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Lynn Margulis Criticizes Neo-Darwinism in Discover Magazine (Updated)

Casey Luskin

National Academy of Sciences member biologist Lynn Margulis does not support intelligent design. She’s a materialist who is seeking materialist explanations of evolution. However, as revealed in a recent interview with Discover Magazine, she’s a skeptic of neo-Darwinian evolution, and she expressly admits that many of her criticisms of neo-Darwinism are the same as those made by proponents of intelligent design (ID). She first explains why she disagrees with the adequacy of mutation and natural selection:

This is the issue I have with neo-Darwinists: They teach that what is generating novelty is the accumulation of random mutations in DNA, in a direction set by natural selection. If you want bigger eggs, you keep selecting the hens that are laying the biggest eggs, and you get bigger and bigger eggs. But you also get hens with defective feathers and wobbly legs. Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create…. [N]eo-Darwinists say that new species emerge when mutations occur and modify and organism. I was taught over and over again that the accumulation of random mutations led to evolutionary change-led to new species. I believed it until I looked for evidence.

In this vein, when asked about the Grants’ famous studies of evolution in Galapagos finches, she states: “They saw lots of variation within a species, changes over time. But they never found any new species–ever.”

When asked, “What kind of evidence turned you against neo-Darwinism?” she replies it is a lack of evidence for gradual change in the fossil record:

What you’d like to see is a good case for gradual change from one species to another in the field, in the laboratory, or in the fossil record–and preferably in all three. Darwin’s big mystery was why there was no record at all before a specific point [dated to 542 million years ago by modern researchers], and then all of the sudden in the fossil record you get nearly all the major types of animals. The paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould studied lakes in East Africa and on Caribbean islands looking for Darwin’s gradualchange from one species of trilobite or snail to another. What they found was lots of back-and-forth variation in the population and then–whoop–a whole new species. There is no gradualism in the fossil record.

One fascinating comment comes when ID is brought up. The question posed was: “Some of your criticisms of natural selection sound a lot like those of Michael Behe, one of the most famous proponents of ‘intelligent design,’ and yet you have debated Behe. What is the difference between your views?” And she answered:

The critics, including the creationist critics, are right about their criticism. It’s just that they’ve got nothing to offer by intelligent design or “God did it.” They have no alternatives that are scientific.

So obviously Margulis disagrees with the positive argument for design laid out by ID proponents (though she puts forth a false caricature of the ID argument), but she agrees that ID proponents (which wrongly she lumps as “creationists”) are “right about their criticisms” of neo-Darwinism. One thing is clear: Margulis shows that one can critique neo-Darwinism and not be a “creationist.”

Are Darwin-Critics Tolerated in the Academy?
The short answer is sometimes maybe–but only if they are materialists like Margulis who openly oppose intelligent design. Even then, many anti-ID biologists feel pressured to withhold critiques of neo-Darwinism.

Nonetheless, some Darwin lobbyists have cited Margulis as evidence that one can critique the neo-Darwinian paradigm and not face opposition. Let’s consider that argument in light of her express attacks on ID.
In the interview, Margulis shares some personal experiences about whether she receives pushback due to her non-Darwinian views. She explains that “[a]nyone who is overtly critical of the foundations of his science is persona non grata. I am critical of evolutionary biology that is based on population genetics.”

Amazingly, while materialists who challenge neo-Darwinism are apparently “persona non grata,” Margulis explains that scientists who continue to pursue Darwinian explanations will readily receive grants and support even though they admit the paradigm is failing:

Population geneticist Richard Lewontin gave a talk here at UMass Amherst about six years ago, and he mathemetized all of it–changes in the population, random mutation, sexual selection, cost and benefit. At the end of his talk he said, “You know, we’ve tried to test these ideas in the field and the lab, and there are really no measurements that match the quantities I’ve told you about.” This just appalled me. So I said, “Richard Lewontin, you are a great lecturer to have the courage to say it’s gotten you nowhere. But then why do you continue to do this work?” And he looked around and said, “It’s the only thing I know how to do, and if I don’t do it I won’t get grant money.” So he’s an honest man, and that’s an honest answer.

In the end, however, there’s no doubt that as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Margulis is generally tolerated. Why is that?

Well, for one Margulis has made significant contributions to evolutionary thinking with her endosymbiosis hypothesis–an idea which is highly flawed–but nonetheless courts her favor with modern evolutionary biologists.

But when critics of the Darwinian paradigm like Margulis are tolerated, it’s because they wholly reject intelligent design and believe that unguided material causes built all of life’s complexity. They don’t threaten the core materialism of neo-Darwinism, making it unsurprising that they have experienced no persecution. Rejecting ID and embracing materialism seems to be a necessary condition of being tolerated as a dissenter from neo-Darwinism.

As I explain at ‘Expelled Exposed’ Is Wrong: Materialists Allowed to Challenge Neo-Darwinian Orthodoxy, Intelligent Design Proponents Are Not, “One can express scientific dissent from neo-Darwinism–albeit rarely, sheepishly, and full of disclaimers and political pledges to materialism–so long as that dissent does not support intelligent design.” Margulis is welcome to disagree with ID if that’s how she feels. But her hasty (and inaccurate) rhetoric against ID proponents as “creationists” who say “God did it” and offer “no alternatives that are scientific” is evidence that my point is correct.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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