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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Morpho field theory again

Stuart Pivar, who is sending me a copy of his new book, arguing for morphology as the best way to understand evolution, offers a history of morphogenetic field theory:
Morphogenetic Fields Forever

Rupert Sheldrake has nothing to do with morphogenetic Field theory except at the Wikapedia level. He attached his name to the then fifty year old theory of morphogenetic fields as an explanation of his famous theory of “Cosmic Consciousness”, about monkeys washing coconuts, and lab mice in Chicago and Berlin.

The history of the morphogenetic field theory begins a hundred years ago. Almost every biologist became occupied with its implications as expressed in 1937 by Paul Weiss. By mid-century it was the leading account for many baffling phenomena of early embryogenesis.

The advent of genetic inheritance wiped out morphogenetic field work. But it returned as an accepted reality at every level of biological scale in recent decades, including the molecular level where the theory is of basic importance.

Note that the similar term Morphogenic Fields refers to the reaction-diffusion theory of morphology of Alan Turing, unrelated to the present case.

The best recent source is Developmental Biology by Scott F. Gilbert, the standard evo devo textbook. The chapter called the Return of Morphogenetic Fields is conveniently reproduced in his evo devo website. The name Rupert Sheldrake does once not appear.

The theory of embryonic self-organization does not depend on morphogenetic fields.
The phenomenon has been cited to account for the quantification of biological development much as the quantum theory does for space.


I linked the Web site mentioned; presumably if the chapter is still there, interested readers will find it. Apparently, Pharyngula continues to rave about Pivar's theories, and with enemies like that, he hardly needs friends.

That said, I hope that the little lambs of affirmation can bear the shock if someone, somewhere reads Pivar's book with an open mind, because if I get anywhere near the bottom of my in tray, I am planning to.

Update!: Stuart Pivar writes to tell me that a planetarium director who supported the project in the past withdrew his support on receiving a call from the Pharyngulite. Hmmm. If so, that's too bad. Perhaps someone should tell Mr. Orbit about call screening ...

Anyway, I have now received Pivar's book and am sending it out to be reviewed by a non-pharyngulite who is versed in evolutionary biology. I will publish that biologist's review on this blog when I receive it. (I can always read it myself later.) Thanks to all the pharyngulites who have visited today. I don't yet have PayPal, but you can buy my books to show your appreciation instead.

Update 2 (2007 07 19): Well, I have a little more information now: I e-mailed the planetarium director, and quoted him the blurb that appears on the back of Pivar's book, over his name:
"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.

- Neil de Grasse Tyson, director, The Hayden Planetarium

asking for clarification of the report that he has now withdrawn his support.

He replied,
The first part of the quote is out of context and relates specifically to the search for alien life, in which I have publicly suggested, in multiple media outlets and in my writings, that alien life may have its identity encoded in ways that do not invoke DNA at all.

The second half of the quote I have never said, nor do I agree with. In all fairness to Mr. Pivar, I had the opportunity to have noticed the quote much earlier (he sent me his materials many times over the past half year) and I might have called these errors to his attention in advance of the press release and other sources of publicity that the work has received. But that did not happen, given my overstuffed schedule and given that last November I has already submitted to him,
at his request, a multi-page assessment of his work, after which, I did not feel the need to monitor his progress.


In response to my statement that he appears to have withdrawn his support, he replied,
The support implied by the quote was never there in the first place. The thrust of my written comments to Mr. Pivar from last November was that I had no opinion on whether his ideas were correct or not. But that his research paper fell below the standards of evidence expected for papers in my field. And so I recommended a suite of tests that, if he conducted them, would allow me to pass judgment. I further said that if the tests wre successful that he would not need my support, and that people would be beating a path to his door.

None of my recommendations have yet been heeded, and so I continue to have no opinion.


He then punted my question as to whether the Pharyngulite had played any role in his sudden attention to the material that appears over his name on the back jacket of Pivar's book.

Meanwhile, Pivar tells me that the following persons: Robert Hazen, Dimitar Sasselov, Brian Goodwin and Richard Milner have not withdrawn their support.

I wonder, are they in line for a call from the Prophet of the Pharyngula? Well, they can do whatever they want, but I am getting an independent assessment of the work in question.

The thing about Darwinists is that they are so predictable. Here are samples of two comments I borfed recently:
Say, Tyson withdrew his support because he never lent it. Pivar claimed it unjustifiably. PZ had sent him an e-mail asking if he really supported an idea for which there was no experimental nor obervational basis.

(Here I am being invited to substitute speculation ["Say, ..."] for asking Tyson to comment. But come to think of it, Darwinism is 99% speculation anyway, isn't it?

As it happens, the present is NOT a prehistoric era. I can just ask Tyson, and I did. He appears to want me to belive that the Pharyngulite Prophet had no influence. I guess I could speculate and say that the circumstances suggest that Prophet PZ did have an influence on Tyson, but I am not a Darwinist, so I cannot simply count that as fact and launch a persecution against anyone who doubts it.)

Here's the other one:
As a fellow Torontonian, I hope that you can inject a little more objectivity and rationalism into your articles.

Well, fellow Torontonian, don't move to my neighbourhood, there's a dear. What YOU mean by "objectivity and rationalism" is "behaving like the pharyngulite mob." Some of us have standards.

Stuart Pivar has implied to me that there is a long trail of correspondence around an effort to get his theory published in a journal. I just bet there is. I covered the Rick Sternberg uproar, after all.

If Pivar sends me a wallop of paper, I guess I'll have to read it.

My own opinion so far is that a lot of people should just grow up. Darwinism is clearly and obviously dead, and it is not coming to life again.

As the cop said to the perp, who offered him a lame excuse, "You're going to have to come up with something better than that."

Update 2007 07 20:

So who is Neil deGrasse Tyson anyway? A friend, David, writes,

Hey Denyse - You may have seen this already but I'm sharing it anyway. Tyson spoke spoke at the Beyond Belief conference last year. Here he goes against ID where he totally caricatures the theory and uses the argument from evil against design. Apparently Tyson has his own religious beliefs about what a God should and should not do. For him, bad design means no design........and this guy is supposed to be a logical scientist?
The arguments from evil were:

The universe is a hostile place for life

We have to eat for food to stay alive

There are volcanos and other natural disasters that kill people

There are diseases that kill people

There are genetic abnormalities that kill people

No engineer would design the place were you use the bathroom to be close to the place were your genitals are (argument from uncleanliness, this is a new I have to admit:)

And THEN he takes a jab at REPUBLICANS!

Well, now, David, they must have called it the Beyond Belief conference for a reason, right? Personally, I have watched with interest the decline in reasonableness of atheist arguments over the years. (I wonder where Dr. Tyson thinks the anus should be, for example? All real design features constraints as well as disadvantages. That is a function of existence in this particular real world. )

What I am now most interested to see is whether the other parties who endorsed Pivar's book/ideas/articles will receive a special revelation from the Prophet of the Pharyngula, and if so, how they will respond. Anyone can have an opinion. Only people of courage and intellect can have convictions.

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