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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« In Which You Get to Hear the Phrase "Hatch-Waxman" Again | Main | J&J Raises the Ax »

November 3, 2009

That Didn't Take Very Long

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Posted by Derek

Back in late September I wrote about a controversial paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It attracted comment for its way-out-there hypothesis: that caterpillars and other larvae arose through a spectacular interspecies gene transfer rather than through conventional evolutionary processes. And it may have been the last paper to make it into the journal by the now-eliminated "Track III" route, which allowed members to essentially cherry-pick their own reviewers. This paper may well have hastened the disappearance of that system, actually - it created quite an uproar.

At the time, I wrote that the paper's hypothesis seemed very likely to be wrong, but at least the author had proposed some means to test it. Now in the latest PNAS come a letter and a full article on the subject. Both mention the testability of the original paper, and go on to point out that such tests have already been done. The paper is written in a tone of exasperation:

Williamson suggested that "many corollaries of my hypothesis are testable." We agree and note that most of the tests have already been carried out, the results of which are readily available in the recent literature and online databases. Here, we set aside (i) the complete absence of evidence offered by Williamson in support of his hypothesis, (ii) his apparent determination to ignore the enormous errors in current understanding of inheritance, gene expression, cell fate specification, morphogenesis, and other phenomena that are implied by his hypothesis, and (iii) the abundant empirical evidence for the evolution and loss of larval forms by natural selection. Instead, we focus on Williamson's molecular genetic predictions concerning genome size and content in insects, velvet worms, and several marine taxa, and we point out the readily available data that show those predictions to be easily rejected.

And you know, they really should set aside those first three points. Entertaining as it is to read this sort of thing, the real way to demolish a paper like Williamson's is to rip it up scientifically, rather than hurl insults at it (however well-justified they might be). There seems to be plenty of room to work in. For example, Williamson predicts that a class of parasitic barnacle will be found to not be barnacles at all, and to have an abnormally large genome, with material from three different sorts of organisms. Actually, though, these organisms have smaller genomes than usual, and from their genes they appear to be perfectly reasonable relatives of other barnacles.

And so on. Williamson predicts that the genomes of insects with caterpillar-like larval stages will tend to be larger than those without, but the data indicate, if anything, a trend in the opposite direction. His predictions for specific insects don't pan out, nor do his predictions about the genome size of velvet worms and many other cases. If I read the paper right, not one of Williamson's many predictions actually goes his way. In some cases, he appears to cite genome size data that line up with his hypothesis, but miss citing similar organisms that contradict it.

So that would appear to be that. Indeed, as the authors of the latest PNAS paper mention, one might have thought so years ago, since these very authors have shot down some of Williamson's work before. That's the real problem here. I have a lot of sympathy for people who are willing to be spectacularly wrong, but that starts to evaporate when they don't realize that they've been spectacularly wrong. Williamson appears to have had a fair hearing for his ideas, and as far as I can tell, they've come up well short. And while we need brave renegades, cranks are already in long supply.

Comments (7) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature | Who Discovers and Why


1. Lucifer on November 3, 2009 9:36 AM writes...

J&J to Slash More Than 7,000 Jobs in Restructuring (Update2)

Nov. 3 (Bloomberg) -- Johnson & Johnson, the world’s biggest health-care company, will fire more than 7,000 workers as it tries to eliminate layers of management and invest in more profitable areas of its business.

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2. Vader on November 3, 2009 10:18 AM writes...

Shooting fish in a barrel is easy, but not very satisfying.

#1, what on earth does that have to do with evolutionary biology?

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3. startup on November 3, 2009 10:42 AM writes...

Did they really say "abendant"?

#1 I love it: "... will fire [...] workers [...] to eliminate [...] management..."

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4. RB Woodweird on November 3, 2009 10:52 AM writes...

Too bad there isn't a Fox News Science Channel. Sounds like this Williamson guy could have his own series there, following Ken Ham's Biology Today and leading into Jacques Benveniste's medical drama.

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5. David P on November 3, 2009 11:02 AM writes...

I went on an abendant once. It was a good time, but I felt pretty rough the next day.

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6. Sili on November 3, 2009 11:04 AM writes...

You're welcome to have sympathy for the idea, but "extraordinary ideas require extraordinary evidence", and he not only didn't supply that, he couldn't even arsed to go through the evidence out there already. Instead proper scientists had to waste time as Jerry Coyne says. This guy is no different from homoeopaths and he deserves whatever scorn can be poured on him.

Of course, it's no wholly his fault. The PNAS shouldn't have accepted the paper in the first place, and Lynn Margulis needs to learn when to shut the Belgium up, and not Belgium game the system.

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7. Hap on November 3, 2009 11:31 AM writes...

Testability is a useful sanity test for a theory, but somebody forgot that it wasn't actually sufficient. When the data to test the theory is readily available, and you are either too lazy to get it or too dishonest to note that it exists but doesn't appear to fit your theory and you're too lazy to explain how the appearance is inaccurate, well, you deserve what contempt you get.

This seems like a refined version of the creationism status grab - while the creationists can't even be bothered to make "theories" that don't require laughter as the only appropriate responses, while this person at least managed to posit a falsifiable hypothesis, neither of them could actually be bothered to do the work necessary to gain the status and legitimacy they desire.

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