This strange episode of dodgy science and publishing is worth reprinting in its entirety from Ars Technica:

Scientific publishing weirdness: This paper didn’t strike me as weird so much as completely bonkers, given its opening sentence: “I reject the Darwinian assumption that larvae and their adults evolved from a single common ancestor.” It forwarded the proposal that the difference between larval and adult forms of insects–between caterpillars and butterflies, to give one example–arose because insects are the product of a hybridization event between a caterpillar-like organism and something that looked like the adult. The two different forms represent what once were two different species. There’s no evidence for this, and any number of reasons to indicate it’s wrong. The person who wrote the article is retired after having pushed similar ideas for decades; he’s apparently so poorly read on the subject that he doesn’t realize that there’s already data that addresses the test of his proposal that he puts forward (and shows that he’s wrong).

But things apparently get weirder still when you look at the history of the paper. Members of the National Academies of Science are able to shepherd papers through the review process at its Proceedings journal (a practice that will end next year), which is the only reason this got through. The member in this case is Lynn Margulis, who got into the NAS because of her endosymbiosis hypothesis for the origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts. But since then she’s been suggesting hybridization and endosymbiosis as the explanation for just about anything in biology, whether the data support it or not. The paper looks to be her way of thumbing her nose at a scientific club that would have her as a member, as she hand-picked a group of equally disgruntled reviewers (choice quote from one: “I’m willing to lower that bar.”).

Things have now descended into chaos. PNAS is refusing to put the paper, which is available online, in one of its print editions, and its editor is sitting on other papers from Margulis while awaiting an explanation for what happened here.

I’m looking forward to that explanation…


  1. #1 Greg Laden
    October 12, 2009

    Don’t bother waiting, I think your quote already describes it pretty well.

    I think people need to remember that the system that was in place probably allowed things that should have been published but otherwise may not have been to see the light of day. The fact that some things that should not get published get out is the price of that. Anyone who thinks you can have both (only good stuff published, no bad stuff, a kind of purity and perfection of the scientific publication process) have had too many of the chemicals they work witi seep into their brains.

    That is a truly bizarre paper. It may have been brilliant ca 1780 or so…

  2. #2 DrA
    October 12, 2009

    Imagine what this person must think about the fern life cycle?

  3. #3 Robert Saunders
    October 12, 2009

    The paper is quite astonishing, and breathtaking in the number of absurdities. A quick squizz through it reveals several assertions that are wrong, including:

    - I am sure that hemimetabolous insect nymphs aren’t always aquatic (page 3 bottom of left hand column)

    - I spent considerable time as a postdoc doing “brain squashes” on Drosophila ventral ganglia – these appear to remodel to form adult tissues as I recall. So at least some larval tissue makes it.

    I love the reference to Page (25) “apparently my hypothesis is not familiar to her”. Or maybe it’s so bonkers it isn’t worth addressing!

    Oh, and the bit about his hypothesis being testable:

    Many corollaries of my hypothesis are testable. If insects acquired larvae by hybrid transfer, the total base pairs of DNA of exopterygote insects that lack larvae will be smaller than those of endopterygote (holometabolous) species that have both larvae and pupae. Genome sequences are known for the fruitfly, Drosophila melanogaster, the honeybee, Apis mellifera, the malarial mosquito, Anopheles gambiae, the red flour beetle, Tribolium castaneum, and the silkworm, Bombyx mori: holometabolous species, with marked metamorphoses. I predict that an earwigfly (Mercoptera Meropeidae), an earwig (Dermaptera), a cockroach (Dictyoptera), or a locust (Orthoptera) will have not necessarily fewer chromosomes but will have fewer base pairs of protein-coding chromosomal DNA than have these holometabolans.

    A bizarre publication!


  4. #4 Anon
    October 12, 2009

    I think somebody read Xenocide a little too closely.

    (spoiler for those who have not read it– a virus causes the hybridization and interconnection between various species and the plants they eat, such that an apparent animal may metamorphose into an apparent plant. No, that’s not the theme of the entire book, but it is an important element to it.)