Lynn Margulis

I’m sad to report that Lynn Margulis died this evening*.  I was lucky enough to take two classes with her when I was an undergraduate at UMass; Environmental Evolution and a Symbiosis seminar.  Although she was best known for her work on the endosymbiotic theory–the now generally accepted idea that mitochondria, chloroplasts, and other organelles within eukaryotic cells were once free-living bacteria–her research and her courses covered essentially all the living and nonliving things on earth and the interactions among them.

Many fellow scientists thought the endosymbiotic theory was crazy when she proposed it, and she had a hard time getting her initial paper on the subject published.  Throughout her career, she wasn’t afraid to promote other seemingly crazy ideas about symbiosis and evolution.  Just a couple of years ago she facilitated the publishing of this paper claiming that insect larvae (e.g. caterpillars) evolved separately from their adult forms (e.g. butterflies) and that modern metamorphosing insects arose when velvet worms (phylum Onychophora) somehow hybridized with primitive arthropods.  When I took my first class with her, she somehow intuited that I would one day become obsessed with gall-making insects, and she showed me a chapter in a book she had edited in which it was hypothesized that fleshy fruits arose when gall-making insects happened to induce galls in the reproductive tissues of plants, so that the genetic coding for gallmaking was incorporated into the plant’s heritable genome.  The former idea of course generated an uproar in the scientific community; I think the latter wasn’t published prominently enough for everyone to get all upset about it.  I don’t have the knowledge of genetics to comment on the plausibility of these ideas; I just think they’re fascinating to ponder.  Lynn maintained that many of the most significant evolutionary events involved one organism acquiring the genome of another, rather than gradual change through natural selection, which she said mostly just maintains the status quo.

Lynn also helped James Lovelock develop the Gaia hypothesis, which proposes that all living things on earth, and the nonliving things with which they interact, form a self-regulating system, maintaining the environmental conditions that allow life to exist.  Some elements of this hypothesis (Lynn insisted it deserves to be called a theory at this point) have gained acceptance in the scientific community, but there are many people who still don’t take  it seriously–I can remember a few occasions where I was mocked by professors when I brought it up.  I think this comes from simply not understanding it.  To fully grasp the Gaia hypothesis requires in-depth knowledge of such diverse fields as microbiology, geology, meteorology, and chemistry, among others.  In science there is a tendency toward extreme specialization, which can make it hard to see the big picture.  As I learned about Gaia from Lynn, it seemed to me that the various elements of the system–like the carbon cycle or the greenhouse effect–are more or less established scientific fact, but people are unwilling or unable to put the effort into comprehending how they fit together.

Whatever we might think of Lynn Margulis’ ideas, her open-minded and eclectic approach to science (and to life in general) were admirable, and we would all do well to follow her example.

* Added 11/23/11: I did not anticipate that this post would be how much of the world is first hearing the news.  Lynn apparently suffered a stroke last week, and her son, Dorion Sagan, posted on his Facebook page yesterday: “My mom just died peacefully in her sleep at home surrounded by family including my sister Jenny and son Tonio, and three granddaughters.”

About Charley Eiseman

I am a freelance naturalist, endlessly fascinated by the interconnections of all the living and nonliving things around me. I am the lead author of Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates (Stackpole Books, 2010), and continue to collect photographs and information on this subject. These days I am especially drawn to galls, leaf mines, and other plant-insect interactions.
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26 Responses to Lynn Margulis

  1. John Pearson says:

    Very nice, Charley. It’s grand when students get to brush elbows with great thinkers and scientists , even more so when they recognize it as you do.

  2. sarah says:

    I came across her work – ever so briefly – when I was a student at Antioch up here in Keene, about ten years ago. Lynn’s assistant was a classmate, come to think of it. What a great mind. Thanks for posting this, Charley.

  3. Neko says:

    Is this for real??

  4. Pingback: Lynn Margulis « Biochemistry, Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology

  5. Merry says:

    its true that margulis died , i can’t believe. She’s the most important scientist in microbiology and it not fair that we don’t have oficial news about this things that u write.

    • I’m sure there will be much written about her in the days to come. I don’t know the details, but apparently it was not a complete surprise, because Dorion wrote: “My mom just died peacefully in her sleep at home surrounded by family including my sister Jenny and son Tonio, and three granddaughters.”

  6. Judith Eiseman says:

    I’m so sorry to hear this, Charley. She was a lovely lady and a generous friend to land protection and the environment as well as to her students.

  7. Guillermo Thode says:

    From the University of Malaga (Spain), I also want to recognize the value of Lynn Margulis as a teacher, as a popularizer and above all as a great person who also could debate about the evolution

  8. M. Carmen Alvarez says:

    My tributes to a great person who had transcended the conventional scientific barriers impossed by still narrow minds. She opened an integrative perspective of living and non living world. All in our planet is interconnected and travel in the same ship. A good example for yound and old scientists to follow.

  9. Pingback: Lynn Margulis has died | Pharyngula

  10. I once sent her my paper, “Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!” Her response was to send me a copy of her book, _What is Life?_, in which she wrote “To an environmentalist like us”. What a generous, kind person! I’m so sorry I never got to meet her.

  11. Pingback: Lynn Margulis, r.i.p. | immanence

  12. Noé Villalobos Delgadillo says:

    A huge loss for all who love biology. and that in our student years, one of the books was the basis of Margulis. We send our condolences from Mexico!

  13. I remember listening to her at UMASS when I was in college and studying the Gaia Theory. Her work has been so instrumental in humans learning more about the environment and how little we understand about Nature. Lynn, you will be missed! Good Journey!

  14. Tom Lang says:

    I was lucky enough to be one of her first work-study students during her first couple of years at UMass. It was a great experience, helping to edit some of her books and articles, helping to prepare her Environmental Evolution class (which I then subsequently took), going out to lunch on Fridays with the grad student lab crew, eating dinner at her house… I knew her son, Dorion, grandson Tonio, and daughter Jenny. She was an energetic and involved scientist, and I doubt anyone regrets meeting her, much less being fortunate (as I was) to be involved with her daily. She’ll be missed.

  15. Pingback: Lynn Margulis, has died at the age of 73 « Design by Evolution

  16. She should have received the Nobel Price for her famous scientific work on Symbiogenesis!
    We have to work together to promote free scientific discussions.
    The truth will survive!

  17. monado says:

    I’m sorry to hear that. Lynn Margulis was a courageous originator of new hypotheses and her endosymbiosis theory greatly advanced our understanding of cell biology. And if some of those hypotheses are wrong, remember that to explore is to err and to do science is to make mistakes.

  18. Pingback: Lynn Margulis has died « Science Notes

  19. Pingback: Biologist Lynn Margulis dies at age 73 « Science Glass Ceiling

  20. Calum says:

    Excellent tribute and insight, thank you.

  21. Jay says:

    I was lucky enough to take a symbiosis class with her at Woods Hole when I was an undergrad at Boston University. She was probably one of the biggest reasons I went into science – she made science fun and her enthusiasm was palpable. She’ll be greatly missed.

  22. Pingback: Very sorry to hear Lynn Margulis has died | Ron Gray

  23. Pingback: Four Years of Bug Tracking | BugTracks

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