Serial Endosymbiosis and Intelligent Design
AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill
SOURCE: Original essay
COMMENTARY: That's up to you...
It's very gratifying to see Lynn Margulis finally getting the recognition that she deserves. As the most effective exponent of the serial endosymbiosis theory (SET) for the origin of eukaryotes, Lynn's work provides an excellent example of how ID should (but currently doesn't) proceed. During the late 1960s, Lynn published a series of revolutionary papers on the evolution of eukaryotic cells, culminating in her landmark book Symbiosis and Cell Evolution, in which she carefully laid out the empirical evidence supporting the theory that mitochondria, choloroplasts, and undulapodia (eukaryotic cilia and flagella) were once free living bacteria (purple sulfur bacteria, cyanobacteria, and spirochaetes, respectively).
Her theory was greeted with contempt and scorn by almost all evolutionary biologists (sound familiar?), who believed at the time that all eukaryotic cellular organelles evolved by gradual elaboration of invaginations of the plasma membrane. But Lynn didn't give up, or continue to simply restate her original theory (sound familiar?). Instead, she continued to do extensive field and laboratory research, publishing hundreds of papers and dozens of books in which she presented the accumulating empirical evidence supporting her theory. With time, other researchers (encouraged by the success of her field and lab research) began to test her hypotheses themselves, and discovered yet more empirical evidence supporting her theory.
And so today, Lynn Margulis's SET has become the dominant theory explaining not only the origin of eukaryotes, but also the origin of evolutionary novelty at dozens of different levels in biology (see her book, Acquiring Genomes for a comprehensive review). So well accepted has her work become by evolutionary biologists that finally, after almost four decades, creationists and ID supporters have begun to attack her theories. As she said at our Darwin Day celebration at Cornell this past February, no greater affirmation of one's "having arrived" as a major theorist in evolutionary biology could be imagined.
The point here is that, if ID wants to become accepted as part of evolutionary biology in the same way that Lynn Margulis's SET has become accepted, then ID supporters have to do the same thing she did: get out in the field and get your hands dirty, and get into the lab and do the same thing. Her ideas were just as unorthodox and unacceptable in 1969 as ID is now. However, she didn't put all of her effort into public relations and political propaganda. No "Symbiosis Institute" dumped millions into the production of deliberately distorted press kits and one-sided propaganda films. Legions of self-appointed experts whose only exposure to biology was in high school classes or what they read on Answers in Genesis or Uncommon Descent bloviated on SET and declared themselves experts after a week of superficial study of articles on Wikipedia.
No, Lynn and her colleagues did the hard work of finding the empirical evidence that eventually carried the day and established her SET as one of the bedrock foundations now worthy enough of respect as to earn the ire of the creationists and IDers. Her ideas are still radical, and still raise the blood pressure of many evolutionary biologists. Her dismissal of the "modern evolutionary synthesis" in particular is not popular among many evolutionary biologists, who are largely still mired in paradigms that are at least four decades of out of date. She has said some things about the "modern synthesis" that have brought smiles to the faces of the creationist quote-miners. The difference between her and them is that they can't even begin to claim any credibility in science; their "work" is entirely parasitic on hers, and deserves nothing but contempt.
When the history of evolutionary biology in the 20th century is written (I hope to contribute to it myself, if I live long enough), the work of Lynn Margulis will rank right up there with the work of Fisher, Haldane, Wright, Dobzhansky, Mayr, Simpson, Stebbins, Gould, Lewontin, Kimura, Williams, Hamilton, Trivers, and the two Wilsons. And unless and until IDers decide that it's finally time to stop doing agitprop and start doing science, they and the creationists will at best be a trivial footnote.
Comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!