By the time Margulis moved to Amherst — where her small yard abuts the Emily Dickinson homestead and museum — in 1988, she and chemistry professor T.N. Margulis had already divorced (“I quit my job as wife twice,” she says), and she had given birth to two more children (Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma, now a New York criminal lawyer, and Jennifer Margulis di Properzio, a writer). The split, an amicable one, occurred when she was offered a stint as a distinguished scholar at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and her husband didn’t want her to go and didn’t want to follow her to southern California.
Her offspring, she says, quip that after the divorces, she kept the children and her exes kept the money. For the last quarter century, she has had a personal and research partnership with microbiologist Ricardo Guerrero, a professor at the University of Barcelona, to whom she refers as her “compañero.”
But it is her collaboration with her son Dorion Sagan that has contributed the most to her public reputation. They have functioned as a writing team for more than two decades, with Dorion bringing philosophy and poetry to the prose they produce together. Microcosmos, the title of their first collaboration, mirrors Cosmos, the title of the wildly popular book and public television series, which was hosted by Dorion’s late father and made Carl Sagan perhaps the most recognizable
scientist of his day.
Dorion Sagan is himself the author of many books, mostly on science. Their collaboration has, in large measure, taken Margulis beyond the realm of turgid peer-reviewed scientific journals, where she still publishes prodigiously. Yet she chafes at the suggestion that she and Dorion write “popular science,” retorting, “What we do is make real science accessible to readers.”
One aspect of science that she’d like to make more accessible is the much-neglected primordial phase of evolution. In the early part of the last century,
theories of evolution focused on how human beings, regarded uncritically as the summit of evolutionary achievement,
Margulis, photographed while attending the World Summit on Evolution in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands in 2005, asserts that we have neglected the earliest stages of evolution that preceded animals — a period that represents seven-eighths of the history of life on Earth.
Margulis is known for being outspoken — both in praise of controversial ideas … and in criticizing what others view as accepted truth. Her sharpest barbs are reserved for those fellow scientists who she believes have sold out to the power structure of academia to the point where they persist in teaching discredited theories.
It was there that she met her first husband, the late astronomer Carl Sagan, whom she describes as a “big shot” upperclassman who glommed onto her when she was sixteen and he was twenty.
Margulis came to be the way they are over a period of hundreds of millions of years since animals crawled out of the sea. What went on before that, especially in the vast and ancient arena of microscopic life forms, received scant attention.
“Life on Earth is such a good story you can’t afford to miss the beginning,” Margulis says. “Do historians begin their study of civilization with the founding of Los Angeles? This is what studying natural history is like if we ignore the microcosm.”
Among myriad tangible examples of symbiosis is our dependence on specific bacteria within our intestines and colons that produce the vitamins that allow us to live. The mutual dependence that has evolved between us and these bacteria means that as a matter of survival, we have acquired some of each other’s genomes and in a way fused into a single individual. More than a thousand such healthy organisms reside permanently in all our bodies. Many of them have already passed some genes into our chromosomes, Margulis explains.
“Molecular biology has shown that this process is going on, and we’ve received many genes from bacteria and viruses. We are expected to receive more and lose more,” she says. Margulis has done prodigious research on termites, which have bacteria and other wood-digesting beings known as protoctists in their hindguts. Without these microbes, the insects’ survival on a diet composed of wood and water, which they convert into usable sugars and proteins, would be impossible.
The extent to which symbiogenesis can explain the emergence of new species is debated, but Margulis’s indefatigable fieldwork, lab research, dogged teaching, and writing have put the “random-mutation-is-enough” theorists on the defensive. Still, she experiences her share of rejection. She is now advancing evidence that ancient symbiogenesis led to the origin of cilia (short, hairlike, waving structures on cells that produce locomotion). She thinks that cilia, involved in taste and smell, originated as bacteria. And again, she is meeting with resistance.
“I just laugh,” she says when asked how she responds to criticism. “I don’t take it personally — I just collect more and more and more evidence.” Quizzed on where she summoned the confidence to persist in the face of financial rejection, public ridicule, and sustained attempts by the scientific establishment to dismiss her ideas, her response is as spontaneously direct as it is paradoxical. “It wasn’t confidence; I just know I’m right — I mean, I really do know I’m right.”
Eric Goldscheider, a freelance writer based in Massachusetts, is working on a book about a criminal case involving a botched DNA test.