The return of Stuart Pivar

Last week, I received an ominous email from Stuart Pivar.

Dear PZ,

The work of my lab has been subject to questions and harsh criticisms, some reasonable, some not. The scientific ones are dealt with in a new book On The Origin Of Form, Evolution by Self-Organization, an alternative to the natural selection paradigm, This is a substantially expanded presentation of the self-organization model previously published.

I welcome your assessment. If you are convinced now of its plausibility, as are many others, I solicit your participation in the dissemination of the idea for further investigation. A copy is on its way. Meanwhile, please see

Uh-oh. Pivar, you may recall, is the fellow who tried to sue me for FIFTEEN MILLION DOLLARS two years ago, all over my review of his book, Lifecode. That tends to damp my enthusiasm for any more books from him.

I did not reply. He sent me an update a few days later, anyway.

Dear PZ,

The new book presents a model of self organization amplified well beyond that shown previously, addressing, among many other issues, the reasons that the idealized models are inconsistent with parts of observed embryology. Many prominent scientists have now accepted the plausibility of the model.

If you plan to comment publicly kindly view this new material. You will probably find the premise plausible
as well.



Plausible? It must have undergone significant revision, then, since in its earlier incarnation, it was best described as surreal and absurd. Then the book arrives in my mailbox; you can even preorder it on Amazon now, and just look at the encomiums published on the cover!

"Stuart Pivar's book, On the Origin of Form, contains ideas that deserve full scientific scrutiny, especially in light of the turmoil roiling evolutionary biology at present. Pivar is presenting, in a series of brilliantly rendered graphical diagrams that show his interpretation of how modifications of a torus shape can generate a vast panoply of biotic form, a new theory of morphogenesis.... This is a seismic event for science. Conventional evolutionary biologists are right to be very worried about this, because it has the potential to trigger the complete collapse of Modern Synthesis Biology."
--Mark A. S. McMenamin, PhD, Paleontologist, Professor of Geology, Chair of Earth and Environment, Mount Holyoke College

"This is the discovery of the connection between the laws of physics and the complexity of life."
--Murray Gell-Mann, PhD, Distinguished Fellow, Santa Fe Institute, Nobel Laureate

Oh freakin' boy.

I read it. There's not much to it: it's a hodgepodge of short articles, some by Pivar, some taken from the published literature, some commissioned for this work. For the most part, they either make no sense (Pivar's contribution), or they don't justify his ideas (most of the other author's work). For instance, Pivar offers a chapter called "Acupuncture Meridians and Bio-Energetic Fields" which has no data, but does discuss chi and chakras, and drops a lot of names from 19th century biology. It includes an essay from Stephen Jay Gould on neoteny, a concept that doesn't seem to be used in Pivar's model. There is nothing coherent at all about the presentation. All we have are assertions that all life is built on toruses, and all variations are produced by simple physical distortions of the ur-tube. It's not convincing.

The heart of the book, as in its previous incarnations, is a series of figures that illustrate fanciful patterns of development and presumably relates these to evolution. There is a six page summary titled "The Self-Organization of Biological Form", introduced as "The central premise of this book is expressed in the following pages in the form of a scientific paper." Six pages! With 55 plates! The text is simply inadequate to describe what the author is showing with the figures.

I dismissed his earlier efforts as an attempt to describe the evolution of balloon animals. How true that was: this "paper" has a methods section. Here's the relevant part.

…this led to this investigation of the morphological properties of the amoeboid pseudopod, for which purpose toroidal balloons of latex rubber, polyvinylchloride, and other elastomeric sheet materials were fabricated in varying sizes and proportions. Small (10 cm) toroidal balloons made as water toys, widely commercially available, were used. These were filled with air, water, glycerine, honey, and other fluids of varying viscosity. A 20 cm ballon, filled with water, and then submerged in water, was observed to assume a series of distorted configurations which bear resemblance to various developmental forms of animal and plant species by simple manual manipulation of the hydrostatic pressure in the parts of the structure. Schematic drawings were made of predictable extrapolations of the deformations. These drawings are observed to corroborate the congruence of the model with the adult forms of the species suggested in the experiment.

See? He actually developed this model by studying balloon animals, not embryos. Literally. This is his problem: he claims that they resemble developmental forms, and that there is congruence with the adult, but when I look at the drawings, I see proof that the man has never looked at an embryo in his life, so how would he know?

For example, here's how he illustrates the development of limbs in his balloons:


But that's not how real vertebrate limbs develop! They aren't joined at the fingertips, for one thing, they don't form those odd radial bands, they never ever look at all like that. They start out as paired bilateral buds, with a pattern of graded molecular signals across them that specify proximal and distal, and anterior and posterior, and the bones appear as progressive condensation of discrete elements within the bud. His cartoon makes no sense!

Have you ever wondered how the tiger got its stripes? Apparently, they're right there in the primordial torus. Behold, the new embryology of the tiger:


This is complete bollocks. None of those images correspond to any stage in the embryonic development of any mammalian embryo. After implantation, we form a disc-shaped bilayer — do you see anything like that in the images? Developmental biologists have been making fatemaps for over a century, where they plot out how the cells and tissues of the early stages move and shift to form the adult, and trust me, those images do not fit any fate map I've ever seen. It's total fantasy, built from playing too much with inflatable rubber duckies in the bathtub.

From all this, Pivar draws some bizarre conclusions.

Life without Evolution, Form Without Genes

Conjoined twins and other anomalies have unique structures including novel bone forms, muscles, nerves, and blood vessels all organized into a perfect working system to accommodate the new form. This complex of organs, each fitted perfectly for its function, appears all at once, perhaps for the first time in the history of the species. This occurs without the benefit of evolution or any special code in the DNA.

Hence, complex form does not require a genetic code. Substantial modifications of form can occur in a single generation.

It's as if he never heard of developmental plasticity before.

To claim that life does not require a "genetic code" (does misuse of that term annoy you as much as it does me?) cannot be concluded from developmental abnormalities. Those do have a genome, you know; it is, however, an array of genes that are being expressed in a novel context to produce an unusual result. We also know from a very long history of teratological research that all kinds of aberrations can occur in a single generation, so that is no surprise. However, these aren't heritable, and so are not the beginnings of novel morphologies.

Once upon a time, great structuralists like D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson could make substantial contributions to our understanding of form, and their work is even enduring, because it was built on a foundation of empirical observation of embryos and tissues, not balloons. I think modern developmental biology could even use more focus on how physico-chemical properties of cells are essential contributors to form and pattern. However, the molecular/genetic research program has been incredibly successful, and has produced inarguable data that genes and gene expression are essential components of development. You can't talk about the evolution of form without talking about both variation in genes and gene expression.

We can see that many developmental processes are describable at a high level by a summary of forces and the responses of sheets of cells to those pressures…the buckling of the neural plate during neurulation, for instance, looks like a reaction to a physical force. However, what we find over and over again is that those events are also a consequence of differential gene expression, and domains or fields of cells with one set of adhesive properties defined by the expression of certain genes in contact with another field with different adhesive properties, again as a product of their genes. Any new structuralist theory must incorporate these facts, and given the strength of the data in molecular developmental biology and the narrowness of the work in structuralism, I know which one is going to be at best a minor informative contribution to the science.

But Pivar's book doesn't count. It has nothing to say about biology, and is in fact nothing but a series of claims that are contradicted by the most basic observations.

If he ever tries to publish another book like this — and so far, this is looking like a major obsession, so it may happen — there's something he'll have to do before I find it at all plausible: throw out all those goofy illustrations. They aren't evidence. The only way to discuss the science of evolution and development is to look at real embryos.

P.S. Murray Gell-Mann: you should be ashamed of yourself.


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