email - June 2011

Lynn Margulis

A Minority View of Evolution

We received an unsigned email which said,

I was wondering (since I don't think you've ever touched on this on the site*) what you thought of Lynn Margulis' version of evolution.

*Which makes sense since they don't teach her variation on an evolutionary theme, well, anywhere.

Dr. Lynn Margulis is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is a co-author of ACQUIRING GENOMES, A theory of the origins of species. We suspect that the unsigned email was prompted by what she said in a six-page interview published in the April issue of Discover magazine in which she was extremely critical of new-Darwinian evolution.

This is the issue I have with neo-Darwinists: They teach what is generating novelty is the accumulation of random mutations in DNA, in a direction set by natural selection. If you want bigger eggs, you keep selecting the hens that are laying the biggest eggs, and you get bigger and bigger eggs. But you also get hens with defective feathers and wobbly legs. Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create.

I was taught over and over again that the accumulation of random mutations led to evolutionary change—led to new species. I believed it until I looked for evidence. 1

The critics, including the creationist critics, are right about their criticism. It’s just that they’ve got nothing to offer but intelligent design or “God did it.” They have no alternatives that are scientific. 2


Her “scientific alternative,” symbiogenesis, is not accepted by mainstream evolutionists.

Margulis claims that most of the DNA found in the cytoplasm of animal, plant, fungal and protist cells originated as genes of bacteria that became organelles, rather than from genetic drift or mutation.

Along these lines Margulis has argued that bacteria have the ability to exchange genes very easily and quickly, even between different species, by conjugation or through plasmids. For these reasons, the genetic material of bacteria is much more versatile than that of the eukaryote (see Primary nutritional groups for more on the extent of bacterial ability in terms of nutrition). Margulis claims that versatility is the process which enabled life to evolve so quickly, as bacteria were able to adapt to initial conditions of environment and to new changes by other bacteria. 3

There is a little bit of truth to what she believes. Viruses and bacteria can infect cells and transfer some DNA in the process. At the cellular level this might be beneficial to both organisms. But there are two obvious problems with symbiogenesis.

First, where did the bacteria get the DNA in the first place? In other words, she correctly recognizes that random mutations can’t produce new genetic information in higher orders of life—the genetic information had to come from bacteria that already had the information. But where did the bacteria get that information? From random mutations? She hasn’t solved the problem of how information arises by chance.

Second, where is the evidence that bacteria actually infected a lizard and caused it to grow breasts and turn into a mammal? Her theory doesn’t have any more evidence to back it up that traditional neo-Darwinian evolution does.

We don’t want to spend much time debunking symbiogenesis because most evolutionists don’t believe it, anyway. We don’t want to be accused of beating up a straw man. Let’s just let her continue to point out errors in what most evolutionists believe.

She Agrees With Us

When asked about the studies of Galapagos finches by Peter and Rosemary Grant in the 1970s, she said,

They saw lots of variation within a species, changes over time. But they never found any new species—ever. 4

We’ve said that before.

From the very beginning the Russians said that natural selection was a process of elimination and could not produce all the diversity we see. 5

Da! Pravda! (Yes! The Truth!)

She also made this observation:

When evolutionary biologists use computer modeling to find out how many mutations you need to get from one species to another, it’s not mathematics—it’s numerology. They are limiting the field of study to something that’s manageable and ignoring what’s most important. They tend to know nothing about atmospheric chemistry and the influence it has on the organisms or the influence that organisms have on chemistry. They know nothing about biological systems like physiology, ecology, and biochemistry. Darwin was saying that changes accumulate through time, but population geneticists are describing mixtures that are temporary. Whatever is brought together by sex is broken up in the next generation by the same process. Evolutionary biology has been taken over by population geneticists. They are reductionists ad absurdum.

Population geneticist Richard Lewontin gave a talk here at UMass Amherst about six years ago, and he mathematized all of it—changes in the population, random mutation, sexual selection, cost and benefit. At the end of his talk he said, “You know, we’ve tried to test these ideas in the field and in the lab, and there are really no measurements that match the quantities I’ve told you about.” This just appalled me. So I said, “Richard Lewontin, you are a great lecturer to have the courage to say it’s gotten you nowhere. But then why do you continue to do this work?” And he looked at me and said, “It’s the only thing I know how to do, and if I don’t do it I won’t get my grant money.” So he’s an honest man, and that’s an honest answer. 6

Evolution By Default

Margulis realizes Neo-Darwinian evolution (mutation filtered by natural selection) can’t explain the origin and diversity of life. But since she erroneously believes one can’t reject an obviously wrong answer without suggesting an alternative, she suggests symbiogenesis.

Her notion that bacteria can transfer DNA to higher organisms for mutual benefit is preposterous, without proof, and generally unaccepted by the scientific community.

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1 Discover, April 2011, “The Discover Interview—Lynn Margulis”, page 68
2 Discover, April 2011, “The Discover Interview—Lynn Margulis”, page 69
4 Discover, April 2011, “The Discover Interview—Lynn Margulis”, page 69
5 Discover, April 2011, “The Discover Interview—Lynn Margulis”, page 69
6 Discover, April 2011, “The Discover Interview—Lynn Margulis”, page 71