Pharyngula

I lied. Lied, lied, lied. You knew I was being sarcastic — there’s no way I’m going to give Stuart Pivar a pass.

Pivar has published in a rather obscure journal, The International Journal of Astrobiology, which is obviously going to contain a fair amount of speculation…but his article doesn’t fit the subject matter of the journal in the slightest, and I suspect he relied on an unqualified pool of reviewers who knew nothing about developmental biology to get it published. It’s the same old crap Pivar has always peddled.

The title of the article is “The origin of the vertebrate skeleton“. Flacks for the journal are calling it an “innovative solution to the evolution of form” and are hyping it to a ridiculous degree.

How life originated and evolved is arguably the greatest unsolved problem facing science. Thousands of scientists and scores of organizations and scientific journals are dedicated to discovering the mechanisms underlying this mystery. In the peer-reviewed journal’s letter of acceptance the reviewer states, ” . . . the article should be published, so that as many scientists as possible can participate in the discussion on this new important subject.” Simon Mitton, prominent Cambridge scientist and IJA editor-in-chief, calls it “a groundbreaking concept.”

I have a suspicion that the flack writing that copy was…Pivar himself. It sure sounds like the pompous fluff in his books.

I have to criticize a few things in that noise. “How life originated and evolved” is a gigantic constellation of problems; it is not ever going to be answered in a single short paper. That’s just extravagant hyperbole. The reviewer’s endorsement is vague — encouraging discussion is the least we should expect from any paper — and wrong: Pivar’s article is not new, simply rehashing unsupported assertions from previous editions of his self-published books, and it is not important. It’s wrong.

Simon Mitton, by the way, is an astronomer. He is not qualified to judge whether a paper about developmental biology is “groundbreaking”. And given the appallingly bad quality of the work, I suppose he isn’t even qualified to be embarrassed by his incompetent assessment.

The paper itself is patent nonsense. There is no data. It’s a fantasy erected around fictitious games in imaginary topology — Pivar invents metaphors of tissue arrangements and cell movements that he claims generate form by purely mechanical forces, but he has no observations or measurements to suggest that they exist anywhere. It’s 2½ pages of text and 20 hand-drawn figures with little explanation.

Here, for example, is his explanation of the development and evolution of the skull. The complete story, in one paragraph.

Skull

The skull takes its form from the apical cap, a two-layer spherical surface divided into four sectors and three zones, each containing a hole at the centre resulting from the thinning of the membrane. Hydrostatic collapse causes the ventral half of the outer layer to fold over upon the dorsal half, forming the zygomatic arch and prefrontal ridges. The remaining ventral segments of the apical cap fold underneath the presumptive mandible (Fig. 19).

You may be wondering if perhaps Fig. 19 clarifies this abbreviated gemisch. Here it is.

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No, it doesn’t.

That middle column illustrates one bizarre assertion: that some part of the mandible rises up over the top of the skull to form the zygomatic arch and a kind of frontal cap. It doesn’t do that in any embryo, ever. There is nothing in the anatomical configuration of any vertebrate skull that would even suggest such an origin, and this is the only “data” he shows to back up the claim, a drawing he made. Similarly, there is no apical cap, no pattern of membranes in four sectors of three zones, no arrangement of holes, and I’m completely baffled by the row of lower teeth floating in space waiting for a mandible to drift up and give them a base.

And don’t get me started on his fable about how limbs evolve and develop.

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It’s bullshit at every step with no connection to reality, and he doesn’t even try in the text to document any evidence for these various stages. He drew them, and that’s good enough for the septic tank king of New York.

How did this get published? I have no idea. Let’s be charitable and assume that the reviewers were not drooling idiots, but were just ignorant of the actual data for the evolution and development of these structures, which completely contradicts everything Pivar is claiming. Shouldn’t they have looked at the form of the paper? It’s embarrassingly inadequate. There are no methods given, so reading the paper gives you no clue about how the conclusions were generated. There are no observations, just a large pile of sketches made with no sign that the artist had ever looked at an embryo. Shouldn’t any competent scientist have stopped somewhere in their reading of the paper and asked themself how Pivar knew what he was claiming? Shouldn’t they have stopped altogether and either consulted a biologist or recused themselves from reviewing the paper on grounds that it is outside their domain of expertise?

Something funny is going on here. I don’t see any other sign that the International Journal of Astrobiology is a crank journal, other than that this dreadful disgrace of a paper got published in it. I’m mystified that a journal would poison their own credibility by publishing a paper this ridiculous, but there it is, a cuckoo in the nest, and no one but some random blogger squawking about it.

I don’t think I can trust that journal, ever. Other authors who’ve published there might want to contact the editors and ask why they they’re so willing to flush their reputation away.