Lynn Margulis Has Died

i-1c9ffe9bf605754c1423eb6a49ec7057-225px-Lynn_Margulis.jpgLynn Margulis died yesterday at her home in Amherst at the age of 73.

Margulis is best known and best remembered for her endosymbiotic theory. You know what this is because you took basic biology and it is now part of every textbook. Notably, at the time Margulis published this idea, it was rejected and continued to be shunned for some time, but eventually was accepted. Margulis made a number of other important and accepted contributions to evolutionary biology.

Margulis has also pressed forward with a number of other theories (either hers, or as an advocate for others) that are just plain wacky. But they only deserve the briefest of mention at this time of her death.

Margulis, who began her University training at the University of Chicago at the age of 14, earned an MA from Madison and a PhD from Berkeley (1963) won the National Medal of Science, was a member of the National Academy, and had many other awards and accolades. She was married to Carl Sagan, and their children are well known for their various contributions to science, science writing, and technology.


Image from wikipedia


  1. #1 Roberto
    November 23, 2011

    so…what are the whacky..ideas that she proposed?

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    November 23, 2011

    The two that come to mind are gaia and this one. Neither were specifically her ideas, but she had a hand in both and supported both.

  3. #3 Roberto
    November 23, 2011

    you think the serious version of gaia, earth is a complex system..yatayataya…is a whacked out idea..? and i dont know enough about the larvae thing, but i will read and come back to you….mostly i suggest we remember her by her endosymbiotic drive. it seems that many evodevo biologists get pissed (not you) by her forceful critique of ‘natural selection’ and the ‘adaptationist programme’ (ala gould/lewontin).
    pauling proposed a 3 (was it four?) DNA helix??
    lets honour her memory.

  4. #4 sailor
    November 23, 2011

    I thought the gaia hypothesis was pretty OK. Basically the advent of life on the planet brought about huge changes in just about everything on earth from the atmosphere to climate. to quote Wikipedea:
    The Gaia hypothesis was formulated by the chemist James Lovelock and co-developed by the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s. Initially received with hostility by the scientific community, it is now studied in the disciplines of geophysiology and Earth system science, and some of its principles have been adopted in fields like biogeochemistry and systems ecology.
    Its big problem was that Lovelock was totally undisciplined in the way he spoke and wrote, so he tended to say things a shortcutish way that angered any scientist. For example “Gaia likes it cold” I read two of his books, one was very flakey the other a better. But his basic ideas were OK, and one of the interesting ramifications was that if there is life on a planet (at least if it has been round a while) you won’t need to go digging for it you will be able to tell by the atmosphere.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    November 23, 2011

    Perhaps the post game makes it look OK but as I recall from those days it was a bit of a moving goal post.

  6. #6 Daniel J. Andrews
    November 24, 2011

    That’s sad news. In one of our bio courses, we had to “reenact” the endosymbiotic theory–that is, we had to gather the evidence (from books, not from doing the actual work ourselves), and then attempt to persuade designated skeptics whose task was to present counter-evidence. A good lesson for both sides.

  7. #7 Elizabeth Kaplan
    November 25, 2011

    Watch her in this short interview. See scientific truth at its finest.

  8. #8 Brian Ogilvie
    November 26, 2011

    I knew Lynn for the last five years or so of her life, worked with her on a couple of graduate committees, and stayed with her in Oxford when she was Eastman Professor there in 2008-09. I appreciate your restraint with regard to her wacky ideas, especially later in life. My sense is that she was right on one big idea that was virulently opposed by the scientific mainstream, and that as a consequence she was sympathetic–often far too sympathetic–to ideas that were outside of the mainstream, sometimes without much regard for the evidence that supported them.

    She was a generous supporter of her students, she encouraged people who had not followed a conventional academic path (high school to college to grad school) to pursue their intellectual interests, she was a patron of the arts, and whatever you thought of what she had to say, she was never dull or boring. As a historian of science, I’m glad to have known her and talked with her; it gave me the kind of insight into creative scientific minds that’s hard to get with the early modern figures I work on, since they’re long dead. As a colleague and friend, I’ll miss her a lot.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    November 26, 2011

    Brian, thanks for the comments. What you say is in accord with everything I’ve heard and seen as well.

  10. #10 bacteriocentric
    November 30, 2011

    I just found out about her recent passing and ran across this blog. I am saddened, and even more saddened by her critics as this blog. She was a bastion of truth and was ridiculed by mainstream science for blantently obvious ideas that have now become fact-yet are still ignored for the most part by for profit science and those who don’t believe in evolution. Among her best works, A Garden of Microbial Delights, written with her son Dorian is one of my favorites as well as just about anything she put in writing. I will miss her and unfortunately most of her ideas will undoubtedly be vindicated long after her passing.

  11. #11 Lectora corrent
    December 9, 2011

    We must remember great scientists by their brilliant ideas, not by their mistakes. Newton, Pasteur, Pauling and many others had wrong ideas about some topics, but we remember them because they were great innovators and provided new insights in science as Lynn did. Since 1987, when I first met Lynn Margulis, I collaborated with her in several projects and translated into Spanish and Catalan several books and also articles by her. Her death has been a great loss for science and for those that treated her more or less closely. I also will miss her a lot.

    Lynn Margulis