Monday, November 28, 2011

Lynn Margulis in Her Own Words

Edge has up on their web site a complete essay by Lynn Margulis, a chapter titled "Gaia Is A Tough Bitch" that she wrote for a book on scientific controversies. (My thoughts on Margulis are here.) A sample:

The neo-Darwinists say that variation originates from random mutation, defining mutation as any genetic change. By randomness they mean that characters appear randomly in offspring with respect to selection: if an animal needs a tail, it doesn't develop this tail because it needs it; rather, the animal randomly develops all sorts of changes and those with tails survive to produce more offspring. H.J. Muller, in the 1920s, discovered that not only do X rays increase the fruit-fly mutation rate, but even if fruit flies are isolated completely from X rays, solar radiation, and other environmental perturbation, a spontaneous mutation rate can be measured. Inherited variants do appear spontaneously; they have nothing to do with whether or not they're good for the organism in which they appear. Mutation was then touted as the source of variation- -that upon which natural selection acted — and the neo-Darwinian theory was declared complete. The science remaining required filling in the gaps in a "theory" with very few holes.

From many experiments, it is known that if mutagens like X rays or certain chemicals are presented to fruit flies, sick and dead flies result. No new species of fly appears — that is the real rub. Everyone agrees that such mutagens produce inherited variation. Everyone agrees that natural selection acts on this variation. The question is, From where comes the useful variation upon which selection acts? This problem has not yet been solved. But I claim that most significant inherited variation comes from mergers — from what the Russians, especially Konstantin S. Mereschkovsky, called symbiogenesis and the American Ivan Emanuel Wallin called symbionticism. Wallin meant by the term the incorporation of microbial genetic systems into progenitors of animal or plant cells. The new genetic system — a merger between microbe and animal cell or microbe and plant cell — is really different from the ancestral cell that lacks the microbe. Analogous to improvements in computer technology, instead of starting from scratch to make all new modules again, the symbiosis idea is an interfacing of preexisting modules. Mergers result in the emergence of new and more complex beings. I doubt new species form just from random mutation.

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