Lynn Margulis

American evolutionary biologist (1938-2011)

Lynn Margulis (born Lynn Petra Alexander; March 5, 1938 – November 22, 2011) was an American biologist, university professor, and author who developed a theory of the origin of eukaryotic organelles, and contributed to the endosymbiotic theory. She showed that animals, plants, and fungi originated from Protists. She also contributed to the development of the Gaia hypothesis with James Lovelock.

Lynn Margulis


in chronological order
  • Identity is not an object; it is a process with addresses for all the different directions and dimensions in which it moves, and so it cannot so easily be fixed with a single number.
    • with Richard Guerrero, "Two Plus Two Equals One: Individuals Emerge from Bacterial Communities" in Gaia 2: Emergence : the New Science of Becoming ed. William Irwin Thompson (1991).
  • I work in evolutionary biology, but with cells and microorganisms. Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith, George Williams, Richard Lewontin, Niles Eldredge, and Stephen Jay Gould all come out of the zoological tradition, which suggests to me that, in the words of our colleague Simon Robson, they deal with a data set some three billion years out of date. Eldredge and Gould and their many colleagues tend to codify an incredible ignorance of where the real action is in evolution, as they limit the domain of interest to animals... very tardy on the evolutionary scene, and they give us little real insight into the major sources of evolution's creativity. By "codifying ignorance" I refer in part to the fact that they miss four of the five kingdoms of life... bacteria, protoctista, fungi, and plants.
    • "Gaia is a Tough Bitch," The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution ed., John Brockman (1995).
  • The oxygen crisis that began only two billion years ago prompted the evolution of respiring bacteria. These microbes that used oxygen to derive biochemical energy more efficiently than ever before eventually took over most of the world. Some of the oxygen-breathing bacteria became symbiotic, merging with different (oxygen-eschewing) bacteria to form nucleated cells, which, after becoming sexual, evolved into fungi, plants, and animals.
    • with Dorion Sagan, Dazzle Gradually: Reflections on the Nature of Nature (2007).
  • [The smallest bacterium] is so much more like people than Stanley Miller’s mixtures of chemicals, because it already has these system properties. So to go from a bacterium to people is less of a step than to go from a mixture of amino acids to that bacterium.
    • Cited in the book: Is There a Creator Who Cares About You?
  • 1 + 1 = 1
    • as quoted by Andre Khalil in "As Above, So Below," Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel ed. Dorion Sagan (2012).
  • Why does everybody agree that atmospheric oxygen... comes from life, but no one speaks about the other gases coming from life?
    • as quoted by Andre Khalil in "As Above, So Below," Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel ed. Dorion Sagan (2012).

Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors (1986)

with Dorion Sagan
  • There is little doubt that the planetary patina—including ourselves—is autopoietic. Life at the surface of the Earth seems to regulate itself in the face of external perturbation, and does so without regard for the individuals and species that compose it. More than 99.99 percent of the species that have ever existed have become extinct, but the planetary patina, with its army of cells, have continued for more than three billion years. ...trillions of communicating, evolving microbes. The visible world is a late-arriving, overgrown portion of the microcosm, and it functions only because of its well-developed connection with the microcosm's activities.
  • From the paramecium to the human race, all life forms are meticulously organized, sophisticated aggregates of evolving microbial life. Far from leaving microorganisms behind on an evolutionary "ladder," we are both surrounded by them and composed of them. Having survived in an unbroken line from the beginnings of life, all organisms today are equally evolved.
  • The view of evolution as a chronic bloody competition among individuals and species, a popular distortion of Darwin's notion of "survival of the fittest," dissolves before a new view of continual cooperation, strong interaction, and mutual dependence among life forms. Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networkiing. Life forms multiplied and complexified by co-opting others, not just by killing them.
  • Not only did life originate on earth very early in its history as a planet, but for the first two billion years, Earth was inhabited solely by bacteria.
  • The fundamental division of forms of life on Earth is not that between plants and animals, as is commonly assumed, but between prokaryotes—organisms composed of cells with no nucleus, that is, bacteria—and eukaryotes—all other life forms.
  • In the long run, the most vicious predators, like most dread disease-causing microbes, bring about their own ruin by killing their victims. Restrained predation—the attack that doesn't kill or does kill only slowly—is a recurring theme in evolution. The predatory precursors of mitochondria invaded and exploited their hosts, but the prey resisted. Forced to be content with an expendable part of the prey (its waste)... some mitochondria precursors grew but never killed their providers. ...The original prey was probably a larger bacterium like Thermoplasma.

What is Life? (1995)

with Dorion Sagan
  • The question "What is Life?" is... a linguistic trap. To answer according to the rules of grammar, we must supply a noun, a thing. But life on Earth is more like a verb. It repairs, maintains, re-creates, and outdoes itself.
  • Soil is not unalive. It is a mixture of broken rock, pollen, fungal filaments, ciliate cysts, bacterial spores, nematodes and other microscopic animals and their parts. 'Nature,' Aristotle observed, 'proceeds little by little from things lifeless to animal life in such a way that it is impossible to determine the exact line of demarcation.' Independence is a political, not a scientific, term.
  • Life today is an autopoietic, photosynthetic phenomenon, planetary in scale. A chemical transmutation of sunlight, it exuberantly tries to spread, to outgrow itself. Yet by reproducing, it maintains itself and its past even as it grows. Life transforms to meet the contingencies of its changing environment and in doing so changes that environment. By degrees the environment becomes absorbed into the processes of life, becomes less a static, inanimate backdrop and more and more like a house, nest, or shell—that is, an involved, constructed part of an organic being.
  • Life is bacterial and those organisms that are not bacteria have evolved from organisms that were. ...Gene exchanges were indispensable to those that would rid themselves of environmental toxins. ...Replicating gene-carrying plasmids owned by the biosphere at large, when borrowed and returned by bacterial metabolic geniuses, alleviated most local environmental dangers, provided said plasmids could temporarily be incorporated into the cells of the threatened bacteria. The tiny bodies of the planetary patina spread to every reach, all microbes reproducing too rapidly for all offspring to survive in any finite universe. Undercover and unwitnessed, life back then was the prodigious progeny of bacteria. It still is.

Quotes about Margulis

  • The scientific backgrounds and areas of expertise of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis turned out out to be a perfect match. Margulis had no problem answering Lovelock's many questions about biological origins of atmospheric gases, while Lovelock contributed concepts from chemistry, thermodynamics, and cybernetics to the emerging Gaia theory. Thus the two scientists were able gradually to identify a complex network of feedback loops that—bring about self-regulation of the planetary system.
    • Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Understanding of Living Systems (1996).
  • The confidence of Lynn Margulis in the idea of a planetary autopoietic web stems from three decades of pioneering work in microbiology. ...Margulis has not only contributed a great deal to that understanding within the scientific community but has also been able, in collaboration with Dorion Sagan, to explain her radical discoveries in clear and engaging language to the lay reader.
    • Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Understanding of Living Systems (1996).
  • In the minds of many people, she went around the powers that be and took her theories directly to the public, which annoyed them all. It particularly annoyed them because she turned out to be right. It's a sin to take your theories to the public, then it is a double sin to take your theories to the public and be right.
    • W. Daniel Hillis, The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution ed., John Brockman (1995).
  • Lynn pioneered some of the most important insights in modern evolutionary science, particularly regarding the role of symbiosis in the origin of evolutionary innovations. Hearing a scientific presentation by Lynn... was one of the mind-expanding events that led me into a career in science.
    • Stanley A. Rice, Dedication, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-aged Stressed-out World (2011)
  • Sagan's first wife, Lynn Margulis, was one of the principle architects of the Gaia Hypothesis. Put their viewpoints together, and the conclusion you would reach would be that nuclear war could have a significant enough effect that it could even kill Gaia.
    • Stanley A. Rice, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-aged Stressed-out World (2011)
  • If she burned out in a sudden burst of hemorrhagic overactivity, like a blazing celestial object vanishing in its own glory, the end-blaze was not so different than the burning life, as she died near the height of her powers, at the peak of her coruscating personality.
    • Dorion Sagan, "Introduction: Indomitable Lynn," Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel ed. Dorion Sagan (2012).
  • Her book Symbiosis in Cell Evolution is one of the classics of biology... In recent years, she has taken some of her important scientific ideas into a more cultural sphere... This is bad. Her story on the origins of sex, in Mystery Dance, written with Dorion Sagan, for example, is naive, full of clichés, and devoid of historical perspective. ...It's unfortunate that she has ventured into some weird second stage.
    • Francisco Varela, The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution ed., John Brockman (1995).
  • A young Lynn Margulis fell in love with symbiosis—it was she who finally managed to precisely describe the stages in the process that lead bacteria to become eukaryotic cells—and was emboldened rather than dissuaded by criticism. ...Her seminal article, "On the Origin of Mitosing Cells," was published in 1967... but only after being rejected fifteen times... thanks to her insistence... SET, or serial endosymbiosis theory—became accepted as true.
    • Jorge Wagensberg, "Tale of Tales," Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel ed. Dorion Sagan (2012).
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