Mad Scientists of the Modern Age: Lynn Margulis

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During the first week of October 2012, we ran a series of blog posts called "Mad Scientists of the Modern Age," in which we featured Jack Parsons, Vladimir Demikhov, Nikola Tesla, Josef Mengele and Barry Marshall. But we were just scratching the surface. In reality, there were plenty of kooky scientists to choose from, and that's probably because there really does appear to be a connection between genius and craziness. Hence, there's no fear that we will ever run out of new subjects to write about.

In that spirit, we would like to welcome our latest inductee into the RealClearScience "Mad Scientist Hall of Fame":
Lynn Margulis is the first female inductee. (Don't say we aren't equal opportunity mockers.) She developed the widely accepted endosymbiotic theory which explains the origin of eukaryotes. Eukaryotic cells contain mitochondria and (if they are photosynthetic) chloroplasts, organelles specialized for the tasks of energy production and photosynthesis, respectively. Intriguingly, they both resemble bacteria structurally, biochemically and genetically. If she had stopped there, Margulis would be remembered as making a powerful contribution to the theory of evolution. But, she had so much more to say.

With James Lovelock, she co-developed the Gaia Theory, which is less theory and more New Age/hippie philosophy. According to its website:

The theory asserts that living organisms and their inorganic surroundings have evolved together as a single living system that greatly affects the chemistry and conditions of Earth's surface. Some scientists believe that this "Gaian system" self-regulates global temperature, atmospheric content, ocean salinity, and other factors in an "automatic" manner. Earth's living system appears to keep conditions on our planet just right for life to persist!
There simply isn't any compelling reason to believe that's true. If it really was true, then scientists shouldn't worry about climate change, ocean acidification, pollution or staying within the confines of the planetary boundaries because Earth can take care of itself.

Hippie philosophy is generally harmless, so we can forgive that. But two of her other beliefs weren't as harmless.

Margulis was a 9/11 truther. On a website called "Scientists for 9/11 Truth," a statement attributed to her reads:

Certainly, 19 young Arab men and a man in a cave 7,000 miles away, no matter the level of their anger, could not have masterminded and carried out 9/11: the most effective television commercial in the history of Western civilization. I suggest that those of us aware and concerned demand that the glaringly erroneous official account of 9/11 be dismissed as a fraud and a new, thorough, and impartial investigation be undertaken.
Even worse than that is the fact that Margulis was also an AIDS denier. Instead of HIV, she believed that the symptoms associated with AIDS were caused by a symbiotic relationship with the bacterium that causes syphilis. (Apparently, after the success of her endosymbiotic theory, she believed that everything was caused by symbiotic relationships.) Incredibly, she claimed the bacterium "becomes part of the patient's genome" and is "undetectable."

That is unbelievable kookiness, especially for a biologist. While some viruses can integrate into the human genome, bacteria do not. And as for being "undetectable," the existence of STD tests would contradict that.

Margulis passed away from a stroke in November 2011. Her legacy is certainly mixed: She helped rewrite the textbooks on evolution, but her embrace of harmful pseudoscience has landed her in the hall of scientific infamy.

(Photo: Lynn Margulis via Wikimedia Commons)

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