In My Defence

I’m writing this post in response to a trickle of hate-mail and unwarranted (IMO) criticism I’m getting since my small post on Lynn Margulis, a post I wrote very quickly in response to her death. I will admit that I hesitated before pushing the Publish button, because it occurred to me that the post was a bit too harsh and the last couple of positive paragraphs didn’t make up for it. Then I headdesked for having such a stupid thought.

On this blog and in meatspace, I make sure to highlight what is my personal opinion and what’s scientific consensus, especially when I diverge from the “scientific mainstream”, if such a thing exists. My personal opinions are often strongly-held (if not, I say so), and I like to embellish my attacks on opposing opinions with colourful language and analogies (just ask my friends, colleagues, and students about how I flip out when I read the word “Myriochelata”). Keep in mind that I never attack the scientists who hold those opinions, I only criticise their ideas, methods and evidence.

With all that cleared up, read the 4th sentence of the Margulis post. “This post will give my opinion of her”. Read also the beginning of the 8th paragraph, where I state that I don’t know her. Then read the end of the first paragraph, where I state that I am only criticising her contributions, because that’s the only thing I can criticise.

I got the endosymbiosis stuff out of the way because everyone knows about that. Then I started with the earnest criticisms – and the original draft had much more, especially centered around her Discover interview and stupidities uttered therein, but I retracted them out of respect – there were enough criticisms anyway. But those criticisms were my personal criticisms.

I mention that because some of the hate-mail accused me of being part of some super-duper conspiracy by Big Modern Synthesis to censor her revolutionary ideas. Sorry to disappoint, but there can be no such thing as a scientific conspiracy. Sure, institutional biases exist, but by and large, scientists follow the evidence, not what we’re told by others. It’s how we’re trained. We’re also not a monolithic institution, all walking in lock-step. If that were the case, there would be no progress at all.

My criticisms were what I personally saw as flaws in her ideas. My opinion is of course coloured by my own training in traditional zoology and evolutionary biology, and that it coincides with what others say isn’t because I took an oath to conform to a script set by Big Modern Synthesis, but because the evidence is not on her side. Plain and simple.

Is it rehashing the mockery she got when first proposing endosymbiosis? Perhaps. But that mockery back then wasn’t entirely undeserved. We know with hindsight that she was right. But her evidence back then was still too preliminary to be automatically accepted. If I were alive back then, I would also have joined the mockery parade.

That takes care of the bulk of the hate-mail. If you want me to change my opinion, then you’re going to have to come up with some worthy evidence showing she’s right. Don’t try and excuse her undeniable idiocies, such as the communication of that horrid Williamson paper or her HIV denial and weird ideas on sperm in the Discover interview, because those are way beyond stupid. Just vindicate her attempt to revolutionise evolution by making symbiosis the central force in it.

A couple of smaller criticisms I got. I’m a misogynist. This made me snortle, because on the other hand, I’m called a giant mangina by anti-feminist friends. I just don’t know how to please anymore. Here’s a protip: when I criticise an idea, I don’t care whether it came from a woman or a man. Because that’s just stupid.

Another criticism I got was for calling her a “crazy cat lady”. As I said at the start of the post, I have nicknames for all scientists. The root of these nicknames is because I get nervous when giving public lectures, and the best way for me to get rid of nervousness is to tell stupid jokes. That’s why my lectures and talks are always peppered with dick jokes, double-entendres, innuendos (“We have Cardiums in this fossil localities. Perfect heart-shape, very romantic. Speaking of romance, we also have crabs. Har har har”), self-deprecating humour,¬† and yes, nicknames for famous people. They all come out spontaneously, since I never keep to a script.

The “crazy cat lady” nickname is because I know of all her, in my opinion, weird ideas. It’s not a nickname borne out of misogyny. It’s just one of those popular cultural tropes. No misogyny meant from it, and no insult either. It just encapsulates my opinion of her in three words. And it’s a bit funny. It is unfair, but I trust that my audiences can differentiate a joke from a serious statement.

Anyway, just to summarise. I meant no disrespect in the post. It was written for those who wanted my opinion of her (I got several e-mails from former students), since many know that it’s pretty low, and this seemed like a good occasion, since it was topical. Was it bad timing? Perhaps. But as I stressed at the end of the post, I do admire Lynn Margulis, if only for having the guts to stick to her guns in the face of adversity and for her reputation as a brilliant teacher. All I objected to was some of her scientific ideas. That is all.

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