Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis was a strong supporter of endosymbiotic theory, the [correct !] notion that mitochondria and chloroplasts originated as independent prokaryotes, first put forth by Konstanin Mereschkowski in the early 1900s. Andreas Schimper had a similar notion as early as 1883.

Margulis went on to theorize that symbiotic relationships between organisms are the dominant driving force of evolution. There certainly are important examples of this: as far as I know, every complex organism that digests cellulose manages it thru a symbiosis with various prokaryotes. Many organisms with a restricted diet have symbiotic bacteria that provide essential nutrients – aphids, for example. Tall fescue, a popular turf grass on golf courses, carries an endosymbiotic fungus. And so on, and on on.

She went on to oppose neodarwinism, particularly rejecting inter-organismal competition (and population genetics itself). From Wiki: [ She also believed that proponents of the standard theory “wallow in their zoological, capitalistic, competitive, cost-benefit interpretation of Darwin – having mistaken him… Neo-Darwinism, which insists on [the slow accrual of mutations by gene-level natural selection], is in a complete funk.”[8] ‘

Symbiotic relationships are important, but they don’t explain nervous systems, or complex methods of reproduction, or livers, or wings. In other words, they certainly are not the dominant driving force of evolution. Mitochondria are important, no doubt about it – but they were incorporated into eukaryotes over a billion years ago. What has endosymbiosis done for us lately?

Margulis was interested in many biological questions , but as far I can see, except for her work on endosymbiosis, she was always wrong. She was wrong in her dabblings with the Gaia hypothesis, wrong in rejecting Carl Woese’s three-domain system, wrong in what she had to say about AIDS research. And, just in case someone somewhere hadn’t noticed that she was a complete nut, she was a 9-11 truther: there was “overwhelming evidence that the three buildings [of the World Trade Center] collapsed by controlled demolition.”[5]

You might think that Lynn Margulis is an example of someone that could think outside the box because she’d never even been able to find it in the first place – but that’s more true of autistic types [like Dirac or Turing], which I doubt she was in any way. I’d say that some traditional prejudices [dislike of capitalism and individual competition], combined with the sort of general looniness that leaves one open to unconventional ideas, drove her in a direction that bore fruit, more or less by coincidence. A successful creative scientist does not have to be right about everything, or indeed about much of anything: they need to contribute at least one new, true, and interesting thing.

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82 Responses to Lynn Margulis

  1. As an exercise in self-reflection:

    What idea that you now believe runs/ran counter against your own intuition/prejudices?

    For me it was twin studies, the vast literature on the lack of transfer of brain training, and the general finding that intellectual capabilities are mostly genetic, some portion basically mysterious (unshared environment), and not amenable to conscious manipulation.

    It ran contrary to my innate tendency towards valuing personal responsibility and generally libertarian-ish sympathies. I needed more than 1 exposure to The Bell Curve and Gwern’s writings on IQ before I finally accepted the results…it left me rather more skeptical of innate predispositions towards certain scientific findings. I used to be positively inclined towards nootropics…now I’m more skeptical of them…more inclined towards the whole exercise/diet literature…now I’m more attuned to issues of determining causality without actual RCT’S, etc.

    • JayMan says:

      It sounds like you’re a thoroughly corrupted soul. Was this my doing?

      • In chronological order:

        The Bell Curve- read near the end of high school, I think.
        Gwern’s massive essay/blog/[whatever his website is] on IQ, read around beginning college but reread with real impact sometime in Junior year.
        HBD sphere. Right after reading Gwern for the 2nd time.

        In order of importance:

        Gwern’s work because I think I’m particularly susceptible to his kind of densely referenced, constantly digressing (through footnotes), and expansive style. I had assumed The Bell Curve was at least partially cherry picked…but Gwern persuaded me otherwise.
        The Bell Curve because its a very good intro to IQ, it’s importance/relevance, etc.
        HBD sphere certainly taught me quite a bit , but I don’t think I would have been open minded enough to accept it had I not mostly accepted the reality of IQ, its mostly static nature, group diffs being genetic with high probability, etc.

        Your work was influential in making me more skeptical of exercise and nutrition studies for sure, though the Paleo-sphere played a role there too. WestHunt and reading through “The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection” by RA Fischer (while pretending to understand the math inside LOL) gave me a sense of “wow this (meaning natural selection + variation between individuals and groups) is all around us…it’s fascinating but how are we blind to it?”.

        Reading John Baker’s Race (that old school physical anthropology book) and Galton’s Hereditary Genius also impacted me a lot. Both showed that the modern idea of mankind being basically identical with only skin level differences was quite strange.

    • Harold says:

      I didn’t want to believe that IQ tests measured intelligence in any very real sense.

  2. Jerome says:

    “Neo-Darwinism, which insists on [the slow accrual of mutations by gene-level natural selection]”.

    Well, if I may reframe “symbiosis” as “cooperation between organisms”, I will point out that sexual reproduction, with genetic exchange, allows for a much faster rate of evolution than the “slow accrual” available to organisms that reproduce asexually, and must rely upon their own exposure to evolutionary pressures for all their selection.. Which is why all the highly-evolved organisms reproduce sexually. Or is “highly-evolved” just an expression of my prejudice?

  3. Jerome says:

    A case can be made for the view that males and females are separate evolutionary gene packages with separate evolutionary pressures that nonetheless can only reproduce by symbiosis. The females have to put all their genes up for grabs, but the males get to hide a bunch of sneaky tricks on the Y Chromosome.

  4. Minerva says:

    The only way to fell a steel-frame building is with explosives.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Give me enough money, move into the right penthouse, and I’d be happy to show you.

      • Minerva says:

        In the 125 year history of steel-framed buildings, and the dozens of fires that they have suffered big, small, trash can, and utterly catastrophic, there are precisely four that have suffered total, progressive collapse due to fire.

        Three of them were within a few hours of each other on September 11th, 2001.

        The other was on January 19th, 2017.

        • Ursiform says:

          They are designed to to survive normal fires. The twin towers were even designed to survive the impact of smaller aircraft.

          Office buildings do not contain huge volumes of highly volatile material. Each of the twin towers had thousands of gallons of jet fuel dropped into them. After being hit by widebody jets.

          Unprecedented events can have unprecedented results.

          • Bob says:

            What about Building 7?

          • Jim says:

            In 1945 a B-25 bomber crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building killing all three crew and 11 people in the building. The fire was extinguished in about 40 minutes. An elevator cable snapped and the elevator dropped 75 floors. The elevator operator survived! That was one hell of a bad day at work.

    • Ursiform says:

      That’s just silly.

    • MawBTS says:

      Details matter. How big is the building, and how heavy is the framing?

      Remember that WTC1 and 2 didn’t just burn, they were hit by planes. And remember that you don’t need to melt the steel frames (1400C). Steel loses half of its strength at around 650C.

    • bob sykes says:

      Actually, that’s not true. A really intense fire, such as that at the World Trade Center, reduces the strength of steel substantially, and the structure simply gives way under its own weight. For example,

      Note that structural steel loses half its strength at 500 C (932 F).

      I assume you are mocking the WTC truthers.

      • Minerva says:

        Nearly all of those concerned about the “conspiracy” of WTC (“WTC truthers”) are nuts. Nobody well-adjusted and sane spends their time thinking about such things.

        On the other hand, uncontrolled fire as the explanation for progressive failure of three steel-frame buildings in one day is ludicrous.

        • Ursiform says:

          The idea that two of those buildings would be hit by widebody jets full of fuel on the same day was ludicrous. Until it happened. That they failed under conditions they were never designed to survive is hardly ludicrous. Nor is the failure of a smaller building nearby under unprecedented conditions.

        • Airgap says:

          It doesn’t need to be the only factor. What if the developers cut corners to save money? They could have done the same thing in several buildings. Also, well connected people could have been in on the deal, hence the need to wrap up the investigation neatly and paint those who ask awkward questions as nuts.

          In general, I think real conspiracies are more often pathetic (like cutting corners on buildings to make money) than sinister (like false flag attacks).

    • dain says:

      A fully-fueled 767 travelling at more than half the speed of sound is plenty explosive.

      • gcochran9 says:

        Not explosive, but the impact counts. Along with heat weakening the beams and differential heat warping.

        • Minerva says:

          Sufficient to cause partial collapse of a few floors. Worst case, the top-end tips over and topples off the remaining tower.

          • Ursiform says:

            There is video. They burned for a long time before collapsing. You are arguing that they were allowed to burn for a while, then someone detonated propositioned explosives? Which fortunately worked after being baked by the fire? Because we all know that explosives, detonators, and fuses are much more resistant to fire than steel beams?

          • gcochran9 says:

            You’re wrong. Works like this: the plane runs into the building, damages some supports, makes a big fire that heats the steel enough to weaken it. More than that, it heats it in an uneven fashion, which pulls things apart

            As some of the supports fail, the load increases on others, so failure is essentially simultaneous, and the upper floors fall straight down.

            Once the upper floors (above the hit) start falling, they acquire a lot of momentum: an impact, even after a short fall, applies way more stress than a static load. So it pancakes. Whup whup whup whup whup.

            If there were charges involved, you could have heard blast sounds on the tape: no such noise on any of the tapes.

            7 World Trade Center was just uncontrolled fire: apparently floor beams expanded and pushed a girder off its seat, after which one thing led to another. Firefighters noticed a bulge in the southwest corner around 2 pm, a sign that the building was unstable. There were scary creaking sounds all afternoon – failure happened at 5:21. When you use demolition charges, the building doesn’t take three hours to collapse, capisce?

            You have to understand a subject extremely well to make arguments why something couldn’t have happened. The easiest cases involve some purported explanation violating a conservation law of physics: that wasn’t the case here.

            Do I think you’re a hotshot, deeply knowledgeable about structural engineering, properties of materials, using computer models, etc? A priori, pretty unlikely. What are the odds that you know as much simple mechanics as I do? a priori, still pretty unlikely. Most likely, you’re talking through your hat.

            Next, the conspiracy itself is unlikely: quite a few people would be involved – unlikely that none of them would talk. It’s not that easy to find people that would go along with such a thing, believe it or not. The Communists were pretty good at conspiracy, but people defected, people talked: not just Whittaker Chambers, not just Igor Gouzenko.

            • Anonymous says:

              a hotshot, deeply knowledgeable about structural engineering, properties of materials, using computer models, etc?

              That seems to describe John Skilling:

              “Our analysis indicated the biggest problem would be the fact that all the fuel (from the airplane) would dump into the building. There would be a horrendous fire. A lot of people would be killed,” he said. “The building structure would still be there.”

            • Greying Wanderer says:

              “Firefighters noticed a bulge in the southwest corner around 2 pm, a sign that the building was unstable.”

              I’m neutral on the collapse of the WTC towers (cos planes) but a bulge in one corner of building 7 leading to a collapse that looks exactly like a controlled demolition* is suspicious imo – especially given the motive (insurance) and opportunity (literal smoke screen from WTC attack).

              (*including what looks like the center supports being blown first (you can see the penthouse drop first) to make the building collapse inwards)

              Either way I’d recommend people looking at the websites of companies who do controlled demolitions to read how they do it and watch their videos. Very illuminating imo.


              “Next, the conspiracy itself is unlikely: quite a few people would be involved – unlikely that none of them would talk. ”

              Maybe so but would a conspiracy to take advantage of the attack by pulling building 7 for the insurance require any more people than the conspiracy to hijack the planes?


              On a completely separate note Prince Bandar was one of the Saudi princes arrested the other day.

              • gcochran9 says:

                If an attempt at deliberate demolition took three hours (with the building burning) before collapse, it was within a hairsbreadth of not knocking down the building at all.

              • windjammer says:

                One only has to imagine how sad and broke Silverstein would be if the 3 towers hadn’t fallen at freefall speed straight down into the greatest structural core resistance. A very expensive dismantling job for obsolete buildings! Eyewitness and media recordings of explosions below street level, and molten steel pouring out of the building before it dropped, are all over the web, but as Goebbels said, just tell the big lie as often as possible, and wrap the flag around it and go to war.

              • gcochran9 says:

                You might try checking out the temperatures required to make molten ( = liquid) steel.

    • jb says:

      Developers spend a lot of money insulating all that steel with fireproofing material. I always assumed there was a reason for this, but maybe they just like spending money.

  5. Larry, San Francisco says:
  6. A fine illustration of the general observation that sometimes a foolish person can be right about something. In the febrile atmosphere of left-right arguments, wish people would understand that it is better to check the argument than to condemn the source.

  7. IC says:

    Thinking out of box and differently from majority is fine as long as there is a way to verify the thinking. Unverifiable thinking is no difference from fantasy, delusion, religion thought, conspiracy idea. Understandably it took longer time for Darwin’s idea to get hold since it is hard to collect evidences (verification). It took relatively short time to verify Einstein’s ideas since collecting evidences from sky actually was easier.

    Investing (business) needs to think out of box to achieve extraordinary success. The investment outcome is the verification. One time good performance might be luck. Consistent outstanding performance over decades can not be result of lucks as Warren Buffett explained in his article “The Superinvestors of Graham-and Doddsville”

    Click to access Buffett1984.pdf

    If anyone believes its (his or her) ability to outthink majority people, this person should test the ability out in stock market. Stock market is unique place to do practical IQ test. You don’t need social network connection. You don’t need a lot money to start since a stock can as low as a few penny. A few hundred dollars are enough to start. The rate of return is your score against stock market average score (market indexes).

    • IC says:

      Each transaction of stock is intellectual decision against each other between buyer and seller, in which both buyer and seller think their own judgment superior to others.

    • IC says:

      Public opinions or popular approvals are not verification since majority people can easily fall into trap of unverifiable idea.

      The true verification is objective measurable evidences. For Einstein’s theory, only a handful of people to collect such objective evidences which support Einstein’s ideas. Majority people might not even have clue about what they were. So popular approval is useless.

      In stock investment. you will never find consensus about any stock. If everybody agrees on specific stock, there will be no trade for that stock. Only verification is outcome which is determined by God. Well, I am not sure there is God. If there is, the God on my side most time. Certainly I never pray for my investment.

      • Agree that stock investment returns are a good test of ability, and a perfect test of “rationality”, if that is better than intelligence, rather than just a version of it.

        • DataExplorer says:

          You can be as rational and intelligent as the best, but to make a lot of money in the stock market you really need to have a lot to invest in the first place.

          • gcochran9 says:

            But you don’t. If you could consistently beat the market, if you were right 55% of time when the market was right 50%, you’d get all the marbles,

            If you could predict red or black correctly at the roulette table 55% of the time, you’d have an 18% chance of breaking the bank at Monte Carlo when starting with a single chip.

            • MawBTS says:

              Often, people who appear to beat the market are running a “reverse lottery” strategy, where there’s a small but probable payoff and a tiny chance of total destruction.

              Nassim Taleb calls it “picking up pennies in front of a steamroller”, which communicates the idea well.

            • Jim says:

              Strictly speaking it depends on the bank capital as well as the players. Suppose the stake at each trial is one. If Player 1 has initial capital c1 and win probability p at each trial and Player 2 has initial capital c2 and win probability q = 1- p then if r = q/p , p<>q and p > 0 then the probability of Player 1 breaking Player 2 is (1-r^c1)/(1-r^(c1+c2)). As c2 —> oo this probability tends to 1 – r^c1. If p = .55 and q = .45 then r = 9/11 = .8181…. Thus the probability of Player 1 with capital 1 breaking a bank with large capital is 2/11 = .18 as you say. Note that a bank with infinite capital can never be broken but .18 is then the probability of surviving indefinitely.

              • Jim says:

                Of course that also means you have in the above situation a 72% ruin probability if you continue to play as long as you can. Quit while you’re ahead.

              • Jim says:

                I meant 82% ruin probability.

                You've got know when to hold 'em
                Know when to fold 'em
                Know when to walk away
                And know when to run
              • Jim says:

                What’s a little intuitively surprising about the math is that the ruin probabilities for the player with the lesser capital rise dramatically at first as the bank’s capital increases but then quickly level off. With the player starting with one chip having a 55/45 advantage at each play we have the following table of ruin probabilities depending on bank capital

                                         Bank Capital         Ruin Probability of Player
                                                1                                45%
                                                2                                60%
                                                3                                67%
                                                4                                71%
                                                5                                74%
                                                6                                76%
                                                7                                77%
                                                8                                78%
                                                9                                79%
                                               10                               80% 
                                              100                              82%
              • Jim says:

                I meant “player’s” not “players”.

            • ilkarnal says:

              Wrong model. Roulette table bets are quick. To consistently beat the market, you need to know something they don’t know, which is possible but takes a lot of work. Many many many many many many hours, to make a single +EV bet! Your returns are directly proportional to how much money you can put in. If you don’t have a lot of money, better off flipping burgers.

              Oh, and in order to avoid going to jail and losing your winnings, what you know that the other players don’t know has to be in the public domain. I don’t think that actually changes the ideal strategy one bit, because non-public domain knowledge is expensive and unreliable.

              An example of a way to go positive EV is to take some company whose drug is going through trials, and do a lot of research to see whether it CAN work. Then short if it can’t, obviously while screaming your findings to the world. Shkreli made a very good chunk of cash this way, without being nailed for insider trading. Winning! But he hired people, and spent a huge amount of time.

              Might be fun to do a half-assed version of this, with a much smaller amount of money. But Shkreli said – not worth it if you don’t have at least a million dollars to play with. Invest someone else’s money, or go make a million dollars if you want it to be worth your time. You’re making (EV * Bet)/Research Time, and under some bet size you’re better off with a normal career. You can lose a bet and go hugely negative and this limits the % you can risk at a time. Shkreli’s experienced that side of it, too!

              The market is VERY knowledgeable and has the wisdom of crowd-averaging. To beat them you need some deep technical knowledge which is also very important. While everyone with deep technical knowledge thinks that knowledge is important, often it just isn’t. Clinical trials are a cool pass/fail opportunity, where it’s impossible for the company to just keep rolling over the deep trench while you stand agape because of other factors that were invisible to you but felt by the wisdom of the market. There was some shorter’s story where they knew a company was just hollow and rotten inside, cooking the books, and they kept rolling along for like ten or fifteen years before going busto, long after the short positions were all sold in disgust. You gotta know when they are going to fail, knowing that they are going to fail is kind of meaningless. In the long run we’re all dead.

              • ilkarnal says:

                I should say – clinical trials for a small cap company whose value rides on being able to market their drug. If they are a big guy, you run into the problem again where they can go busto and have the market sniff. Also, big guys are gonna have a lot more scrutiny around their trials, and a lot more pull with the regulatory agencies, and that kind of mess.

                From Shkreli and from Thiel, I have heard a common thread – stay away from the big money. Go for small companies, small markets, small customer pools. Shkreli tried to do some Kazakhstan-currency exchange rate bet, that kind of thing – ran into problems actually getting the assets for obvious reasons, but you get the idea. You want to be where the attention isn’t, where the big fish won’t swallow you…

              • Jim says:

                A deceased relative of mine worked throughout her career as a legal secretary for a big Wall Street law firm. I know that she and a lot of her legal secretary friends made a lot of money in the stock market based on their knowledge of pending legal deals. They were often told explicitly by lawyers in their firms that buying the stock of X company was a great idea. None of them ever went to jail or was ever even investigated by anybody. If the lawyers in those firms were passing inside information to their secretaries then I suspect they were probably doing a lot of inside trading themselves. There are penalties if you are caught but probably 99% of the time inside info is used nothing is ever found out.

  8. Abelard Lindsey says:

    William F Martin came up with a more detailed version of endosymbiosis called the Hydrogen Hypothesis.

    Lynn Margulis has done what a lot of scientists do once they do come up with a good theory. They start to apply it to every other problem and domain in an attempt to explain it.

  9. Warren Notes says:

    “A successful creative scientist does not have to be right about everything, or indeed about much of anything: they need to contribute at least one new, true, and interesting thing.” Yes – it’s like old bands. As long as they have just one song in heavy rotation on the classic rock stations, they can tour endlessly – it doesn’t matter that they have only one or even no original members performing. A scientific example of this phenomena is Kary Mullins. He’ll always have PCR, even if a glowing raccoon did greet him with the words, “Good evening, Doctor.”

    • gcochran9 says:

      Damn you Warren, you beat me to it. I was saving Kary Mullis. By the way, he recently criticized sociology for paying insufficient attention to astrology.

    • Glengarry says:

      Looking up Kary Mullis sent me to a NYT article about scientists with odd beliefs (via his wikipedia page). Many interesting examples, though Isaac Newton didn’t make the cut. A poignant one:

      The notion, called directed panspermia, had something of an intellectual pedigree. But when James Watson, the other strand of the double helix, went off the deep end two Sundays ago in The Times of London, implying that black Africans are less intelligent than whites, he hadn’t a scientific leg to stand on.

      There is a difference of course between bold speculations and Dr. Watson’s reckless remarks. In announcing his retirement, in an oddly oblique e-mailed dispatch, he expressed hope that the latest biological research, at Cold Spring Harbor and elsewhere, would lead to treatments for mental illness and cancer. Invoking his “Scots-Irish Appalachian heritage” and a faith in reason and social justice passed on by his parents, he sounded sad and confused, as though this time he had succeeded in dumbfounding even himself.

      (“Bright Scientists, Dim Notions”, GEORGE JOHNSON, OCT. 28, 2007)

  10. DD'eDeN says:

    Wings allowed bees & butterflies & hummingbirds to symbiotically co-evolve with flowering plants. Where? Tropical rainforests, under the wind-blocking canopy, where wings initially evolved in temperature control & oxygenation, then transit, then incidental (pollen) and deliberate (infant food) transport and cyclical population migration.

  11. I thought of the Gaia hypothesis as more of an extended metaphor than a scientific theory.

  12. DK says:

    Not important to the post but FYI:
    “every complex organism that digests cellulose manages it thru a symbiosis with various prokaryotes”

    Not quite true. A family of cellulases distinct from prokaryotic (GHF9) exists in some insects and mollusks. (That is if you find fungi, in which cellulases are ubiquitous, insufficiently complex).

    “What has endosymbiosis done for us lately?”

    Does nitrogen fixation qualify?
    Are ruminants important enough “for us”?

  13. helenahankart says:

    Linus Pauling had some pretty goofball thoiughts about vitamin C. And he’s not alone. Trouble is, being a decent scientist requires smarts, luck, and the arrogance to carry the banner for your ideas against legions of doofuses (not you Greg, of course, all your ideas are conspicuoulsy brilliant and there’s never a whiff of this about you…well…no…forget I said anything)

  14. helenahankart says:

    On an unrelated note–neanderthals and denisovans in human sex scandal shock

    (my attempt at clickbait)

    • Wilbur Hassenfus says:

      Do we know how many Neanderthal genes Harvey Weinstein has?

      • Toddy Cat says:

        Judging by his appearance and behavior, that’s an insult to Neanderthals, who were certainly better looking and more physically fit than Harvey, and whose relationship with potted plants was, as far as we know, completely proper.

      • MawBTS says:

        Have you noticed that overweight Jewish men tend to have a lot of neck fat?

        Scott Rudin, Jonah Hill, Rodney Dangerfield, Eric Wareheim. Not to mention basically everyone in the Bay Area Rationalist Community over the age of 30 or so.

        It’s a strange thing to notice, but it’s a distinct ethnic trait. I think I’ll call it “jewls”.

  15. NJ Micro Guy says:

    Didn’t she have some awful theory about hybridization being responsible for insect metamorphosis? Ah yes, here it is.

    A true nutter.

  16. IC says:

    This piece makes conspiracy theory more believable. But without evidence, it remains theory or speculation.

  17. ghazisiz says:

    “A successful creative scientist does not have to be right about everything, or indeed about much of anything: they need to contribute at least one new, true, and interesting thing”

    Stephen Jay Gould might fit this statement, as well (I’m thinking of punctuated equilibrium as his one new, true, and interesting thing).

    Trivia: Lynn Margulis was the first wife of Carl Sagan.

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