Twisted tree of life award: @Discovermag for article on Lynne Margulis

Well, if you can, for a minute, ignore that fact that in Discover Interview: Lynn Margulis Says She’s Not Controversial, She’s Right | Evolution | DISCOVER Magazine Discover Magazine in essence is promoting some of the refuted ideas Lynne Margulis has about HIV. Sure they hint in part that they think she is over the top but they also give her a soapbox to spout some of her latest absurdities on HIV and such. I would suggest you don’t even read the main part of the Discover article. Just read Tara Smith’s discussion of it: Margulis does it again : Aetiology. Margulis should not be given such prominence in a magazine like Discover. But that is not what I am hear to write about. I am hear to point out that Discover also sets up a red herring for Margulis. In the beginning of the article, it is written:

“A conversation with Lynn Margulis is an effective way to change the way you think about life. Not just your life. All life. Scientists today recognize five groups of life: bacteria, protoctists (amoebas, seaweed), fungi (yeast, mold, mushrooms), plants, and animals. Margulis, a self-described “evolutionist,” makes a convincing case that there are really just two groups, bacteria and everything else.”

Seriously? Scientists today do not recognize five groups. Scientists today have moved past that to recognize and/or argue about bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes – the three domains of life. These three groups were first proposed in 1977 by Carl Woese and colleagues. Did Discover somehow miss the last 34 years of science? WTF? For setting up such an evolutionary red herring in this painful interview with Lynne Margulis, I am giving Discover Mag my coveted “Twisted tree of life award“. Past winners are:

About Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

5 thoughts on “Twisted tree of life award: @Discovermag for article on Lynne Margulis

  1. Lynn Margulis (even before her jump off the deep end into denials of HIV and observed speciation of finches) never accepted the Archaea, so there's no surprise that she still doesn't. I think the real story is that Lynn herself has recently moved from five kingdoms (she wrote a book called that) to two, not the scientific community.


  2. Here's a comment by Carl Woese on the tree of life. Maybe all trees are “twisted”!?

    Classical Biology has also saddled us with the phylogenetic tree, an image the biologist invests with a deep and unwarranted significance. The tree is no more than a representational device, but to the biologist it is some God-given truth. Thus, for example, we agonize over how the tree can accommodate horizontal gene transfer events, when it should simply be a matter of when (and to what extent) the evolution course can be usefully represented by a tree diagram. Evolution defines the tree, not the reverse. Tree imagery has locked the biologist into a restriced way of looking at ancestors. It is the tree image, almost certainly, that caused us to turn Darwin's conjecture that all organisms might have descended from a simple primordial form into doctrine: the doctrine of universal descent. As we shall discuss below, it is also the tree image that has caused biologists (incorrectly) to take the archaea and eukaryotes to be sister lineages.

    Carl Woese (2005) in Microbial Phylogeny and Evolution: Concepts and Controversies Jan Sapp ed.


  3. I agree in general with Carl's text there. In fact, to some criticism, in the intro bio course here “Biodiversity and the Tree of Life” I spend some time discussing how there is only a single “tree of life” if X, Y and Z are true (e.g., no lateral gene transfer, single origin of life, etc). And then I say it is not clear what happened. But I disagree that a tree is a bad thing to use – trees have many uses 0 you just have to be careful with what they mean.

    Regardless of that – I think it is pretty clear that there is not a consensus that there are five domains of life as indicated in the discover article. There is still no consensus – but as I said – we are mostly arguing about bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes not protists, bacteria, plants, animals and fungi.


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