Lynn Margulis on the Insufficiency of Natural Selection

Lynn Margulis
Lynn Margulis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In contrast to the idea that only scientifically illiterate individuals would doubt that natural selection is a sufficient “force” to power all the diversity we see on earth today through evolution, there are a number of scientists with unimpeachable credentials who doubt that natural selection is up to the task. Here is a bit, today, about one: Dr. Lynn Margulis, who died last November.

The late Dr. Margulis, an ex-wife of the famous Carl Sagan, was no creationist. Her theory of life’s history on the planet focused on the idea of constant interaction–symbiosis–between life forms, virtually arguing that even human beings are, in a way, nothing but bacteria who, given enough time, got their act together. She argued that the dynamic of symbiosis, not natural selection, has been the true engine of the biological change and of the climb in complexity in life forms on the planet envisioned by evolutionists. (This Wikipedia entry on symbiogenesis covers some of those thoughts pretty well.)

Do I agree with her? No. But I don’t doubt her sincerity concerning evolution, nor do I see any reason to pretend that she is a creationist, nor do I see a big flaw in her academic credentials. It’s hard to see how the normal ad hominem sorts of attacks that are normally leveled by Neo-Darwinists could stick to her.

Yet she is clearly no fan of natural selection. In her interview in Discover Magazine a year ago (“Lynn Margulis Says She’s Not Controversial, She’s Right”), Dick Teresi asks her, “And you don’t believe that natural selection is the answer [that is, to the question of what drives evolution]?” She replies (emphasis mine):

“This is the issue I have with neo-Darwinists: They teach that 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.”

Later in the interview, she comments, “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.”

(That last sentence is a kicker, isn’t it?)

Between those comments, she discusses how the laws of genetics discovered by Mendel emphasize stasis over change and that one of the reasons, in her opinion, that Darwinists are so zealous about the idea that natural selection is sufficient to account for the changes claimed by evolutionists is that they have too often failed to “go out of their offices” and truly observe what nature is really doing, more like Darwin, himself, did.

Though an evolutionist, herself, like many who oppose evolution in general Dr. Margulis points to the glaring lack of smooth continuity in the fossil record, pointing out that the term “punctuated equilibrium” suggested by Stephen Jay Gould may have provided a name to describe the discontinuities in the appearance of new forms, but it doesn’t help explain the fact of them.

She even says that Darwin’s famous Galápagos finches with their varying beaks provide evidence against speciation by natural selection rather than in support of it. Heresy if I’ve ever hear it. 🙂

Her complaint about intelligent design is nothing new. In the interview, she said that she believed, as many wrongly do, that it isn’t science. However, she isn’t as critical of intelligent design ideas as her more mainstream evolutionists, which is illustrated in this exchange:

Teresi: Some of your criticisms of natural selection sound a lot like those of 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.

I disagree with the idea that exploring evidence that there is intelligent designer behind life on earth is somehow an unscientific pursuit–a completely indefensible position, even with a commitment to naturalism (methodological or, for that matter, metaphysical). But I appreciate her willingness to admit that critics of the supposed creative powers of randomness+natural selection are, indeed, correct. If science really is supposed to represent an unbiased pursuit of the truth, then there should be no one saying things like, “You can’t say that–the creationists will have a field day with it!” Truth is truth.

Her exchange mentioning Richard Lewontin and the comment about computer results versus field observations was, at least to me, very funny–and, if a true account, rather damaging to much of the computer modeling “evidence” used to bolster evolution:

Teresi: You have attacked population genetics—the foundation of much current evolutionary research—as “numerology.” What do you mean by that term?

Margulis: 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 the organisms have on the 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 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 around 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.

Could she have said all those things because she had deceived herself into ignoring the (supposedly) vast evidence supporting natural selection by her love for her own, competing theory? Certainly. Just as it is possible that those who believe in the (supposedly) vast creative powers of randomness+natural selection have deceived themselves. We’re all subject to force of Jeremiah 17:9, after all.

However, I found the interview refreshing and thought I would pass it along. Dr. Lynn Margulis died last November, not too long after I first found the interview on Discover’s website. I look forward to her resurrection one day, during a time when not only she but all of us will get a good look at how life really came about in earth and its history after creation–explained to us by the One who created it and sustained it for His purposes.

Check out the whole interview for yourself.

13 thoughts on “Lynn Margulis on the Insufficiency of Natural Selection

  1. scrappydoo2k2

    Her exchange mentioning Richard Lewontin is funny to me also, but the substance of it is so sad (i.e. the business that science has become).

  2. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    We’re all subject to force of Jeremiah 17:9, after all. Yep. And some of us to Romans 1:18-32 too.

    I’d heard of Lynn Margulis and this interview before, but not that she was Carl Sagan’s wife. At least she was willing to follow the evidence where her particular brand of Jeremiah 17:9-ishness allowed her to go. Not everyone is willing to do even that.

  3. Thomas

    “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.”

    Yet, the assertion put forward by proponents of ID that the only known source of complex, meaningful information is a living mind, therefore the presence of such information in every living cell automatically points to a living mind as the source of all life that we see (i.e there is a one-to-one correspondence between such information and a living mind as its source), is a logical and valid assertion . Furthermore, that assertion actually explains the physical evidence in a way that competing hypotheses have not been able to, to date.

    Brushing it off as “unscientific” is an admission that there is currently no valid counter-argument (otherwise it would be trotted out at every opportunity). It is also an admission of prejudice.

  4. Thanks for commenting Thomas. I would like to add that for some it is simply ignorance and they hold the position that intelligent design is “non-science” in uneducated sincerity. Advocates for neo-Darwinism like to complain that many who criticize evolution as it is currently taught and understood don’t actually understand it–which is true, many of them don’t. (Though many who believe evolution to be true also don’t understand it, but that’s beside the point.) However, it is also true that many who criticize intelligent design as an unscientific idea don’t understand it, either, and are simply repeating the claims they’ve heard from those who should know better.

  5. Fredrick H. Winterbauer III (Fred)

    All the world is truly an exhibition to where the intelligent designer has placed HIS mind boggling diversity of lifeforms. A genuine thinking person would do well to do an exhaustive study on the exponential levels of diversity ranging from within side of each type of kingdom, whether it be from the insect kingdom, birds, whales, and …….! What logical pattern of thought then should bring you to understand that this planet has a physical make-up that could never have occurred by just orbiting and rotating with pure happenstance as it’s formula for existence. The amount of water contained on this planet and the atmospheric splendor itself can NEVER be accounted for through the clumsy scientific models that are tossed about without real accountability. It is sad to think so many are beyond any chance to just ponder what has been set before their very own eyes.

  6. Michael

    Thanks for sharing. I’ll have to go check out the original article. Oh, did you mean “stasis” instead of “statis”? 🙂

  7. You know, I’m not entirely sure if that’s the word I meant to type, though I’m sure “statis” was not it. So, since “statis” makes no sense and “stasis” does, I’m switching! 🙂 Thanks for your help!

  8. Teresa

    Dr. Margulis’ example of hens laying bigger eggs, was to me a bit funny. First of all, selecting these hens would need to be done by a human which would eliminate “natural selection”. Also, you’d need bigger hens to cover a nest of such eggs in a “natural selection” situation or fewer of these eggs would hatch. The hens with smaller eggs would have the larger population, at least to begin with…..

    But as a side point, people did actually breed larger honey bees in the mid-20th century. They found that by slightly increasing the size of the foundation cells given to honey bees, a larger bee was grown in the cell. This thereby increased the amount of honey one could harvest per hive box. Unfortunately, this was also the beginning of many of the woes bees have seen since then. According to those who have done research and experimentation into raising bees organically and naturally, the larger bee is a weaker bee. They say that by regressing a hive back to its natural size, as well as feeding and requeening them naturally, the bees regain their natural immunities and strengths. I went through this exercise with a hive of bees and was told by some that the hive would fail within two years because I was not using chemicals to protect it. After a few years, my situation no longer allowed me the time to work with the hive, but so far, it has survived and prospered since 2004. The thought so often crosses my mind that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”.

  9. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    Mr. Smith et al.: You should find interesting this citation which came in the weekly e-mail newsletter of Answers in Genesis (a creationist organization, obviously, which you know of):

    Q. Is evolution a theory?
    A. Dr. Werner Gitt addresses this topic in his introduction to the book Did God Use Evolution? Regarding today’s question, Dr. Gitt says the following:

    Use of the term “the theory of evolution” is intentionally avoided, because, according to the standards of scientific theory, evolution is a philosophical doctrine and not a scientific theory.
    For the same reason, we do not refer to creation theory, but to the biblical doctrine of creation. Creation research concerns itself with deducing models from physical reality, which are based on fundamental biblical statements.

    This citation doesn’t directly tie in with this thread but it does point out that we’re dealing with worldviews at the root, one of which is often presented as “naturalism + scientism” palmed off as “natural science”. And from the looks of it, Dr. Margulis doesn’t escape that philosophical sleight-of-hand.

  10. Thanks, Mr. Wheeler. I am aware of the fact that when many say “evolution” they refer to a collection of beliefs including metaphysical beliefs and not simply to a scientific theory. However, I do believe that there are some who believe in a theory of evolution, and if the standards of scientific theory to which Dr. Gitt holds are so narrow that it would be impossible to formulate a “theory of evolution,” then I would say that those standards are too narrow (and possibly a mirror of the same unjustified exclusion that many evolutionists practice against scientific exploration of intelligent design).

    I do agree, though, that we certainly are dealing with worldviews at the root, though it is usually unrecognized by most. Thanks for passing the Q & A along!

  11. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    Hi, Mr. Smith! The proof of the pudding is in the eating here and maybe the best tactic is to ask AiG, “What is your (and/or Dr. Gitt’s) idea of what makes for a scientific theory?” One can’t buy and read every book on the market but from what I’ve seen in other creationist publications, I at least would accept their distinctions of “theory”, “model” and “worldview” as acceptible and defensible. I know this because, so far, i wouldn’t object at all to the same distinctions being applied to ID, to creationism in its various stripes, or (on another thread of human endeavor) to the study of personality type for which I’ve gained such an appreciation these past several years. And likewise with dealing with that other personal fascination of mine outside the sciences, the melodic reading tradition of Hebrew Scripture…

    Sometimes rigidity is a good thing. Tell you what. I’ll ask that question, or find out if they have an answer I can pass on that already exists, if either are at all possible. And I’ll put it here, or somewhere, should I get an answer. 😀

  12. Sounds great, Mr. Wheeler, and feel free to note here whatever answers you get. I agree: Mathematics is all about rigor, and it is, indeed, a good thing at times. The challenge, of course, is that it isn’t always good, effective communication, even of mathematics, generally demands a right balance between rigor and informality. Dr. Jerry P. King communicates so beautifully and effectively in the introductory chapter (if I recall correctly) of The Art of Mathematics. (Yet another plug for one of my all time favorite books!)

  13. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    Well, Mr. Smith, I can’t suppy an online quote defining “theory” from the book but here’s the full introduction, along with a marginal outline of the book’s contents. In most cases only the chapter heading is given, but presumably the idea of what a “theory” should be is found in the first section.

    The glossary is also included:

    Searching for “theory of evolution” and similar phrases on the main site shows that different authors for AiG choose to use, or not to use, the phrase, so there isn’t consistent agreement on nomenclature among them. However some pages are worth seeing on the “no theory of evolution” viewpoint and here’s a quote from one of them (this is a citation from an evolutionist’s book by a creationist denying that a theory of evolution actually exists):

    ‘The interpretation of evolution is in a state of upheaval: the rapid advancement of Molecular Biology has led into question many of the tenets of Darwinism and neo-Darwinism which, although valuable approaches at the time they were formulated, never fulfilled the criteria demanded by real scientific theories. . . In the author’s opinion, no real theory of evolution can be formulated at present.’

    From the publishers’ advertising of a recent evolutionary book, ‘Evolution Without Selection’, by A. Lima-de Faria, Esevier Science publishing Co. Inc., New York (NY) USA, 1988 372 pages.

    By contrast, consider this guest column from 2000:

    More as the story develops… 😀

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