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'Rebel' biologist and neo-Darwinian skeptic Lynn Margulis dies

Science loses a great mind

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Obituary Biologist Lynn Margulis has died, aged 73, at her home in Massachusetts.

The prolific writer was at times considered a controversial figure in the scientific community for her views on Neo-Darwinism.

Her final place of work was at the University of Massachusetts, whose faculty Margulis joined in 1988. Prior to that she taught at the University of Boston for 22 years.

The author of Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution penned hundreds of research papers and many books during her illustrious career.

She taught classes in environmental evolution for nearly 40 years.

As Scientific America reports, Margulis "rebelled" against the popular symbiosis concept of "ultra-Darwinian orthodoxy".

She later developed a much more radical theory, dubbed Gaia, that suggests Earth's physical and biological processes are bound together to form a self-regulating system.

"If science doesn't fit in with the cultural milieu, people dismiss science, they never reject their cultural milieu! If we are involved in science of which some aspects are not commensurate with the cultural milieu, then we are told that our science is flawed," Margulis argued.

"I suspect that all people have cultural concepts into which science must fit. Although I try to recognise these biases in myself, I'm sure I cannot entirely avoid them. I try to focus on the direct observational aspects of science."

The biologist said she admired Charles Darwin's contribution to science and agreed with much of his theoretical analysis, but added she was not a neo-Darwinist.

It was a mathematical concept that "never made much sense" to Margulis.

She was critical of the likes of fellow scientist Richard Dawkins, who she claimed suffered from "codifying ignorance".

"I refer in part to the fact that [those from the zoological tradition] miss four out of the five kingdoms of life. Animals are only one of these kingdoms.

"They miss bacteria, protoctista, fungi, and plants. They take a small and interesting chapter in the book of evolution and extrapolate it into the entire encyclopedia of life. Skewed and limited in their perspective, they are not wrong so much as grossly uninformed."

Margulis famously worked with British chemist James Lovelock. In 1972 the pair proposed the Gaia concept.

"Gaia is a tough bitch – a system that has worked for over three billion years without people. This planet's surface and its atmosphere and environment will continue to evolve long after people and prejudice are gone," she said.

The University of Massachusetts – which led the tributes, following Margulis's death on 22 November – said the biologist, who was once married to astronomer Carl Sagan, was elected to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983. President Bill Clinton handed the biologist the National Medal of Science in 1999.

"I quit my job as a wife twice. It's not humanly possible to be a good wife, a good mother, and a first-class scientist," Margulis once wrote. ®

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