The Life And Times Of Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis was one of biology’s most colorful and accomplished individuals.

She was one of the earliest proponents of the Gaia hypothesis and a trailblazer in Molecular biology.

She attend the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools when she turned 15 and is often fondly remembered as science’s unruly earth mother! Let’s take a look at her remarkable and exciting life.


Lynn Margulis: Star Of Theoretical Biology

Lynn graduated with a BA in Liberal Arts at the age of 19. She then moved to the University of Wisconsin to study biology and three years later, she had a master’s degree in genetics and zoology.

She flitted around a little after that before settling down at Boston University in 1966 where she taught evolutionary biology for a period of twenty-two years!

She was married to Carl Sagan the world-renowned physicist and astronomer and though their marriage ended after just seven years. She did’t remarry and raised two children from that marriage both of whom had successful careers.


Symbiosis Via Bacteria, Viruses and Eukaryotic Cells

One of her most widely accepted ideas was that of cell evolution theory, she refused the idea that evolution was always about competition.

Instead, Margulis wrote that the reality is that species depend on cooperative or symbiotic relationships.

This built on her earliest work on endosymbiotic theory which had been rejected by more than a dozen scientific journals before finally being published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology. This theoretical paper demonstrated how the mitochondria in bacteria had evolved from chloroplasts in cyanobacteria.

What Margulis argued was so contrary to what was considered “taught biology” and thus, correct that her work was constantly derided by many biologists for years.

And while it was a theory that was mocked originally, Robert Schwartz and Margaret Dayhoff proved this to be entirely true in 1978.

Richard Dawkins would later express his admiration for her tenacity and Lynn Margulis’s sheer courage at facing down the whole field of natural sciences because she knew her theory of the origin of eukaryotic cells was correct.

Her theories of symbiosis were equally ground-breaking and equally correct.


A Major Player In Gaia Theory

She also worked with James Lovelock on the Gaia Hypothesis.

However, while she embraced his idea of a symbiotic planet to some extent, she didn’t like the idea that the Earth was a single organism and as she said, this is obvious because “No organism eats its own waste.”

She would, of course, connect the Gaia theory to her own endosymbiotic theory in her own work in the late 80s.

Her work makes our list of the best books on Gaia theory, you might also enjoy reading some of her work directly including Acquiring Genomes, Symbiotic Planet, Microcosmos, and Gaia In Action.


Five Kingdoms Of Life

Lynn Margulis was also one of the very first scientists to see the value in Robert Whittaker’s Five Kingdoms theoretical paper.

She also wasn’t afraid to criticize the parts of the paper which didn’t work. She showed how Whittaker had failed to appreciate the importance of microbes in his classification system (surely drawing on her own endosymbiosis theory for this).

However, even the weight of her mighty intellect couldn’t persuade the body of evolutionary theory to accept this and, in fact, Carl Woese’s three-domain theory is considered to be the “right ” answer in this domain with the five kingdoms idea only clinging on by its metaphorical fingerprints thanks to the esteem the community holds Margulis in.


Elected To The National Academy

Lynn Margulis was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1983. Then in 1999, she was presented with the National Medal of Science by President Bill Clinton. 9 yers later, she was awarded the Darwin-Wallace Medal by the Linnean Society in London.

She was also recognized by Discover magazine as one of the 50 most important women in science of all time.


Lynn Margulis And Controversy

Many say that Lynn’s work as a University Professor just outside of the mainstream, made her identify with other mavericks and fringe theorists, often those not as accomplished or able as herself.

She was embroiled in many a minor controversy throughout her career and in three major ones too.

The first was her influence in getting a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that they might not have published under other circumstances and after this PNAS changed their submissions procedure.

She was accused of being an AIDS denialist though she had no such intent and was also embroiled in the 9-11 conspiracy theory which alleges that this was a “false flag attack” used to justify wars of foreign occupation.


Final Thoughts On Lynn Margulis

Evolutionary biologists will tell you there have been few figures as instrumental in the evolution of their discipline than Lynn Margulis.

Not only was she a distinguished university professor, but she was also a popular science writer, and despite the occasional controversy emerging from her personal life and later passions, nothing can take away from her accomplishments in her field of absolute expertise.

Sadly, Lynn died in 2011 after suffering from a major stroke. However, her work lives on.

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