A Book Review: "Lifecode: From egg to embryo by self-organization"

Jul 21 2007 Published by under Bad Math

After seeing PZs comments on Stuart Pivar's new version of his book, titled "Lifecode: From egg to embryo by self-organization", I thought I would try taking a look. I've long thought that much of the stuff that I've read in biology is missing something when it comes to math. Looking at things, it often seems like there are mathematical ideas that might have important applications, but due to the fact that biology programs rarely (if ever) require students to study any advanced math, they don't recognize the way that math could help them. So, hearing about Pivar's book, which claims to propose a theory of structural development based on the math describing structural distortions of an expanding figure in a constrained space - well, naturally, I was interested.

So I wrote to the publisher of his book, to see if I could get a review copy. I wanted to try writing a review from the perspective of a mathematician. To my immense surprise, a courier arrived at my door two hours later with a copy of the book! It's a lucky thing I was working from home that day! So I started reading it monday afternoon. I didn't have a lot of time to read this week, so I didn't finish the main text until thursday, despite the fact that it's really quite short.

The book is a spiral bound softcover, about 150 pages long. The print quality is quite poor; it looks like it was photocopied on a standard office copier. (Normally, I wouldn't comment on that in a review, but in this case, much of the content is in the form of diagrams with very fine lines, and in this print-form, the quality of printing is so low that some of the diagrams are quite difficult to see clearly: in places, it's difficult to distinguish between lines that were drawn on the picture, and lines that are an artifact of how it was reproduced.) The remaining hundred pages are reproductions of supporting materials - papers or sections of books by other authors. (To my dismay, nowhere in the text, the credits, the copyright page, does he give any indication that he got permission to reproduce these materials.)

Pivar's theory is that the structure of living things is determined primarily by structural distortion/compression of an expanding body in a constrained space. So, for example, his theory says that the basic bilateral body plan is formed by the compression of a growing toroidal body which is compressed within the form of the original spherical egg - so it's a torus expanding inside of a sphere, and the distortion caused by that results in a crease through the middle, and body forms around that crease line in a bilaterally symmetric form. Genes, in Pivar's theory play a secondary role, at best; he sometimes argues for the irrelevance of genes (if I understand correctly, for the fundamental body plan, he argues that it's dictated by the topological constraints), and he sometimes argues that the physical forces of compression trigger the gene expressions that differentiate between different tissue types (for example, he claims that internal organs are formed by cells differentiating based on the forces that are applied to them by compression through the body structure affecting gene expression).

In order to support this, he does some experiments - taking toroidal plastic tubes filled with fluid, and compressing them in different ways, to show that a toroidal body (which he claims is the fundamental shape of an embryo) compressed in the right way forms the shapes that he argues are the basis of most body plans.

It's an interesting idea.

The problem is, it's wrong.

I don't make a blanket statement like that lightly. The thing is, he comes up with ideas about how various things develop - but he never compares them to how things really develop. There's been a ton of work in embryology and development, which includes detailed descriptions of the forms of the embryo at various stages of development. Pivar's theory says that things develop in embryos in ways that are entirely different from what we observe.

For example, we know that in mammals, the limbs start off as buds, which lengthen, and then new buds form on the end which grow into digits. Pivar argues that this happens by a tube-like structure forming creases, which divide into digits, and then stretch until they break apart into the individual hands or feet. So the two arms form as part of a torus, and then tear into two arms. Nice theory, but experimental observations don't match it. That's just not how it happens.

Most of Pivar's theory is like that. It's stuff which looked at in the abstract is interesting, and which could make an interesting hypothesis. But in science, you don't just stop with an attractive hypothesis, and insist that it's correct because it's such an elegant idea. You need to validate your hypothesis: that is, you test the hypothesis, and see if it works. In fact, you do more than just test it: you do your best to disprove it. If your best efforts don't result in any evidence that contradicts the theory, and other people can reproduce it, and it describes reality better than any other hypothesis, then it may become a viable theory.

Pivar skips the step of validating his idea. He simply asserts that it must be correct, because it's just self-evident that it's right. He's got tons of hand-drawn sketches of how various body plans and physical features could develop using his model of body-form by compression and distortion. He proposed ideas about the development of shells, digits, spider legs, mammalian limbs - none of which match real observations of embryonic development. He argues that a spider's body and legs are formed by topological distortions of a sea-slug like body. But the actual development of a spider from an egg simply does not follow any plan like that. It's just completely wrong.

It's sad, because parts of the hypothesis seems interesting, and there might be something to it. But it's not the be-all end-all theory that Pivar claims it is; and the way that he just blithely asserts things that are in blatant contradiction of facts manages to discredit his ideas in the eyes of the people who could test whether it works on any level. (You can't expect embryologists to take this seriously when it makes such ridiculous errors of fact. It would be like coming to me as a computer scientist claiming to have a proof that P=NP; and as a result of that proof, you can show that general comparison-based sorting takes less than linear time.)

To make matters worse, the text is peppered with off-the-wall criticisms of how foolish the genetic approach is, and blatantly false statements about what genetics predicts, and about what we've been able to learn about how genes influence development.

For example, he repeatedly states various forms of "no code for body-form has ever been found in DNA". But that's not true at all; the HOX genes pattern the body axis, and code for limbs and digits - and they are arranged in clusters that match the arrangement of the body-parts they code for in the organisms body. (See here for a wikipedia article, or here for an article by a professor at the U of Calgary with more details about HOX genes.)

So, on balance... Interesting idea, but it just doesn't hold up to the least bit of scrutiny. It proposes mechanisms for how things develop, which don't match real observation of how things develop. It makes numerous obviously false statements. Even the parts of the argument that appear interesting are woefully incomplete - the entire theory is presented in less than fifty pages including all of the poorly reproduced sketches. And two thirds of the book are reproductions of papers by other authors which do not appear to be reproduced with permission from the original authors. There's just no way that I can recommend this book to anyone.

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  • And two thirds of the book are reproductions of papers by other authors which do not appear to be reproduced with permission from the original authors.

    Aren't publishers liable in cases of (alleged, apparent) copyright infringement like this? Don't they go to great lengths to prevent it as a result?
    It would seem here that what we have is an interesting quasi-mathematical theory about biology published in a book with highly odd publication practices. We've heard from a biologist (PZ Myers) about the biology the author got wrong, and from you about the math, but now I think we need to hear from a publishing industry insider about the publication practices.
    I wonder what widely-read bloggers would be qualified for that task? Now the question remains of how to convince them to take it up.

  • blaisepascal says:

    Who is the publisher? From the description of the book I almost wonder if it is from a vanity press, with little to no quality control or editorial input.

  • madeconometrician says:

    The publisher is Ryland Press, and this looks like their only publication: http://isbndb.com/d/publisher/ryland_press_inc.html . Weird.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    Other problems is the endorsements, which are partly misquotes, in one case discussing a "paper" instead of a book et cetera.
    IIRC someone who claims to be Pivar comments at Pharyngula that Neil deGrasse Tyson retracted his endorsement, but expressed bafflement that Tyson hadn't opposed the endorsement. PZ Myer speculated that Tyson had thrown a book copy in the round archive unseen, because it looks so 'un-book' like.

    The publisher is Ryland Press, and this looks like their only publication:

    Perhaps, but the quote goes to the 2004 hardcover that Amazon sells.
    I can't find that Ryland Press, Inc has a web-presence but may be legit because I also found Easy Cookies from 2005, by Linda Collister who has authored several books. OTOH, that is "Ryland Press", not "Ryland Press, Inc".
    The question remains I think, who published the softcover?

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    Uups, that is PZ Myers obviously, correction since he complains about having his name misspelled often.
    Also, to clarify: Pivar may never have gotten permission for the endorsements. Like trolls he may have taken implicit support from getting no answer. (And of course, a real troll finds support in any answer as well. :-P)

  • Pivar won't pay attention to your review, because you work for Google and not NASA. As he said in the e-mail he sent me a few days ago,

    Dear Dr Stacey,
    Thank you for your interest in Lifecode. It presents a solution to the ultimate systems problem, living taxonomy. The model is considered very serious now by many. But it freaks out biologists into cognitive dyfunction.
    Robert Hazen is a prominent NASA scientist in this field . His review recommending publication is appended.
    The review of PZ Myers may be also seen today. Please note that he not an embryologist.
    May I send you a copy of the book?.
    Stuart Pivar

    Incidentally, nothing was "appended" (but hey, I forget to attach files to my e-mails too). Over at Pharyngula, I had mentioned trying to find the original sources of the laudatory quotes on Pivar's book, and I had described my lack of success in that endeavor. Hazen's website and CV were easy to locate; he's written a few book reviews, but Lifecode was not among those listed. Another commenter in the same thread discovered that the Neil deGrasse Tyson quote was a concatenation of a passage taken out of context with a complete fabrication.
    It's worth wondering why the opinions of Hazen, a professor of geosciences, and Tyson, an astrophysicist, should matter more than that of PZ Myers, a developmental biologist.
    Still, all things considered, I'm adding Pivar's e-mail to the accumulating pile of "evidence" that I have a PhD. 🙂

  • Stuart Pivar says:

    Dear Blake Stacey, pre-PhD,
    PZ Myers is a near un-published bio prof. on a faculty of 8 in a small college. He teaches an elective in development in even no. years. Hazen is a leading scientist w hundreds of publications and honors. Brian Goodwin is a legend in this field.
    The awards given to PZ are bogus. Check yourself who this UTNE group of independent publishers really is. They are Aquarian alternate lifestylers publishing about organic foods and medicine,eastern meditation and rock music owned by Ogden press:. The Mother Earth catalogue, Natural Herbs etc. These people if anything are anti-sciencers PZ is a PR concoction of Ruder and Finn. I believe he browbeat Tyson,a public figure, into recanting.
    My answer to the review by the good mathematician is forthcoming shortly.
    Stuart Pivar BA,chem see http://www.selforganization.com

  • Stuart Pivar says:

    Dear Blake Stacey, pre-PhD,
    PZ Myers is a near un-published bio prof. on a faculty of 8 in a small college. He teaches an elective in development in even no. years. Hazen is a leading scientist w hundreds of publications and honors. Brian Goodwin is a legend in this field.
    The awards given to PZ are bogus. Check yourself who this UTNE group of independent publishers really is. They are Aquarian alternate lifestylers publishing about organic foods and medicine,eastern meditation and rock music owned by Ogden press:. The Mother Earth catalogue, Natural Herbs etc. These people if anything are anti-sciencers PZ is a PR concoction of Ruder and Finn. I believe he browbeat Tyson,a public figure, into recanting.
    My answer to the review by the good mathematician is forthcoming shortly.
    Stuart Pivar BA,chem see http://www.selforganization.com

  • QrazyQat says:

    Aren't publishers liable in cases of (alleged, apparent) copyright infringement like this? Don't they go to great lengths to prevent it as a result?
    Generally the publisher "prevents" this by having the author agree to accept all liability. Minions poring over a book happens if you're a big wig, perhaps, not small fry.

  • OK. Here, via Google's cache, is the "endorsement" attributed to Neil deGrasse Tyson by Stuart Pivar:

    Another possibility is that life has encoding that has nothing to do with DNA. That would be more important for biology than finding other life with DNA, because it would be a way to encode life that no one has dreamt of before... No mere mathematical curiosity, this physically plausible model should be investigated seriously by biologists.

    And here is Tyson's 2004 interview with PBS:

    Another possibility is that the life has encoding that has nothing to do with DNA. That would be more important for biology than finding other life with DNA, because it would be a way to encode life that no one has dreamt of before.

    The next sentence in this interview is a question from the interviewer.

    NOVA: What about as an astrophysicist? Do you have hopes for specific discoveries?
    Tyson: I want to know what dark matter and dark energy are comprised of. They remain a mystery, a complete mystery. No one is any closer to solving the problem than when these two things were discovered.

    Nobody had to "browbeat" Tyson into "recanting". He merely had to be pointed to a fabricated, deceptive quotation.

  • Mark C. Chu-Carroll says:

    Stuart:
    I do *not* tolerate personal insults in comments on my blog. You get one warning, and
    then I start deleting the comments.
    What PZs qualifications are is irrelevant. Science isn't based on who has the better credentials. It's based on evidence. The evidence is *not* on your side. You can rant and rave, invoke the names of as many authorities as you want, claim all sorts of conspiracies, but the facts remain the facts.
    Whether PZ is an ignoramus or a genius; a crackpot or a leading scientist; a lunatic or the epitome of a rational man - it doesn't matter. If you want to claim that he's wrong, and your hypothesis is correct, the way to do it isn't to throw insults around. It's to show that the evidence actually matches your predictions. So how about you cut the personal garbage, and try addressing the evidence, directly?

  • Anonymous says:

    I had found out about Ryland Press myself, but his new book seems to be sold through Axiom House. Axiom House bills itself as a new publisher of novels, and lists three books in their line. None are by Pivar, all are novels, two are by the same author. Pivar's website points to an order interface that is definitely on Axiom House's website.
    In my opinion, the Axiom House website is utterly horrid. Everything is hidden behind Flash interfaces, the fonts are unreadable, and it is very difficult to figure out how to buy anything. Of course, the quality of the Axiom House website is not evidence for or against the quality of Pivar's work.

  • Stuart Pivar says:

    Dear Mark,
    Be assured I know perfectly well that the steps in my diagrams are not observed under the microscope. That is the whole point of the exercise. The embryologist sees cells running helter-skelter with no apparent roadmap as they self asemble forming the embryo under the guidance of some invisible system. What system? That is the eternal problem of evo devo.
    I have spent decades in the study of comparative embryology and larvology including critical un-translated sources in the 19 century German experimental embryologists to equip myself for the quest of the LCD of form, the Urform of Goethe.
    On page 8 I say that if the full steps were observable then Aristotle or Leewenoeck would have seen them, and there would be no mystery. The absent steps depicted in the diagrams are accounted for by the phenomenon of condensation detailed by Gould in Ontogeny and Phylogeny which I reproduce (with permission.) The mechanism of the inheritance of form is the encrypting of the final form in morphogenetic fields established in the germ plasm, and conserved through egg subdivision and blastulation.I did not originate this idea. Before fifty years ago it was a general belief. I provided a coherent model. See Crystals Fabrics and Fields, Harroway
    The role of the genes is indeed explained clearly as Heterochrony, the Stephen Jay Gould account of species evolution: The genes maintain and occasionally change the relative size of the organs of an otherwise immutable phyletic body plan, generated by self -organization. There is no evidence to contradict this account of gene function.
    This is a non-genetic account of morphogenesis, and as such it contradicts the Hox gene theory. They indeed occur, but according to the the Mechanical Induction phenomenon of Emmanuel Farge ( 2004) they are the result, rather then the cause of cell division. The hox genes anyway are not a model of anything. They don't produce a form. Their role is now under serious doubt since hox genes were discovered in radial animals, a logical absurdity according to what they are supposed to be doing. Geneticists for years stopped calling the genome a blueprint for form, describing the genes as switches which activate other unnamed processes. This is corroborated by the recent front page news of the rethinking of the genome as seriously flawed . The Wikipedia Hox gene article by Derrik Rancourt is ten years old and reports the standard understanding which was by then a decade old. It is no longer generally believed. This is not Wikipedia embryology.
    The limb buds are a morphogenetic field directing cell proliferation, each cell bearing a relation to every other. See Gilbert's evo devo on morphogenetic fields. The process is clearer in insects which don't have limb buds. The unfolding of the imaginal discs in flies is in concordance with the model.
    Whether or not is has anything to do with life, this is the only coherent model of embryogenesis ever published. It has the total predictability of the periodic table of the elements, accounting for all phyletic body plans. As a topological algorithm, that alone is a discovery.
    Corroboration is directly seen in the lower phyla. Some adult radials are in the visible form of a toroidal membrane.The comparison of the model with observed embryology can rightly be done only by a specialist in comparative embryology and larvology. This fiendishly complex subject is rarely possessed by evo devo professors.
    The model is plausible according to Hazen and Sasselov, and included in a new book of the great Brian Goodwin(How the Leopard changed his Spots.) These are major figures in life origin science. I am happy to discuss this with any professional biologist you can produce.You wrongly gave this short shrift. I hope you are not the type of guy who can't be shown he was wrong.
    Stuart Pivar

  • Blake Stacey says:

    MarkCC:
    I think I've got a comment with a couple links trapped in the moderation queue.

  • _Arthur says:

    Now, we get new Embryology insights not from old Thibetan manuscripts, but from old _German_ manuscripts.
    "The comparison of the model with observed embryology can rightly be done only by a specialist in comparative embryology and larvology. This fiendishly complex subject is rarely possessed by evo devo professors."
    Did I miss something, is Stuart Pivar a specialist in embryology and larvology, on addition of being a scholar in obsolete german scientists ?

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    Pivar:

    this UTNE group of independent publishers

    What are you rambling about?

    The absent steps depicted in the diagrams are accounted for by the phenomenon of condensation detailed by Gould

    Condensation is a term used by Haeckel in the context of his failed theory of "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny":

    Condensation is the name Haeckel gave to the process whereby ontogeny unfolds by repeating the adult stage, the adult phylogeny of all ancestor species (Gould, 1977). Condensation is the squishing, accordion-like, of all ancestral stages into compact brief representations making possible an individual's growth in a reasonable period of time.

    Haeckel coined the word, heterochrony, that we now use to describe changes in rates and timing of ontogological growth.
    Beginning with the work of Wilhelm His (Gould , 1977) and the experimental biologists of the 20th century, (Gould, 1977), baby and bathwater went flying out the window. Swan (1990) makes the point that a concordance as opposed to a recapitulation between ontogeny and phylogeny has much to offer. Haeckel's unwillingness to accommodate alternative interpretations led to the eschewing of his theories.

    Yet, as a sort of P. T. Barnum of evolutionary theory, Haeckel may, in the end, have educated less that he entertained. While he kept the focus on recapitulation, the potential magic of alternative theories of evolution disappeared.

    [Bold added.]
    And lets' not forget that Ernst Haeckel liked to speculate about nature:

    In fundamental opposition to the theorty of vibration, or the kinetic theory of substance, we have the modern 'theory of condensation,' or the pyknotic theory of substance.

    Its sole inherent mechanical form of activity consists in a tendancy to condensation or contraction, which produces infinitesimal centres of condensation; these may change their degree of thickness, and, therefore, their volume, but are constant as such.

    Any parallels between Haeckel's biological invention of the term for contraction and its philosophical use may not be coincidental.
    So, say again, how are "absent steps" showing us an unobserved, unsupported phenomena?

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    Anonymous:
    Thanks for finding the publisher.

    Of course, the quality of the Axiom House website is not evidence for or against the quality of Pivar's work.

    Well, a little bit I think, since a renowned publisher would proof-read and, according to QrazyQat, make the author accept responsibility for copyright infringement and similar legalities.

  • Stephen Wells says:

    Is it my imagination, or is Pivar arguing that the cells themselves don't actually do all of this topological stuff he's talking about, but that rather some sort of "field" undergoes this distortions, and then the cells move to where the "field" wants them to go? If not, what is he arguing?

  • Stephen Wells says:

    Going through the Crackpot Index, I note that this section:
    "I have spent decades in the study of comparative embryology and larvology including critical un-translated sources in the 19 century German experimental embryologists to equip myself for the quest of the LCD of form, the Urform of Goethe."
    gets 10 points under rule 11 (10 points for beginning the description of your theory by saying how long you have been working on it).
    And "Whether or not is has anything to do with life, this is the only coherent model of embryogenesis ever published." should probably get 10 points under rule 19 (10 points for claiming that your work is on the cutting edge of a "paradigm shift")
    Also the whole thing gets 5 points under rule 6 (5 points for using a thought experiment that contradicts the results of a widely accepted real experiment), though we probably need multiple entries on this front since EVERY embryological claim here is a thought experiment contradicting real experiments.
    Also, of course, 50 points under rule 37 (50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions).
    I eagerly await Pivar's claiming another 20 points under rule 20 (complaining about the Crackpot Index).

  • Mark C. Chu-Carroll says:

    Is it my imagination, or is Pivar arguing that the cells themselves don't actually do all of this topological stuff he's talking about, but that rather some sort of "field" undergoes this distortions, and then the cells move to where the "field" wants them to go? If not, what is he arguing?

    My understanding is that he's arguing that *at some point in time*, the cells of the ancestor of the organism went through the topological stuff, and that the memory of that is implanted in the morphogenic fields, so that they continue to follow the process that was originally created by compressive deformations.
    He also argues that all of this is completely non-genetic. I'm not clear on what he thinks the morphogenic field is; in normal embryology, it's a way of describing the biochemical environment, which is defined by a combination of physical constraints, gene activations/deactivations, chemical signals, etc. Clearly, Pivar excludes the gene activations/deactivations - he argues strongly that genes have absolutely nothing to do with any of this. He's never precise about just what the field is; I get the sense that he thinks of it as an almost consciously directed waveform that directs the development of the organism.

  • Stephen Wells says:

    Ah, so morphogenic field = magical memory, for Pivar. He's gone all Sheldrake on us.
    I was impressed by "Whether or not is has anything to do with life, this is the only coherent model of embryogenesis ever published." He seems to be saying that his theory is really great because it's coherent... regardless of whether it has any correspondence to reality!

  • Mark C. Chu-Carroll says:

    I was impressed by "Whether or not is has anything to do with life, this is the only coherent model of embryogenesis ever published." He seems to be saying that his theory is really great because it's coherent... regardless of whether it has any correspondence to reality!

    That repeated line disturbed me for two reasons.
    One is the usual self-aggrandisement of cranks. You rarely (not never,
    but rarely) find a genuine scientist who makes such grandiose claims about him/herself. "I've got the only coherent model ever!" is a huge red flag.
    The other thing is that it's only true if you discard the *other* coherent theories. That is, there's a lot of information about morphogenesis out there - and a lot of it is reasonably well understood, and forms a coherent account - a coherent account *with gaps* mind you, but a coherent account nonetheless. Pivar's claim to be the only coherent account isn't true - unless you discard the other accounts as incoherent because they're incomplete. But in that case, Pivar's hypothesis is incomplete as well - because it uses unexplained mechanisms in the "field" to make it work.

  • Stephen Wells says:

    To be fair, I have heard colleagues make comments equivalent to "I have the only model," but they're usually followed by "...and it doesn't work at all."

  • Dave M says:

    To be fair in another way, I have noticed that non-philosophers tend to use the word "incoherent" rather loosely, often simply to denote a view they don't like. FWIW.
    The red flag for me here is the term "morphogenetic field" (not "morphogenic"), which, as Stephen points out, is Sheldrake's term for, well, something that sounds pretty woo-y to me. But what do I know - I haven't spent decades looking for Goethe's Urpflanze.

  • Lepht says:

    Goethe: good for getting you full marks in your Lit exams, good for plays at old Bavarian theatres, good for train rides...
    ...not so hot for embryology. =]
    Lepht

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    So what about Goethe's theory on colors? IIRC he got some things right that Newton didn't - um, complementary reflective colors I think. By luck perhaps, but in any case...

    To be fair in another way, I have noticed that non-philosophers tend to use the word "incoherent" rather loosely, often simply to denote a view they don't like.

    Part of that ties in with fellow (philosopher) ScienceBlogger John Wilkins work on coherent (general, philosophical) vs bounded (specific, contingent) rationality. Away from the philosophy armchair, humans tend to divide up perceived reality into smaller and practical chunks with their own bounded rationality.
    And when different bounded rationalities clash, we can get cognitive dissonance. Such as in denialists and some other crackpots.
    Wilkins has a good series on all this over at Evolving Thoughts.

  • PZ Myers says:

    We need to get this straight: since I'm a nobody at a small college, how did I "browbeat" Neil de Grasse Tyson?
    Also, despite my low-rent status, I do know more developmental biology than Tyson and Hazen put together -- which implies no disrespect for either of those two, just that they are both in fields distant from the subject of Pivar's book.
    I've summarized the idea of morphogenetic fields -- a lot of people seem to get it wrong.
    Don't ask me about this Utne award Pivar is talking about -- I haven't got one, I haven't even been rumored to have one, I don't even know if the mythical award exists.

  • Mark C. Chu-Carroll says:

    PZ:
    Yes, I found it rather amusing that Pivar both commented here and peppered me with email about how unqualified you are to comment on this stuff, since you're a nobody professor at a dinky midwestern college; and right after saying that claimed that you somehow managed to pressure Tyson into recanting his endorsement of the book.
    You'd *think* that anyone with enough clout to browbeat Neal de Grasse Tyson - a brilliant, incredibly well respected scientist, the director of the Hayden planetarium at the AMNH - couldn't possibly be a nobody. But apparently in Pivar's world, there's no conflict there. The guy that NASA turns to for advice can be frightened into silence by what Pivar calls bloggers from the middle of nowhere.
    (And I have no idea what he's talking about with that "Utne award" either; it just seems to have come out of nowhere in the middle of all his other
    anti-PZ ad-hominems.)

  • Stephen Wells says:

    I believe he's talking about this (warning, PDF link):
    seedmediagroup.com/media/docs/SMG_12.20.06.pdf
    which I got by googling for [PZ Myers Utne award]. So there is at least some basis in reality for his claim that the award exists and that you got one. Apparently because Utne sponsored the award, and they also get a bit woo sometimes, therefore your getting the award makes you woo... which is fairly representative of Pivar's thinking.

  • Dave M says:

    So there's nothing wrong with the term "morphogenetic field" after all (I had only heard it from Sheldrake and thought he made it up, but apparently the actual Sheldrake-ism is "morphic" field.) Thanks to PZ for straightening me out.

  • Art says:

    I'm reminded of a story told by Crick in his book "What Mad Pursuit" (from p 113):

    Lionel Penrose, who died in 1972, was a distinguished geneticist who in his later years held the prestigious Galton chair at University College, London. He was interested in the possible structure of the gene (which not all geneticists were at that time). He also loved doing "fretwork" (as it is called in England), making objects out of plywood with a fine saw. He constructed a number of such models to demonstrate how genes might replicate. The wooden parts had ingenious shapes, with hooks and other devices, so that when shaken they would come apart and join together in an amusing way. He published a scientific paper describing them and also a more popular article in Scientific American. An account by his son, Roger Penrose, the distinguished theoretical physicist and mathematician, appears in his father's obituary written for The Royal Society.
    I was taken to meet Lionel Penrose and his models by the zoologist Murdoch Mitchison. I tried to show a polite interest but had some difficulty in taking it all seriously. What to me was bizarre was that this was in the middle 1950s, alter the publication of the DNA double helix. I tried to bring our model to Penrose's attention but he was far more interested in his own "models." He thought that perhaps they might be relevant for a pre-DNA period in the origin of life.

    Pivar's model is likewise disconnected from reality. No number of endorsements can change this.

  • Blake Stacey says:

    Holy frivolous litigation, Batman! Stuart Pivar is now suing PZ Myers and Seed Media Group, LLC!
    I'm summarizing the shenanigans and collecting relevant links here.

  • For this blog, suffice it to say: TRUTH is an absolute defense against Defamation.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    Oh, joy.
    First Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahya) gets turkish courts to block wordpress.com in Turkey because a blog criticized his "research".
    Now another two bit censorship courtier wants to suppress criticism.
    It is good to see internet juridical status tested and solidified. But I fear for a negative outcome with regards free speech. So I'm heartened to see that Pivar is as much a legal kook as he is scientifically (for example, by 'defending' his science in court) :

    the New York State court system's database reveals fifteen cases since 1986 in which Stuart Pivar has been the plaintiff (and two in which we was the defendant)

    Btw, good job as always Blake. This time it is in an especially good cause. (Truth and freedom.)

  • Raoul says:

    I've been following the Lifecode story since Mr. Pivar claimed Gould did not feel that natural selection was the real driving process of Darwinian evolution....and it has caused quite a few learned individuals to revert into their recess school child mud-slinging ways.
    Let's all take a step back here and apply a little research and reason. Stuart Pivar is a well documented figure, so why are we jumping to conclusions here?
    Mr. Pivar is a well known art collector and 'expert' in certain movements. He was a founding member of the New York Academy of Art in a bid to bring classical training back to the arts. (For interesting reading see the New Yorker, New York Times, and Time Magazine)
    He built and developed a business out of a new, dare say revolutionary, process for molding plastics that I believe he helped kick-start. Internet searches reveal numerous patents held by Mr. Pivar for various machines and such related to and unrelated to plastics.
    I cannot find any real scientific credentials for him besides years of study and having the ear of notable scientists in various fields.
    The lawsuit matter is still up in the air. From what I can find, many of the lawsuits stemmed from the art school he founded. The school became mismanaged and corrupt. Valuable artwork disappeared...he sued for its return. The school money was embezzled from the school; he sued for its return. The school's board of directors hired someone to manage the finances and to do as he was told. The man did and was the set-up from day one to take the fall. Mr. Pivar sued on the wrongly incarcerated man's behalf for his imprisonment and to publicly detail way he was set up and the orders he was given.
    I can't easily find the grounds of his other lawsuits.
    The man is clearly not a wacko nutjob. If anything he's interesting and eclectic, but surely not a babbling lunatic. He has simply put forth a theory that he feels is a satisfying evolutional process that he believes his research supports unequivocally. Now is the peer review process, and it just won't fly. While I personally find his thesis implausible, I do not have the resources to outright prove or disprove his ideas. Having said that, I think it is important to remember that most progress has been made by people taking unpopular positions. Perhaps there is an aspect of his theory that will evolve to fill in some of the gaps of evolutionary biology.
    As I believe, the man is not an idiot... He knows he can't possibly win this lawsuit, his lawyers have probably told him that repeatedly as well. Given that the man is a rich philanthropist and according to the FEC a 2001 contributor to HillPAC (Hillary Clinton's PAC), it would be safe to posit that the man is not conservative, close-minded, nationalist-state type guy. Does anyone remember what happened whenever Giuliani tried to squash certain art exhibits? The exhibit became a huge draw and the artist(s) momentarily famous. Has anyone though for a second that this man is crafty enough use the courts to generate press for his book?

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    Raoul:

    Has anyone though for a second that this man is crafty enough use the courts to generate press for his book?

    Sure they have, for example here:

    [Raging Bee:] Legally, Pivar can't win. PR-wise, however, Pivar can't lose: either he wins one against the "Darwinist Establishment," and manages to stifle and punish criticism; or his ringing defeat and humiliation will be seen - by the kind of people who would happily give their money to fund lawsuits like this - as proof of how said Establishment crushes and punishes dissent by good Christian lambs. Either way, this case will be the ONLY thing remotely resembling the persecution that creationists allege as an excuse for their failure to do any real science; and they will milk it for all it's worth.
    It's starting to look like Christian creationists are taking lessons from Harun Yahya.

    [Andrea Bottaro]: I think, quite the contrary, that the kind of outcome Pivar is getting is precisely the opposite of what he'd hoped for (i.e. to intimidate PZ into quietly taking down his posts altogether). In fact, right now PZ's reviews and "summary judgment" are reaching more people than they would have otherwise, and Pivar's name is being mentioned around the web in association with this sorry affair.
    I think that the more web sites link to PZ's original posts and related commentaries on Pivar's antics, the worse it is for Pivar. (And wait until someone from DailyKos notices!)

    Read the rest of Andrea Bottaro's post on The Panda's Thumb, it fills out some of the background you discuss, especially on Pivar's claims on Gould.
    You can also see the opinions of many legal experts there. (It seems the general sentiment from lawyers is that the case is a nonstarter. And that Pivar's attorney has done him and the court a disservice for neglecting his role as counselor.)

    The man is clearly not a wacko nutjob.

    I think this makes it clear he is. His theories are interesting but pursued as a scientifically crackpot would, and now he has continued into legal crackpotism.
    Consider this: Would a scientist, or anyone honestly interested in science, consider a specialist reviewing a purported exposure of one's work as a case for legal action?

  • Raoul says:

    I just believe that the label of crack-pot is deserved by people making things up completely; people who claim there is a race of humans living underneath us, people abducted by UFOs, IDers, and those claiming that a higher power told them to do something or gave them an answer.
    Stuart has at least seemed to have put some actual scientific endeavor into practice when developing his theory.
    The Gould comments, yeah, that seems like a crack-pot thing to say, unless of course he had it in writing or on tape.
    The legal matter and his behavior can only be a chess move, I refuse to believe that this man has lost all cognitive ability. The question really is, what is his next move and how can it be thwarted?
    I've followed this for a while whith both interest and distance. The interesting part is that so many people have turned their weaponry at Pivar, and he, them... when there are such larger and more important fish to fry and work to be done. Why has anyone really given any credence to Mr. Pivar and his theories? Science isn't supposed to get subjective and personal; simply posit the facts that contradict the theory and move on, leaving the 'scientist' to rework or improve his ideas.
    Seriously, the man is not a real threat to science and deeming him a scientist may be grossly overstating his qualifications. He just stirred a pot and for some reason this monkey colony flung feces as a response.

  • W. Kevin Vicklund says:

    Raoul, you may be relieved to discover that those times when PZ called Pivar a crackpot or accused him of crackpottery, it was in regards to Pivar's references to scientists like Gould and Tyson that implied they supported his conclusions. We know for a fact that his citation of Tyson was fabricated, thus earning him the title of crackpot by your own definition (more precisely, half of it is a quote from a speech on a non-related topic and the other half was completely fabricated)

  • Raoul says:

    Very good distinction to highlight!
    I was never trying to defend Pivar, just bring a little parity to the discussion.
    It seems PZ should be able to dispense with this lawsuit rather quickly as the contents of the book(s)/ideas of the author weren't called crackpot...just the unsubstantiated claims of implied support by others. It should be easy to prove that the "crack-pot" label was not a "knowingly false statement"...if anything, it could probably be argued that the label was applied in jest in conjunction with the tongue-in-cheek 12 Steps to Being a Crackpot...
    Whatever the real deal is, I really think that most of the aspects of this 'feud' have been blown out of proportion.
    What really irks me is the line in the lawsuit "fundamentalist Darwinian theory of evolution"... why is it deemed fundamentalist? Technically since the field is not opposed to modernism, 'we' would be the opposite of fundamentalist. No one is stockpiling weapons to force its acceptance, nor can anyone claim that a good scientist won't change his mind when confronted with irrefutable evidence. Fundamentalists are those with unshifting world-views. Hell, I'll be happy to turn into a theist if a convincing empirical argument can be made. I understand why the crackpot label was applied, why now is the fundamentalist label being thrown in?
    P.S. I realize that I have now dragged myself into this nonsense as well. Again, why is attention being given to, what on-the-surface appears to be, a refutable claim and a go-no-where lawsuit. This will only encourage more attention for Pivar as well as more unproductive time-wasting discussion from us.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    Raoul:

    I just believe that the label of crack-pot is deserved by people making things up completely;

    Ah, I see. No, I include erratic behavior as well, see John Baez Crackpot Index for a practical definition of this.
    This separation between a person and his ideas makes it possible for me to call those ideas "interesting".

  • slpage says:

    Stuart with his BA in chemistry writes:
    "PZ Myers is a near un-published bio prof. on a faculty of 8 in a small college"
    And your expertise in development comes from.....?
    I always get a kick out of how so many people try to diminish the impact of a person's opinion by denigrating their place of employment. I guess they never suspect that maybve some folks do not actually WANT to be full time researchers at Big-10 Universities...

  • slpage says:

    Stuart:
    "The embryologist sees cells running helter-skelter with no apparent roadmap as they self asemble forming the embryo under the guidance of some invisible system. "
    Um, no, they don't, your supposed decades of 'research' notwithstanding...

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