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"To say that this hypothesis was controversial was akin to saying that Napoleon had a bit of a thing about the Russians."
November 23, 2011 10:34 AM   Subscribe

American biologist Lynn Margulis has died. Prolific and determined, Margulis was best known for her development of Endosymbiotic Theory, the now widely-accepted idea that complex cells began as a combination of simpler, prokaryotic ones, and the Gaia Hypothesis, which posited the Earth as a type of living organism. Some of her later ideas, including the claim that HIV is not the cause of AIDS or that caterpillers and butterflies were once separate organisms, received less support, but Endosymbiotic Theory, in the words of Richard Dawkins, remains "one of the great achievements of twentieth-century evolutionary biology."
posted by Tubalcain (32 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
I remember reading about the the symbiotic origin of mitochondria in Bio 101 and thinking it was a beautiful idea.

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And on the spectrum of emeritus kookiness she was more of a Pauling than a Watson. No foul.
posted by clarknova at 10:46 AM on November 23, 2011


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posted by sfred at 10:50 AM on November 23, 2011


"Our claim is that there's no evidence that HIV is an infectious virus, or even an entity at all. There's no scientific paper that proves the HIV virus causes AIDS ... Syphilis has been called "the great imitator" because patients show a whole range of symptoms in a given order. ... The idea that penicillin kills the cause of the disease is nuts. If you treat the painless chancre in the first few days of infection, you may stop the bacterium before the symbiosis develops, but if you really get syphilis, all you can do is live with the spirochete. The spirochete lives permanently as a symbiont in the patient. The infection cannot be killed because it becomes part of the patient's genome and protein synthesis biochemistry. After syphilis establishes this symbiotic relationship with a person, it becomes dependent on human cells and is undetectable by any testing."

FYI: literally every word of this paragraph, virtually every single word, is wrong.

And not just wrong, but horrifyingly, dazzlingly, unbelievably, impossibly, 2+2=blue wrong.

I'm going to assume that this poor woman was suffering from some kind of dementia tragic brain disease when she made those comments. That is honestly the most charitable way to read those comments.
posted by Avenger at 10:53 AM on November 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


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posted by pemberkins at 10:53 AM on November 23, 2011


caterpillers and butterflies were once separate organisms

This sounds less crazy the more I read it. Have I been infected? Am I about to grow wings and devour my own brain?
posted by DU at 10:57 AM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


For her revolutionary research and HIV denialism she deserves as much praise as a pilot who safely landed a plane full of passengers on a beach and then deliberately flew another into a volcano. Because he saw a beach in there.
I'll never accomplish a tenth as much as her, good or bad.
posted by hat_eater at 11:10 AM on November 23, 2011 [6 favorites]


I'm going to assume that this poor woman was suffering from some kind of dementia tragic brain disease when she made those comments.

I gotta say of the really, really smart people I know every one of them says some crazy stuff at times that makes me think they've lost their marbles. It seems to me to have really original ideas, you also have to have something of a rebellious mind and bully spirit and massive self-confidence in your ability and if you do not as a result say some outrageous, crazy, controversial stuff along with your original, brilliant insights, you're holding back.
posted by three blind mice at 11:17 AM on November 23, 2011 [15 favorites]


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posted by Numenius at 11:18 AM on November 23, 2011


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She really did earn her place in the NAS with her championing of endosymbiotic theory

"And on the spectrum of emeritus kookiness she was more of a Pauling than a Watson. No foul."

While she was never anything like the singular kind of ass that Jim Watson is, she was definitely consistently way kookier than either of them have ever been, comparable more to a scale with Kary Mullis. Yes Jim Watson has spent his entire career trying his damndest to see how much of an ass of himself he could really get away with making, but he never wrote anything like that paragraph quoted above by Avenger and even now in his 80's you couldn't accuse him of being anything like senile.

posted by Blasdelb at 11:18 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


She had the problem that a lot of smart people have: once she grabbed onto an idea, in her case symbiosis as a fundamental biological process, she simply couldn't let it go, even when it seemed obviously wrong to others. If you only have a hammer, everything is a nail.
posted by sfred at 11:23 AM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


The difference between madness and genius is success.
posted by Xoebe at 11:28 AM on November 23, 2011 [8 favorites]


I just taught secondary endosymbiosis a couple weeks ago. Of the many concepts I've taught this semester, it's one that many of my students readily grasped and found interesting.

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posted by hydropsyche at 11:44 AM on November 23, 2011


And not just wrong, but horrifyingly, dazzlingly, unbelievably, impossibly, 2+2=blue wrong.

I'm going to assume that this poor woman was suffering from some kind of dementia tragic brain disease when she made those comments. That is honestly the most charitable way to read those comments.
posted by Avenger at 10:53 AM on November 23


If you have a point, please stop raving and explain, with maybe a nod towards citing a source.

I really shouldn't have to explain this to you.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 11:52 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Our tenacious illusion of special dispensation belies our true status as upright mammalian weeds.


RIP
posted by psycho-alchemy at 11:53 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I gotta say of the really, really smart people I know every one of them says some crazy stuff at times that makes me think they've lost their marbles.

My theory is you don't really know someone until you've heard their crazy pet theory. I think everyone has one. The trick is keeping it a hobby and not collecting more than one or two. As an example, I was reading about Neal Adams today and each section of his bio at Wikipedia got more and more impressive. Until you hit the end where it says he doesn't believe in plate tectonics. My stomach sort of flip-flopped and I was mentally crossing him off my "Not Crazy" list until I remembered everybody gets one.
posted by yerfatma at 11:54 AM on November 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


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Her contribution to biology really was revolutionary. I saw her give a talk....must have been 2003ish, maybe as late as 04. It was very interesting, and had lots of animations/movies, but I was struck by how far away from the typical model of 'data, write, publish, revise' she had moved.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 11:55 AM on November 23, 2011


Dammit, I'm not surprised she came up with that caterpillars/butterfly thing, but it is annoying.

That occurred to me after reading the first link in one of edd's comments.

A great light has gone out of the world.
posted by jamjam at 12:24 PM on November 23, 2011


Ah, I see. She didn't come up with it, she got it published-- an act typical of her great generosity.
posted by jamjam at 12:30 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Maybe she just read a lot of Orson Scott Card.
posted by entropone at 12:52 PM on November 23, 2011


Previously on the butterfly/caterpillar thing on Metafilter.
posted by dhens at 1:02 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you have a point, please stop raving and explain, with maybe a nod towards citing a source.

What...what part of "Saying 'HIV doesn't cause AIDS' and 'penicillin doesn't cure syphilis' is crazy" really requires clarification?
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 1:16 PM on November 23, 2011 [10 favorites]


My stomach sort of flip-flopped and I was mentally crossing him off my "Not Crazy" list ...

You've read Batman: Odyssey, right?
posted by griphus at 1:29 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks, dhens, I was sick when that was posted and missed it.
posted by jamjam at 1:31 PM on November 23, 2011


O
posted by Beardman at 1:44 PM on November 23, 2011


Too young.
posted by carping demon at 2:01 PM on November 23, 2011


If you have a point, please stop raving and explain, with maybe a nod towards citing a source.

Here you go:

How HIV Causes AIDS.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:24 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


> about Neal Adams today and each section of his bio at Wikipedia got more and more impressive. Until you hit the end where it says he doesn't believe in plate tectonics

Actually Samuel Warren Carey was a fantastic geologist, one of the top guys in Australia who did magnificent field mapping in New Guinea.

Expanding Earth is not the work of a crackpot. I do not believe there is much evidence for the expanding earth, but it is a fascinating theory and idea.

Incidentally Carey's book Theories of the Earth and Universe was published by Stanford University Press. The last time I was in the Stanford Earth Science Library (~2004?) they had a copy of it on the shelves and it had never once been checked out since it was published in 1988. Which is a pity because the man was a terrific writer besides being an eminent geologist.
posted by bukvich at 2:41 PM on November 23, 2011


One of the reasons why Neal Adams gets a pass for his expanding-earth stuff is that 1) people typically don't look to comic artists for their scientific views*; 2) the comics and DVD that he created to popularize the theory aren't that widely available (although I understand that he's got some clips from the latter on YouTube); and 3) it's not likely to affect public policy, the way that a well-known and respected scientist can.

*There are plenty of comics artists who do get grief for their views on social issues--Dave Sim and Frank Miller, most notoriously--but Ditko also gets a pass for his extreme Randian philosophy, not only because a lot of people don't take him seriously either, but also because the resultant artwork is some of the best of his decades-long career.

Anyway, not to derail excessively; for her previous work,

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posted by Halloween Jack at 3:35 PM on November 23, 2011


[Folks, as with all obit threads, keep the grar down or take stuff to email/MetaTalk. Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 6:28 PM on November 23, 2011


Her enthusiasm was infectious, her ideas radical, and her passion for the natural world palpable.

As controversial as she was I loved hearing her talk and treasure the few personal exchanges I had with her as a grad student.

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posted by a22lamia at 6:43 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I saw her talk around 1996 or so. She talked about textbook serial endosymbiosis theory, then went onto a million slides of histological "proof" that spirochaetes were the progenitors of cilia and flagella, despite the theory having been roundly trounced years prior. She one wonderful idea and chased it too far -- in the case of HIV being caused by her beloved spirochaetes, she chased it right into the gutter.

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posted by benzenedream at 9:46 PM on November 23, 2011


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she was one of my intellectual heroes.
posted by megob at 1:17 AM on November 26, 2011


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