We all know of once-respected scientists who ended up going off the deep end, adhering to an unproven idea despite massive evidence to the contrary. Linus Pauling and his advocacy of megadoses of Vitamin C, or Peter Duesberg’s descent into HIV denial. It’s all the more disappointing when the one taking a dive is a woman, since there are, compared to men, relatively fewer female “big names” in the sciences. So when one goes from views that were, perhaps, outside of the mainstream (but later proven largely correct) to complete science denialism, it makes it all the more depressing. Even worse, mainstream popular science magazines like Scientific American (with this article by Peter Duesberg) and Discover (Duesberg again) give these ideas reputable press. And now Discover has done it again by giving “maverick” biologist Lynn Margulis a profile in their latest issue. More after the jump.
Just in case there’s anyone out there who’s not familiar with Margulis’ work, her biggest claim to fame is her recognition (and long-time advocacy of) the idea that life has evolved by symbiogenesis–using symbiosis as a way to make new species. The classic–and probably best supported–example of this is the engulfment of bacteria by eukaryotic cells to power their metabolism (chloroplasts for plants, mitochondria for animal cells). Though this is now largely accepted, many of her other ideas–such as a symbiotic origin of flagella from spirochetes–have received less support.
Margulis has more recently moved into other areas which put her in serious conflict with the mainstream scientific community–and unlike organelle evolution, the evidence isn’t on her side–no matter how the loaded questions from the interviewer seem to portray it. (And they are reeeaaallly loaded). From the interview–first, on evolution, and how natural selection doesn’t cut it:
Interviewer: Did the Grants document the emergence of a new species?
Margulis: They saw this big shift: the large-beaked birds going extinct, the small-beaked ones spreading all over the island and being selected for the kinds of seeds they eat. They saw lots of variation within a species, changes over time. But they never found any new species–ever. They would say that if they waited long enough they’d find a new species.
Interviewer: Some of your criticisms of natural selection sound a lot like Michael Behe, one of the most famous proponents of “intelligent design,” and yet you have debated Behe. What is the difference between your views?
Margulis: 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.
Sigh. An entire book could be written about the wrongness of that statement, and her whole discussion of evolution. In other parts of the interview, she ridicules the whole idea of population genetics, calling it “numerology.” She later describes her theory of how spirochetes are ancestors of flagella such as sperm tails, and when asked why her ideas on this topic are not generally accepted, certainly it can’t be because the evidence is lacking, right? No…it’s because men don’t want to believe their sperm tail came from spirochetes.
I wish I was kidding.
Finally, going on her spirochete tangent, she discusses a twist on her already-established HIV denial: it’s all syphilis.
There is a vast body of literature on syphilis spanning from the 1500s until after World War II, when the disease was supposedly cured by penicillin. It’s in our paper “Resurgence of the Great Imitator.” [I’m going to have to blog on that one another time–so much crazy…-TS] Our claim is that there’s no evidence that HIV is an infectious virus, or even an entity at all. There’s no scientific paper that proves that the HIV virus causes AIDS. Kary Mullis said in an interview that he went looking for a reference substantiating that HIV causes AIDS and discovered, “There is no such document.”
I’ll note that her views on this put her at the extreme end of even the most extreme HIV denialists. Most of them at least acknowledge that HIV exists; they just claim it doesn’t cause AIDS.
So if Treponema pallidum causes AIDS, why isn’t syphilis universally detected in AIDS patients? Well, it’s the symbiosis, stupid!
The idea that penicillin kills the cause of the disease is nuts. If you treat the painless chancre in the first few days of infection, you may stop the bacterium before the symbiosis develops, but if you really get syphilis, all you can do is live with the spirochete. The spirochete lives permanently as a symbiont in the patient. The infection cannot be killed because it becomes part of the patient’s genome and protein synthesis biochemistry. After syphilis establishes this symbiotic relationship with a person, it becomes dependent on human cells and is undetectable by any testing.
Sounds fascinating. Unfortunately she has absolutely zero evidence of any kind to back up this idea, which she puts forth as documented fact. And the Discover interview doesn’t even ask for any. Seriously, why is this type of platform for pseudoscience published in a supposedly respectable science magazine?
I get that Margulis feels she got the short end of the stick from the scientific establishment. I get that she sees herself as a maverick, a radical, a perpetual outsider. I also get that she has an ego the size of Texas. The last question she’s asked in the interview is “Do you ever get tired of being called controversial?” Her response: “I don’t consider my ideas controversial. I consider them right.” While confidence is certainly an important trait in a scientist, so is the ability to twist your ideas around, look for the holes, test them, revise them, lather rinse repeat. You can’t let your ego blind you to the fact that, hey, *you might be wrong.* Margulis not only refuses to consider this, she admits that she has “no interest in the diseases” she’s discussing, even while she claims to know more about their causes than the scientists who have spent decades studying them. In a lot of ways, this makes Margulis worse than the creationists she dismisses.
Paul Feyerabend has a great quote on this (from this book):
The crank is usually content with defending the point of view in its original, undeveloped, metaphysical form, and is not at all prepared to test its usefulness in all those cases which seem to favour the opponent, or even to admit that there exists a problem. It is this further investigation, the details of it, the knowledge of the difficulties, of the general state of knowledge, the recognition of objections, which distinguishes the “respectable thinker” from the crank. The original content does not.
Margulis’ ideas alone are not the issue–it’s her devotion to them, her certainty that she is right, evidence be damned, and her presentation of them as established scientific certainty. And that puts her squarely into the camp of Behe et al.