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National Academy as National Enquirer?
December 4, 2010 12:47 PM   Subscribe

Caterpillars evolved from onychophorans by hybridogenesis. Caterpillars did not evolve from onychophorans by hybridogenesis.

In the November 24, 2009 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), two papers were published side by side.

The first, by Donald Williamson, claimed that caterpillars and other insects which go through a "grub" stage, were not evolved conventionally, but arose as the by product of interspecies mating between onychophorans and an ancestral insect. This paper was submitted through "Track I", a controversial method which allowed members of the NAS to shepherd papers into the journal more easily than standard peer review.

The second paper was a spirited rebuttal of the first, with the same title except for the words "did not" inserted.

The publication of such a controversial paper in the well regarded PNAS journal lead to a number of critical responses, including a news and views article, again in the same issue of PNAS that concluded:

"Perhaps the most amazing thing from this article is not the bold proposal, but the fact that the author believes that there is a research program behind his claims: “As an initial trial, it should be possible to attach an onychophoran spermatophore to the genital pore of a female cockroach and see if fertilized eggs are laid”. I am not sure this can be taken seriously."

Track I submission has since been discontinued.
posted by scodger (26 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
From the Scientific American article, don't miss this amazingly unashamed comment from one of the readers who recommended the "bold proposal" for publication:
"I’m probably the only one who gave a favorable review to it," he chuckles. "It wasn't that I believed what [Williamson] had in the way of evidence because I don't know that much about every group of invertebrates. I just look at it as a hypothesis that should be tested."
I wish I could get this guy to read everything I submit for peer review! Could there possibly be a lower bar for publication than having a "hypothesis that should be tested"? It's like he thinks publication in a major journal is equivalent to a good brainstorming session: coming up with a neat idea is enough, you don't actually need to provide any of that pesky evidence for it.
posted by RogerB at 1:00 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of the point/counterpoint articles from the onion.
posted by palacewalls at 1:13 PM on December 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


Now, a lone scientist claims that the phenomenon arose when two very different creatures accidentally mated.

I suspect this study arose out of an elaborate series of lies the researcher told his partner....
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:23 PM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Institute for Creation Research responds. Biologists who are prone to hypertension may want to skip this link.
posted by teraflop at 1:39 PM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


You see! You see! Scientists disagree about evolution, so it must be false. The Bible must be right.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:54 PM on December 4, 2010


Less filling!
posted by Horace Rumpole at 1:55 PM on December 4, 2010


The Institute for Creation Research responds.

That's weird, this article also reminds me of the Onion.
posted by palacewalls at 1:56 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Institute for Creation Research responds.

Are creationists even capable of rational thought? The whole article is a sequence of strawmen mated violently with non sequiturs in a hybridogenesis.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:06 PM on December 4, 2010 [9 favorites]


You may think that's a low bar RodgerB, but you're forgetting, "That hypothesis has been tested a dozen times and each time the data produced has been contrary to the results that one would expect if the hypothesis were correct, but we can bind all this crap together and call it The Journal of Irrelevant Pontification and then bundle it with journals people really want to read."
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:21 PM on December 4, 2010


Don, you ignorant slut.
posted by rhizome at 2:26 PM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Are creationists even capable of rational thought?

Perhaps it's best to keep in mind that we are all under delusions even if we aren't creationists. It's when the delusions which are not science are taught as science that it begins to become a problem. Scientific delusions can be resolved with testable hypotheses and peer review. Religious delusions conveniently exclude themselves from this sort of rigor outside of their own assumptions.

The answer is to ask a creationist to submit all of their entries into the scientific field as a testable hypothesis. They could get as far in this manner to say that God may exist, but it's a long way from that point to proving that this same being designed the universe, and from there to legitimizing their particular moral codes, which is their true goal.

Though I regularly fail to do this, I firmly believe toning down rhetoric helps. Everyone's worldview is internally rational to themselves. If you really care about changing someone's mind, it always helps to understand their motivations.
posted by notion at 2:43 PM on December 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


I don't really know enough to know why this is such heresy, but I do know that through the old method in which prestigious colleagues "communicated" these articles, Williamson's paper was communicated by Lynn Margulis. Dr. Margulis is rather brilliant, and has herself been somewhat controversial. I kind of think that the Academy did exactly the right thing. It published both sides. Though it should be noted that the system where senior scholars "communicated" the work of their juniors has been ended, I'd like to know the full story behind why Dr. Margulis sponsored this one.
posted by Toekneesan at 2:59 PM on December 4, 2010


Aren't "species" a human construct, with actual individual organisms being stretched out along a spectrum of genotype and phenotype similarity? So how is hybridogenesis concretely different from the mating of individuals with slightly different heredities, except that the biology of it looks more improbable to human scientists?
posted by XMLicious at 3:32 PM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Everyone's worldview is internally rational to themselves.

I'd say they're plausible to themselves, but that's trivially true (who gives credence to things they don't believe are worth giving credence to?). If you want to insist on something more, like coherence, the claim falls as soon as we find someone who has believed contradictory things. And those folks are easy to find, because people often discover that two ideas they believe to be true conflict in a way they did not previously understand, and that they must drop one. If you want to weaken the claim and say that "internally rational to themselves" means that people amend their views to restore coherence as soon as they become aware of incoherence, you still have a problem: it isn't always obvious how to render views coherent. (Take, for example, the ongoing attempt to make relativity coherent with quantum mechanics).

You can weaken it further and say that you mean people are either unaware of the incoherence of their views or working to restore coherence, and I think that's not a bad way to think of internal rationality, but now it excludes creationists. They don't want to reject either science or religion, they just want to claim that science, done properly, supports their religious beliefs. But then they steadfastly ignore what "done properly" entails and come up with bullshit arguments like light has slowed down in the last 4000 years. That's not working to restore coherence; it's willful ignorance.

That said, of course creationists are capable of rational thought. Creationism itself, though, is an unsupportable empirical claim. The mere fact that someone believes a thing doesn't make it worthy of respect. Sometimes worldviews really are nonsense.
posted by Marty Marx at 3:42 PM on December 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


Why, oh why did I click on that? I'm too old to cry!
posted by ambulocetus at 3:43 PM on December 4, 2010


XMLicious, there are a variety of species concepts out there, but under Ernst Mayr's widely accepted Biological Species Concept, the species is a natural entity. To the best of my understanding, levels of classification higher than that (genus, family, &c) are artificial, and have no actual meaning outside the human mind.

Hybridization between sufficiently distant lineages will result in individuals which are infertile because chromosomes are different enough to disrupt meiosis, hence reproductive isolation required under the BSC. Certain cytological events such as chromosome nondisjunction can restore fertility to these sterile hybrids, but I digress.
posted by vortex genie 2 at 3:50 PM on December 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


To further on the hybridogenesis stuff, yes hybridogenesis happens, normally between very closely related species. It seems to be a chance kind of thing, some species can and some can't.

The proposed experiment, mating a cockroach with a velvet worm, is mating across phyla which likely diverged during the Cambrian explosion. This is similar to mating a human with a hagfish and hoping to get offspring.

I think it would be cool if the idea was true, but the evidence is strongly against it, and the paper is pretty woeful. His whole evidence seems to be drawings and saying "guys this would be cool amirite?".
posted by scodger at 4:14 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is similar to mating a human with a hagfish and hoping to get offspring.

I tried that experiment... I called it "my second wife"! Heyooo!

Seriously, though, interesting post and commentary.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 4:24 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Funny this should come up on the blue on the same day I read this article about a 19th-Century creationist who believed that Archeopteryx was the result of a hybridization between a reptile and a bird.

(The Google Books link to the actual 1897 piece, contained in the blog post, does not work for me; I wonder if this is because of some kind of intellectual property issue. I am in Belgium.)
posted by dhens at 5:58 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wonder what this controversy has to teach us about the origin of owlbears, manticores, and centaurs.

(Interesting takeaway from the article: barnacles are actually crustaceans, not molluscs? Whodathunkit.)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:20 PM on December 4, 2010


This is similar to mating a human with a hagfish and hoping to get offspring.

I think it would be more like mating a human with a tunicate.
posted by snofoam at 5:52 AM on December 5, 2010


This concept is a bit of a new twist on "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" He believes they both existed for a long time and then mated.
posted by snofoam at 5:58 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is similar to mating a human with a hagfish and hoping to get offspring.

I think it would be more like mating a human with a tunicate.


Actually (pushes glasses up nose), it would be more like mating a human with a squid. Humans, hagfish, and tunicates are all in the same phylum (Chordata).
posted by deadbilly at 10:59 AM on December 5, 2010


Actually (pushes glasses up nose), it would be more like mating a human with a squid

...and then making it try, after a long shift working the cash at a fast food restaurant, to practice the clarinet while being pestered by a sapient sponge and starfish .
posted by Sys Rq at 3:05 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Aren't "species" a human construct, with actual individual organisms being stretched out along a spectrum of genotype and phenotype similarity?

XMLicious: No.

Creatures from different species cannot produce reproductively viable offspring, no matter how alike they may otherwise seem. There is no spectrum stretched out between two species; organisms fit into one, the other, or some different species. The only exceptions are hybrids, such as the mule, which are one-offs: they are not reproductively viable.

Eventually, this leads to certain subgroups being assigned into their own species, and some separate "species" being assimilated under one specie nomenclature, but the standard is real and biological, and not merely a convenient construct.
posted by IAmBroom at 4:38 PM on December 5, 2010


I'd like to know the full story behind why Dr. Margulis sponsored this one.

As soon as I heard just a brief summary of this story I was sure Donald I. Williamson would be citing Margulis and trying to cast himself as a brave follower in her footsteps.

Lynn Margulis championed the notion of Endosymbiosis (e.g. that chloroplasts and other organelles were created when one bacteria swallowed another of a different species), starting in 1967.

She was largely criticized and and called crazy then. These days, much of her position is considered common-sense scientific orthodoxy.

I don't know the reasons why she sponsored this paper, but they may include some amount of thumbing her nose or trying to break up current orthodoxy.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 3:07 PM on December 6, 2010


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