Lynn Margulis, Evolutionary ‘Naturalism,’ Chance and Conspiracy

“The endosymbiosis hypothesis is retrogressive in the sense that it avoids the difficult thought necessary to understand how mitochondria and chloroplasts have evolved as a series of small evolutionary steps.” -Thomas Uzzell and Christine Spolsky, 1974

The above old quote may make us chuckle now that Margulis’ theory has been vindicated by DNA analysis. Uzzell and Spolsky imply that endosymbiosis seemed to them too easy and naïve, like a myth describing how the first humans sprang from sown dragon’s teeth. Even though there was nothing prima facie impossible about the idea — no physical laws violated — these critics nevertheless felt that the endosymbiosis hypothesis was tantamount to a “revival of special creation.” [1] Symbiogenesis, the idea championed by Lynn Margulis, is here associated with the supernatural because it was considered to be a rare and too fortuitous event.

Luck and god are often confused and conflated, even though the former is very much a part of the natural world and the latter, according to most scientists, is not. Even Margulis and Sagan are a bit guilty of encouraging this confusion when they defensively stress, “Neither an omnipotent deity nor fantastic good luck” is involved in symbiogenesis. [2] I think that for luck the association with god is pretty unfair and damaging, since luck, by which I mean useful coincidence, can be a perfectly legitimate and respectable causal factor.

The movement known as “natural theology” was influential while Charles Darwin was composing his great work. No doubt William Paley and Charles Bell [3] haunted his study. The idea that miracles could happen, or that the physically impossible might be possible through God, was being replaced by the idea that a Creator would merely work with natural laws, not above and beyond them. Formerly in charge of the “impossible,” the Creator had been reassigned by Paley and Bell to the perhaps slightly less glorious task of handling the “improbable.” He brought together series of unlikely events that, against all odds, resulted in perfection (or something pretty darn close to it). These kinds of apologetics are more or less continued today by Intelligent Design (ID) advocates. And that is the sort of thing scientists are keen to avoid.

However, in some sense we are right to associate luck with purposeful design. They are not opposites, as some might suppose. Purposeful behavior emerges through the natural selection of useful coincidences. As Richard Dawkins has suggested with his Blind Watchmaker coinage, far from doing away with purposefulness in nature, Darwin helps explain it. It’s just not divine purpose, rather it is emergent purpose through selection. If I were a fashionable literary critic, I might suppose that the “difficulty” that our friends Uzzell and Spolsky defend (purely for difficulty’s sake, it would seem) is actually the paradox they back themselves into. They deconstruct purpose in nature only to affirm it, albeit in a different way. With it’s unintentionally self-critical overreaching, their remark has all the charm of postmodern parody.

The problem with accepting endosymbiosis was that it is rapid modular evolution, not slow gradual evolution of the tiniest bits. Critics like Uzzell and Spolsky probably miscalculate the odds, thinking that one big coincidence is less likely than a run of small ones. It’s not, not necessarily. Winning several small lotteries might be as likely or less likely as winning a really big one in a lifetime. Symbiogenesis may involve bigger parts, larger mutational events with the acquisition of genomes with one organism swallowing another, but we can’t say that makes it more unlikely because symbionts make their own luck. And that is the neo-Lamarckian-ish part of the theory that would be the hardest part for Margulis to sell to her critics. Ernst Mayr’s foreword to Acquiring Genomes is so “unbiased” — guardedly praising while pointing out a fault here and there, and there and there — it sinks to unintended parody at times. The reader cringes as he tries to save Margulis from herself by noting how her readers might be misled into thinking that Lamarck wasn’t quite so horribly wrong about everything and further assuring the reader that endosymbiosis, far from being saltational, would really take “very many generations.”[4] In order to fit into neo-Darwinian theory proper, symbiogenesis would have to be cleansed of the non-randomness and saltationism that make it appear just a little too much like really fantastic luck.

Even though evolution is all about useful coincidences, theorists assume they must try to make them as minor as possible to create the most naturalistic models. As Darwin was publishing in the 19th century, a new literary tradition arose called “Naturalism,” which is self-consciously modeled on Darwin’s principles. The novel whose plot turns on an instance of fantastic luck is eschewed (“artistic” and “symbolic” writing are also sent packing, but I won’t elaborate on that here). Things incidental rather than coincidental are preferred, i.e., the numerous mundane causal factors, which are more or less expected to occur most of the time, are preferred over the unusual intersection of unrelated causal chains: no Armageddon meteorites; no cataclysmic floods. Gradualism, not catastrophe, is what Charles Lyell recommended and what Darwin accepted. Likewise, according to literary naturalists, narratives should stay close to the everyday sort of phenomena and avoid the sort of things one might attribute to an Old Testament God. The most derided convention of the “non-naturalistic” story is the coincidental meeting at the crossroads. Think Oedipus Rex or, more lately, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Such plots seem too much like divine intervention is at work.

But such meetings do occur, on their own, without the help of authors or gods, and it has something to do with the fact that at the crossroads there tend to be inns, where people stop to rest and tell stories to strangers. Likewise in real life, as Margulis and Sagan note, each symbiont has its own purposes that bring them together; the union is far from arbitrary, and the union’s continuation is encouraged by selection. The mutually beneficial association is like the relationship between paying guests and gracious host of the cozy inn, with inviting fire and home-style fare. Guests are inclined to linger and mix, making it more likely that a fruitful opportunity will arise.

Margulis has also argued that microtubule systems in cells evolved from a symbiotic relation with nutrient-hunting spirochetes which, with attached as whipping tails, provided a way for host microbes to get around. Her idea has been dismissed in favor of a more difficult scenario proposed by others wherein microtubules would probably have begun to develop by random mutation, first coincidentally supporting cell projections and then, by other random mutations, coincidentally good for directing and driving vacuolar circulation. [5] Margulis and Sagan note that such small-step-by-small-step arguments seem almost to require forethought, natural theology style, which you can’t have with natural selection. “Hungry swimming symbionts, on the other hand, attaching to the cells for their own purposes, could have become the cell whip system without planning ahead.” [6] In other words, one big coincidence, which is made more likely by the desire of a hungry microbe, may be more probable than a series of lesser, entirely unmotivated, coincidences.

Symbionts are like monsters. In Origins, Darwin discounts “monstrosities,” discontinuous changes known to occur by animal husbandry, which, according to him, would be statistically insignificant (like a political minority) over the long run. [7] He advocates focusing on gradual variations instead. But without Margulis’ chimeras and monsters, it seems to me awfully less likely that true novelty could arise. Although I accept that there may be several routes to speciation, I happened to be inclined toward Margulis’ definition: new species tend to arise when two different kinds/species combine genomes. As someone working with the complexity sciences, I believe it makes sense to think of species as self-organized entities, largely homeostatic, tolerating variety only to withstand the vicissitudes of life and stay the same. Species as self-organizing processes maintain themselves by only allowing what they recognize as self, i.e. what fits, what functions. As complex systems mature, as biologist and complexity scientist Stanley Salthe likes to note, they can get crabby and reactionary like some old people, and can’t adjust to new ideas or perturbations, until finally they fall apart.

Although gradualism by itself may curb creativity, it is certainly a force that creates a manageable kind of diversity that is good for stability, without which real novelty is not possible. According to complexity science-inspired emergence theory, novelty can arise only when an other is mistaken for part of self, as in symbiogenesis, and that mistake leads to a new self, through a process of partial self-negation, combing two entities into one with a new means of survival. Gradualism without the impetus of interspecies mixing, on the other hand, just seems destined to end in most situations in habituation and conformity, not speciation. Occurring within huge, communicating populations, gradualism must lead, I would think, to the kind of “diversity” we are familiar with in pop monoculture: endless apparent choices among the same sort of things. Such homogeneous monopolies would tend to wipe out small niches (if they are not isolated) before finally collapsing for lack of fodder for their mills.

Some who are committed to idea of very gradual gradualism must feel uncomfortable, even as evidence mounts, with the idea of large mutational events, like gene duplication (segmental and whole-genome), lateral gene transfer, hybridization, transposons and symbiosis. I can sympathize to a degree. I am uncomfortable with the idea thrown-together radical novelty. It’s aesthetically unappealing. I am suspicious of all “radical” science and “novel” art that eschews completely tradition and the existing knowledge structures that have been assembled over time and been perfected gradually by trial and error. But the thing is this: with radically creative symbiogenesis, organisms and their genomes are not just thrown together. They come together and stay together to satisfy individual purposes in a mutually beneficial way. The glue of self-organizing, auto-catalyzing benefit explains why self-made fantastic luck should not be confined to fantasy literature because it is very much as part of nature.

To their debunkers, Gaia theory, symbiogenesis, and 9/11 conspiracy theory seem to imply an impossible intelligent design (either by nonexistent deities or bureaucratic numbskulls who would never be able to orchestrate such a colossal event, much less keep it secret.) There is a familiar pattern in the challenges Margulis accepted and the criticism she received in return. It’s not that she merely liked controversy for controversy’s sake. She wasn’t a troublemaker. There was a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye when she said things like, “I don’t consider my ideas controversial. I consider them right.” [8] She just didn’t like unnecessary difficulties in some theories and wielded her Occam’s razor to get to a simpler explanation. In the last few years of her life, Margulis supported two very controversial hypotheses: the role of the syphilis spirochete in the spread of AIDS and the controlled demolition of the three high-rise towers on September 11th. She is widely criticized (if not read/understood) for both. Both are highly politically charged issues, so this time, in addition to being  wrongly lumped in with ID advocates, she has been labeled “extremist,” “truther,” “denialist,” and other reactionary tags applied to anyone noting the early signs of fascism. Interestingly, those who refute 9/11 truth tend to fall in among neo-Darwinists. The Skeptical Inquirer, known for defending strict neo-Darwinism against saltationist upstarts and ID folks, has performed the role of being the official 9/11 truth debunking publication. On neo-Darwinist Jerry Coyne’s blog site, “Why Evolution is True,” numerous derogatory comments about Margulis’ being a “truther” were made on the occasion of her New York Times obituary. Her interest in these political issues, Coyne claims, destroys any credibility she had as a scientist and effectively negates her legacy. Richard Dawkins concurs with Coyne and others who opine, “anything ‘right’ Margulis said was by chance, not by design.” [9]

Just as the symbiogenesis idea of cell evolution avoids the “hard work” of an ultra gradualist explanation, the controlled demolition hypothesis Margulis defends avoids the difficult thought necessary to imagine how innumerable bolts snapped in infinitely small steps resulting in a so-called progressive collapse — a counter-intuitive “new phenomenon,” according to the overreaching official explanation — that occurred three times that day (WTC 1,2 & 7) and has never been observed before or since. Margulis was willing to consider instead the idea that some number of people conspired together for their own mutual benefit, which is the sort of thing that tends to happen in nature, and provided the energy (in the form of incendiary explosives) to cause the otherwise inexplicably rapid and symmetrical structural failures. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), which performed the investigations, refused to release the data for their computer model of progressive collapse of WTC 7, claiming it would “jeopardize public safety,” [10] and thus their hypothesis remains untested and unproven. Moreover, NIST did not even offer a model or analysis of the collapses of WTC 1 & 2 and limited themselves to what might have happened to the buildings before they collapsed.[11]

Skeptics of the controlled demolition hypothesis say conspiracy seems too improbable. But science should only reject the impossible, not the apparently improbable. No physical laws are violated in the controlled demolition hypothesis, whereas the progressive collapse hypothesis disobeys Newton’s third law making the falling matter accelerate through the path of greatest resistance. (Opposing forces should have caused deceleration, which was not observed, leading one to theorize that resistance was removed by explosives before the falling floors had a chance to encounter any.) [12] Since NIST chose not to test for explosives and most of the evidence was immediately carted off from the crime scene and destroyed, Margulis correctly points out that the investigation was “not science” and that the most likely hypothesis, controlled demolition, was ignored. [13] Supposing that “inside job” hypothesis implies an enormous all-powerful conspiracy is a bit like saying the endosymbiosis hypothesis implied a “special creation.” Verifying or falsifying the tests of the material evidence that have been done by independent researchers [14] would settle the issue, as the DNA analyses of mitochondria and chloroplasts settled that issue. But that’s not going to happen as long as the pressure to conform to the majority remains strong.

Federally funded researchers [15] and a member of the Obama administration [16] have made similar claims that the “HIV denial” problem and the “9/11 Truth” problem, respectively, are caused by the informational isolation of gullible believers, who, preferring alternative research found on the Internet, are isolated from official reports and mainstream media. This seems a reactionary response of an aging complex system, for which being non-isolationist seems to mean turning all diversity into an image of one’s self. Neo-Darwinists certainly must believe that discouraging isolation might effectively prevent the evolution of new and different ideas. Global gradualism has taken the U.S. far in a certain direction, step-by-step (the most notable steps being the Patriot Act, the Authorization of the Use of Military Force, and the National Defense Administration Act, the next may be Internet censorship of all things labeled compromising to public “health” and national “security”). Up ahead there will be an intersection in the road. Will we be ushered this way and that? or will we make a decisive change set by our own goals?

Charles Darwin enabled great scientific, cultural and political progress when he helped transform the Great Chain of Being essentialist metaphor into the Tree of Life evolutionist metaphor. Lynn Margulis will be remembered for having improved upon that work, helping to create a new visual metaphor for our taxonomic place, the Net of Life, which emphasizes interconnecting descent in addition to linear descent. Showing that mutual benefit rather than random mutation may be the more powerful source of novelty in evolution helps explain why nature works out well more often than predicted by the selfish gene hypothesis. Symbiogenesis is a process that encourages one to be more of an active participant in the evolution of things. According to her neo-Lamarckian-like theory, we can try to take control of our destinies rather than passively submit to the inevitability of random change and popular opinion. Margulis will be remembered for understanding creativity as artists do, and for standing up for science, defending our right to ask questions and to examine the evidence. Her legacy, far from being limited to her scientific achievements, will involve her contributions to culture and politics as well.

Victoria N. Alexander
Dactyl Foundation

1. Thomas Uzell and Christina Spolsky, “Mitochondria and Plastids as Endosymbionts: A Revival of Special Creation?” American Scientist 62 (1974): 334-43.

2. Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Acquiring Genomes: The Theory of the Origins of the Species (New York: Basic Books, 2003) xv.

3. Willimam Paley, Natural Theology: Or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearance of Nature (1802; Oxford: Vincent, 1828). Charles Bell, The Hand. Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design, Bridgewater Treatises (London: W. Pickering, 1833).

4. Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan Ibid. xii

5. Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution (Berkeley: U of California P, 1997)144.

6. Ibid.

7. On the Origin of Species, Harvard Classics 11 (Cambridge: P. F. Collier, 1909).

8. Lynn Margulis, interview with Dick Teresi. “Lynn Margulis Says She’s Not Controversial, She’s Right,” Discover Magazine April 2011.

9. See The comment was made by “ERV.”

10. NIST Director Patrick Gallagher’s reply, dated July 9, 2009, to a FOI request. See

11. NIST NCSTAR 1: Federal Building and Fire Safety Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster: Final Report of the National Construction Safety Team on the Collapses of the World Trade Center Tower.

12. Graeme MacQueen and Tony Szamboti, “The Missing Jolt: A Simple Refutation of the NIST-Bazant Collapse Hypothesis,” Journal of 911 Studies 24 (2009). Also see video summary by Szamboti

13. Lynn Margulis, interview, Architects & Engineers: Solving the Mystery of WTC 7, video documentary, Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, 2011. Available at

14. Niels H. Harrit, Jeffrey Farrer, Steven E. Jones, et al. “Active Thermitic Material Discovered in Dust from the 9/11 World Trade Center Catastrophe,” The Open Chemical Physics Journal (2009): 2, 7-31.

15. See Seth C. Kalichman, Lisa Eaton and Chauncey Cherry, “’There is no proof that HIV causes AIDS’: AIDS denialism beliefs among people living with HIV/AIDS,” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 33 (2010): 432-440. Research support provided by the National Institute for Mental Health, authorized by the U.S. Congress to accept donations from other sources.

16. See Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, “Conspiracy Theories,” Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-03, U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper no. 199, U of Chicago, Public Law & Economics Working Paper No. 387 (2008). Available at (Retrieved January 3, 2012). Sunstein was Obama’s head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments