Sunday, April 17, 2011

Is Lynn Margulis a Crackpot?

A fascinating interview of Lynn Margulis has been published in the April 2011 edition of Discover Magazine, in which she expresses doubt both of HIV being the cause of AIDS and about neo-Darwinism being true.

Regarding AIDS, Margulis says,

There is a vast body of literature on syphilis spanning from the 1500s until after World War II, when the disease was supposedly cured by penicillin.
Yet the same symptoms now describe AIDS perfectly. It's in our paper "Resurgence of the Great Imitator." Our claim is that there's no evidence that HIV is an infectious virus, or even an entity at all. There's no scientific paper that proves the HIV virus causes AIDS. Kary Mullis [winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for DNA sequencing, and well known for his unconventional scientific views] said in an interview that he went looking for a reference substantiating that HIV causes AIDS and discovered, "There is no such document."

And she dismisses neo-Darwinism, even saying, " The critics, including the creationist critics, are right about their criticism [of neo-Darwinism]." And then this:

"Population geneticist Richard Lewontin gave a talk here at UMass Amherst about six years ago, and he mathematized 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 my grant money." So he's an honest man, and that's an honest answer."

Both PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne have reacted strongly to the interview, with Coyne giving the post detailed critique. He even fact-checked the Lewontin reference:

"I called up Dick [Lewontin] this morning and read him Margulis’s quote. He said that it completely mischaracterized his views and what he must have said at Amherst. Lewontin said that he thinks that purely mathematical models of population genetics have largely failed to help us understand the distribution of gene frequencies in nature, because those models often make assumptions that are either incorrect or untestable. So while mathematical theory in population genetics has had some successes, he said, it hasn’t been nearly as useful as we hoped. That’s why, Dick claimed, he stopped doing pure equations and started doing computer simulations, which he considers a more realistic way to see what can happen in nature. In simulations one can vary the parameters more easily and check the models’ sensitivity to varied conditions. In fact, Dick said that ages ago he stopped submitting grants that proposed purely mathematical approaches. So Margulis’s characterization of Lewontin as a dishonest huckster trying to fund work that he knew was bogus is inaccurate and unfair.

Lewontin wanted me to add (for I have permission to quote him here), that his purpose in getting grant money was not simply to fund designated projects described in his research proposals, but to “run an institution”: to “fund a group of creative people to do what they want.” And indeed, that’s what he did—and that’s what many grant-funded investigators do. We can’t always predict how our proposed research will turn out; in fact, we know it will turn out differently from the projects we describe in our proposals. And the granting agencies like the NIH also know this well. In many ways, grants are not just given for proposed projects, but for demonstrated accomplishments of a group of investigators. For many years Lewontin ran one of the most productive groups in modern evolutionary genetics. I was proud to be a part of it.

When I read him Margulis’s statement, designed to denigrate population genetics, Lewontin didn’t recognize at all the caricature she had drawn. Margulis simply distorted his views, which I’ve just described, as another way of dismissing modern evolutionary biology."

Neither Myers not Coyne comment on her reference to Kary Mullis and HIV. It's worth finding out.

Of course, I hope Margulis isn't a crackpot for another reason than ID. She's also a 9/11 truther.

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