Professor Lynn Margulis is the biologist who had the incredible insight that the cells of modern organisms were originally formed by the symbiotic combination of prokaryotic cells and colonies of bacteria, and then had to battle for years to have this recognised by the science community.

The idea is so outlandish, but so significant, that it puts her right up there as one of the greats of biology.

We owe a huge debt to Margulis, but it’s not only for this that we owe her. Margulis has described neo-Darwinism as; "a minor twentieth century religious sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon Biology" and believes that her opponents "wallow in their zoological, capitalistic, competitive, cost-benefit interpretation of Darwin—having mistaken him.”

Isn’t this great!? I know you want more; “… Neo-Darwinism, which insists on (the slow accrual of mutations), is a complete funk" (Science, Apr. 19, 1991 pp. 378-381 ).

Whew! What did all this mean?

Here’s my take on it.

Her reference to “Anglo-Saxon” biology as a religion is actually misplaced. I believe the problem she refers to should be labeled “Anglo-Norman ideology” because it was only after the Norman invasion of England that the peculiarly British cultural oddity we now know as individualism, emerged as a significant social force. The concept was eventually given written form and “philosophical” credibility by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, after which it never looked back.

So powerful was its grip on the imagination of a sector of the British intelligentsia that Darwin’s most prominent supporter, Thomas Huxley, was unable to accept Darwin’s clearly unambiguous description of social instincts as superior to individual instincts, and more significant than individual instincts as a factor in evolution. Huxley salved his conscience by mentioning the importance of sociality in a mere footnote to his essay Evolution and Ethics (1894), a concealment that must rank as one of the more notable abandonments of ethics in the history of science. But Huxley’s role in advancing the ideology went further than this.

Concealment of the significance of sociality in evolution went hand in hand with the promotion of ruthless competition. And it was this perception of evolution and natural selection, the image of “nature red in tooth and claw” that was seized with glee by apologists for capitalism who were, at that time, struggling with an outraged public reaction to the inhuman conditions under which the working class, including very young children, were expected to labour.

Huxley and others gave them the justification they craved. Individualism, competition, and struggle it was alleged, is the way of the world, the natural order just as God had created it, now backed up by the findings of science.  The political alliance between capitalism and established religion continues to this day, and it was that perverted, anti-social version of Darwinism that was utilized by this political alliance, and which also continues today in its modern form of neo-Darwinism.

So successful has the project been that it’s taken on a life of its own to such an extent that its most prominent modern advocate Richard Dawkins, who apparently has no sympathy for the political machinations of individualism, (and certainly none for established religion) felt constrained to take its non-scientific basis to its logical conclusion, gene selection, this being individualism reduced to its most fundamental level. In the process he has completely lost sight of the logic of evolution to finally arrive at a definition of evolution in which he mistakes an evolutionary outcome, gene survival, for its cause.

But is neo-Darwinism “complete funk”? Margulis believes that variation by mutation is far from being the main driver of evolutionary change. She believes that by focusing on animal behaviour, (hence her reference to “zoological wallowing”), biologists have lost sight of the fact that most evolutionary change has taken place at the level of micro-organisms, and that animal behaviour is such a late-comer to the evolutionary story that it’s of little importance in considerations of evolution as a whole. She has a point.

But does she have a counter-theory? Indeed she does.

Margulis argues that her great discovery, the symbiotic entry of colonies of bacteria into prokaryotic cells to produce the eukaryotic cells of which modern organisms are comprised, has been the principal driver of change. There’s no arguing against its significance. Without that occurrence evolution would have stalled at the level of micro-organisms. It was the eukaryotic cell that allowed for diversity, increased fitness, complexity and development.

So why do we owe Lynn Margulis?

Lysenkoism can be defined as science being pushed up blind alleys in the service of ideology. When the most prominent advocate of neo-Darwinism can proudly proclaim to the world the absurdity that “Evolution is the external and visible manifestation of the differential survival of alternative replicators” then what we are observing is our very own Western variant of Lysenkoism, for this is certainly science in the service of ideology, and it has certainly pushed biology up a blind alley. We owe a debt to Lynn Margulis for having the courage to take a stand against orthodoxy and dogma.

Still not convinced? You still think that neo-Darwinism has not gone completely off the rails? Consider the following.

In the endnotes to Ch 6 of The Selfish Gene (2006) Richard Dawkins ridiculed Marshall Sahlins for his argument against kin altruism that concluded with the following remark; “I shall not even comment on the even greater problem of how animals are supposed to figure out how r = 1/8” (“r” being the co-efficient of relationship between animals used in the so-called Hamilton’s Rule so beloved by selfish gene theorists.) Dawkins responded by citing several examples of mathematical outcomes in nature that cannot be the result of calculation, the spiral design on snail shells being one example.

A fair enough point we might say. But it begs the question as to why Sahlins assumed that such calculations are involved in kin altruism. The answer to that can be found in the same chapter endnotes. Once again I must quote this or you just won’t believe me. Dawkins highlighted a line from his first edition that contained an error. It read; “We simply expect that second cousins should tend to receive 1/16 as much altruism as offspring or siblings.”

Well well, I hear you say, what a clanger, thank goodness he’s going to change that! Don’t jump to conclusions, it gets worse, not better. He explained why that sentence should be changed: “As S. Altmann has pointed out this is obviously wrong. It is wrong for a reason that has nothing to do with the point I was trying to argue at the time. If an altruistic animal has a cake to give to relative , (what?!) there is no reason at all for it to give every relative a slice, the size of the slices being determined by the closeness of relatedness….if there is a close relative in the vicinity there is no reason to give a distant relative any cake at all….the whole cake should be given to the closest relative available. What of course I meant to say was ‘We simply expect that second cousins should be 1/16 as likely to receive altruism as offspring or siblings’, and this is what now stands.”

Can you believe this? What we have here is Altmann and Dawkins arguing over angels dancing on the head of a pin. Because this is irrelevant nonsense that has no connection to reality. Animals, including humans, do not act this way. Dawkins has had thirty years to ponder this error, and this is the best he could come up with? This is biology that’s away with the fairies.

But let’s assume for a moment that the argument is valid. (I know that’s difficult but bear with me.) If Dawkins does not expect that animals make these calculations, as he stated in his rebuttal of Sahlins, we can only conclude that he implies a genetic influence, as in snail shell design. His argument must be that this is a consistent, gene-driven behaviour, because he says we expect it. But remember that this is the same Richard Dawkins who in The Extended Phenotype mounted a passionate and lengthy defence against the accusation that he is indeed an advocate for genetic determinism. This leaves him with nowhere to go. His inability to think logically has him painted into a corner.

But contradictory positions have never fazed Dawkins, and it’s interesting to follow his argument further. He continued by employing a flawed analogy, smoke and mirrors in other words, to support his position that this alleged behaviour, “proportional altruism” we might call it, is indeed genetically determined and is no different to the design of a tree which conforms to a mathematical basis, buttress roots being the example given. (Proportional altruism is a far better term than kin altruism as it reminds the reader of the delusionary nature of the discussion.) Buttress roots was an unfortunate choice for Dawkins, as the mathematical influence on buttress roots is possibly far less than he expects. It could well be that as many trees grow without the buttress feature, or in a lesser form, as grow with it, and that we see only the survivors. The shape of the survivors is as much a product of natural selection as it is of genetics, the mathematical basis being an outcome, a mere measurement, not a cause.

We should not be surprised that Dawkins made this mistake, as it flows from his inability to distinguish between causes and outcomes in evolution generally.

But as he continued the argument, Dawkins realised that there is really no connection between organism design and the behaviour of other organisms, so he employed yet another flawed analogy in an attempt to link proportional altruism to another behaviour. He alleged that the actions required to catch a ball for example, are a behaviour governed by math that is not calculated by the catcher.

The flaw here is that catching a ball is not an unconscious or automatic response as with proportional altruism. It is a learned behaviour. Furthermore, the catcher has a choice. She can choose to not catch the ball, unlike proportional altruism whereby the behaviour must be consistent or the concept is meaningless.

Because Dawkins could not provide examples of mathematically determined behaviour and consequently had to clumsily manufacture them, Sahlins was correct to question the legitimacy of the alleged mathematical basis of kin selection and kin altruism.

And it was this question of altruism that provided the biggest challenge to neo-Darwinism as many of its proponents descended into the mire of selfish gene theory. Altruism had to be explained away, and it was explained away by claiming that altruism is derived from fictional mathematical descriptions of non-existent behaviours. That’s about as pathetic as it can get in science.

Neo-Darwinism has been defined as the synthesis of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian natural selection, but it has always struggled with the tension between the stability at the heart of genetics and the variation (instability) at the heart of natural selection. That tension needs to be addressed, but will not be resolved by indulging the mathematical fantasies of armchair biologists.