Port Erin’s Don gets his theory on film

ON FILM: Don Williamson being filmed by John Feldman of Hummingbird Films of New York for a documentary. PHOTO: John Maddrell JM121029 (14).

ON FILM: Don Williamson being filmed by John Feldman of Hummingbird Films of New York for a documentary. PHOTO: John Maddrell JM121029 (14).

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THERE is a so-called revolution happening in the natural sciences and at the forefront of this is Port Erin marine biologist Don Williamson.

Don will be featured in a documentary about it all being made by John Feldman from Hummingbird Films, who is based in the US, and visited the island last month to interview him about his theory of evolution through hybridisation.

The documentary – ‘Lynn Margulis: The Revolution is in Progress’ – explores radically new ways of thinking about science, evolution, genetics, bacteria and the environment.

Don, 90, is featured in the section on evolution. He stumbled on his controversial theory of evolution – in which he postulates that evolution also occurs through hybridisation – while lecturing at the Port Erin Marine Laboratory in 1983 and he has battled ever since to gain acceptance of his theory in the scientific community. The struggle was made far harder after he had a major stroke in 1990 that left him partially paralysed and, for a time, unable to speak, read and write.

A very important part of the journey was the support of Lynn Margulis, distinguished professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whom Dr Williamson first contacted in 1988 because his theory shared elements with her theory of cells.

Lynn inspired the film, said John. ‘I was friends with Lynn. I made another film about evolution, I met her through that film, she encouraged me to make another film after that which was the cutting edge of evolution. We were working on that for six months, she passed away [last December]. I re-imagined it and decided the film is about her ideas and her work with other people to pursue those ideas.’

He added: ‘She was an amazing person, very down to earth, not a pretentious person and helpful and endearing, but smart enough to know how to play the game … All the people in the film were friends with Lynn, they are questioning the conventional wisdom in a big way and successfully.’

He added: ‘What’s happened in all of these things, the traditional old guard science is very resistant to change, that’s what he [Don] has been up against. Lynn was up against it, she befriended any fellow scientist out there fighting their brick wall.’

Other scientists featured in the documentary include well-known personalities such as James Lovelock, who developed (with Lynn) The Gaia Theory and James Shapiro and making it has taken John around the US and in his European trip to the island, Oxford and Oslo.

He said the film celebrates this new ‘enlightened age’, he said: ‘We are at a time when everything is being questioned. It’s clear the way things are going is not working, people are looking at different approaches to the same stuff, whether it’s genetics, the environment or medicine, that’s where science can come in. Science helps us to look at the world with intelligence and method.’

He added: ‘It’s an incredible honour for me to be able to talk to these people. It’s an honour and a responsibility, it’s all through Lynn, living or dead.’

The documentary it’s thought will appeal to several audiences both scientific and mainstream, and is due to be released in about two years’ time.

John said: ‘Don’s theory, it might seem like common sense, but it was a brilliant idea, a stroke of intuition. Somehow he had to get to the point where he was willing to entertain this idea of hybridisation. We were always told it was taboo, it just does not happen.

‘Don is one of the great scientists. If they are in your home town, you say: “He is famous?” He is famous and infamous, and he knows that.’

Don said his interview with John was ‘marvellous, it could have not have been better’ and it is ‘gratifying’ for him to get some recognition for his theory.

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