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An Interview with Lynn Margulis

Is Neo-Darwinism Dead?


Symbiogeneticist Lynn Margulis, who was awarded the US Presidential Medal for Science in 1999, says "survival of the fittest" is a "capitalistic, competitive, cost-benefit interpretation of Darwin" and that natural selection is "neither the source of heritable novelty nor the entire evolutionary process". Margulis has pronounced neo-Darwinism "dead", since there’s no adequate evidence in the literature that random mutations result in new species. In a recent conversation with me from Balliol College at Oxford University, where she is spending the year as Eastman Professor, Margulis explored whether "evolution", i.e., the Anglo-Saxon "take" on the history of life, might be viewed by some as being "racist". Excerpts from that interview follow.

SUZAN MAZUR: What is the significance of the Rome evolution conference [organized by the Jesuits at Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome) and the University of Notre Dame (Indiana)] and why was it limited to US-European papers?

Lynn Margulis: I didn’t know it had been. You mean no Chinese or Japanese?

SUZAN MAZUR: There are no Russian, Chinese, African, Indian or Japanese presenters listed.

Lynn Margulis: This is not a policy of limitation, this fact resulted from historical circumstances.

It must be deeply understood that the term "evolution," which is not used by Charles Darwin — he called the process "descent with modification" — is Anglo-Saxon. It is very much a British-American "take" on the history of life, traditionally limited to Anglophones.

Most English-speaking scientists think in hushed hagiographic terms when they mention Charles Darwin, comparable to English thought about physics before Einstein when Newton was the only game in town. It’s a very English nationalist phenomenon, especially as Darwin was later interpreted.

SUZAN MAZUR: Do you think the Rome conference organizers had that in mind when they were inviting papers?

Lynn Margulis: No I don’t think so. It probably didn’t even occur to them that the guest list on their "international meeting" might strike some as racist!

The Chinese and the Navajos lack any tradition in evolution, although they both enjoy superb medicine (healing) traditional practice.

Professor Tom Glick, a former colleague of mine at Boston University — he’s wonderful — wrote a book, The Comparative Reception of Darwin, with chapters by country.

A joint student of ours suggested the study needed a chapter on the Chinese reception of Darwinism. The book has a chapter on Japan, Latin American coverage, Spain, many countries — on how Darwinism was perceived and received in the century between 1859 and about 1970.

This young man, a doctoral candidate in the history of science, went to China for a year and discovered no tradition of Darwinian evolution there. He ended up studying aspects of Chinese medicine. Also, my colleague Tacheeni Scott, a fine cell biologist, a Navajo, told me that his culture has no concept whatsoever of evolution. They just have no tradition.

SUZAN MAZUR: But there is significant research on evolution taking place in India and Japan. [Hundreds Of Natural-selection Studies Could Be Wrong, Study Demonstrates]

I haven’t looked at African evolution studies but I did interview scientists in Africa in the 1980s for Omni magazine — they were trained by the Soviets, so there must be important African thinking about evolution.

Lynn Margulis: Most of Africa was colonized by Europe. Let’s put it this way. In the Russian equivalent of the Encyclopedia Britannica, some 250 pages describe symbiogenesis. You have a point. Certain countries are expected to be excluded because they lack traditional study of evolution. . . .

SUZAN MAZUR’s reports have appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. She can be reached at: sznmzr@aol.com