gaia and not just a bunch of extraneous parasites sucking on good Gaia's resources.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Way to completely mis-understand Gaia theory.

      It's basically all about cybernetic systems - ie: Feedback.

      I had to learn about it as part of the degree (I never finished) and there was no mention of overarching forces or God in any way. It was pretty much all maths as applied to feedback systems. AKA Cybernetics.

  8. Richard Wharram

    Too much muddle

    Can I start with this though:

    "Once you accept the idea that life evolves, you cannot escape the fact that it evolves in a particular direction and not completely at random."

    Particular direction: Meaning what exactly ? With purpose ? Depends what you mean by purpose but generally I'd say no it doesn't.

    Not completely at random: Who believes that evolution is random ? Natural selection is the opposite of random.

    I could go on.

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


      Increased complexity, decreased entropy.

      1. Richard Wharram

        Local entropy you mean ? Total entropy always increases.

        Local entropy could be decreased by freezing the planet and pumping the heat into space. Not sure this would really benefit the system though :/

        1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

          @Richard Wharram

          "Local entropy you mean ? Total entropy always increases."

          Yes and yes.

          "Local entropy could be decreased by freezing the planet and pumping the heat into space."

          Or by adding heat from the Sun.

    2. Mad Mike

      @Richard. Evolution is both random and non-random. The mutations that create new species and gradually adjust a species are effectively largely random. However, the means by which they are tested, is not random, can be predicted and sets evolution in a direction. If stampeding buffalo are being used as the selection method, then the radom mutations to genes are tested according to their ability to allow the host a better chance of avoiding the stampede and surviving. The mutations are random, but the test is always the stampede. Obviously, any mutation is actually tested by many different methods of selection, not just one.

      1. Richard Wharram

        @Mad Mike

        You'll notice that I said Natural Selection is the opposite of random, not Evolution.

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