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Friday, October 19, 2012

Science Journal Publishes More Gobbledygook

I don't know what's happening at Science these days. It got caught up in the arsenic affair last year and it recently made a fool of itself over the ENCODE publicity fiasco where it was completely duped by Ewan Birney.

Now it has published the following "perspective" in the October 12th issue. It reads like a Sokal hoax but it's perfectly legitimate. That's actually how Stuart Neuman proposes to solve the mystery of the Cambrian explosion.
Stuart A. Newman
Physico-Genetic Determinants in the Evolution of Development
Science 338:217-219 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1222003]


Animal bodies and the embryos that generate them exhibit an assortment of stereotypic morphological motifs that first appeared more than half a billion years ago. During development, cells arrange themselves into tissues with interior cavities and multiple layers with immiscible boundaries, containing patterned arrangements of cell types. These tissues go on to elongate, fold, segment, and form appendages. Their motifs are similar to the outcomes of physical processes generic to condensed, chemically excitable, viscoelastic materials, although the embryonic mechanisms that generate them are typically much more complex. I propose that the origins of animal development lay in the mobilization of physical organizational effects that resulted when certain gene products of single-celled ancestors came to operate on the spatial scale of multicellular aggregates.
Neuman was one of the Alternberg 16, a group of scientists who met in Altenberg, Austria in 2008. Their purpose was to develop a new theory of evolution. The proceedings were collected in a book edited by Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd B. M^uuml;ller, Evolution: The Extended Synthesis.

This story has been promoted by a rogue journalist named Suzan Mazur and she has written a book on the subject. Here's her interview with Stuart Newman, The New Master Of Evolution?. Elizabeth Pennisi, a senior editor at Science, helped publicize the Altenberg 16 back in 2008 by publishing an article in Science [Modernizing the Modern Synthesis]. She has been sympathetic to the bizarre views of some Altenberg 16 members so I suspect she's behind the publication of Stuart Newman's article in Science.


  1. I guess I don't see the major problem. Sokal's hoax was pure gibberish, but I followed the argument fine in this paper. I don't know enough about developmental biology and embryology to evaluate its overall merits, but it wasn't random nonsense like a Sokal-like hoax would be.

    1. Actually, Sokal's paper was _not_ gibberish. It was essentially a review of (apparently well-regarded) articles in the humanities literature about relativistic interpretations of science, application of relativistic ideas to science, etc - Sokal reported the arguments in this literature accurately, and the only element of deceipt in his paper was that the positive tone in which he wrote it did not reflect his opinion. What _was_ gibberish was the content of the articles being cited - that was the point.

    2. Um, in Sokal's own words:

      "Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies -- whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross -- publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?"

      "Throughout the article, I employ scientific and mathematical concepts in ways that few scientists or mathematicians could possibly take seriously."

      "The fundamental silliness of my article lies, however, not in its numerous solecisms but in the dubiousness of its central thesis and of the ``reasoning'' adduced to support it."

      "Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions."

  2. ... I followed the argument fine in this paper.

    Well, congratulations. I didn't follow it at all. It seems like gibberish to me.

    Can you summarize the important new contributions to developmental biology in a sentence or two for those of us who don't get it?

    1. I'm afraid Newman's ideas were allready fully developed by Annette Tison (architecture) and Talus Taylor (biology) in 1970. They called it 'The Barbapapa Family'.

    2. I don't know -- it seemed pretty straightforward to me. Stuff happens just because of physics. Cells can trigger those things to happen. Maybe that's what went on early in animal development and explains some otherwise puzzling aspects of development. As I say, beyond the basic argument I am not qualified to evaluate, but I don't think it was gibberish.

    3. Bona fide question: was there anything other than your inability to follow the paper that made it seem like gibberish? That is, does your "seems gibberish" statement discriminate between true gibberish and non-gibberish that just relies on stuff you and perhaps biologists in general aren't trained in?

    4. Bona fide question: was there anything other than your inability to follow the paper that made it seem like gibberish?

      Yes, partly. I include the possibility that I followed the paper but found the conclusions trivial and not useful. That would still be a form of gibberish, in my opinion, if it's couched in terms that make it sound much more sophisticated and profound than it actually is.

      I haven't changed my mind in spite of the fact that others may think the paper was worth publishing in one of the top journals. They are wrong. :-)

    5. WOW Larry and the IDiots agree the paper is twaddle!

  3. I think I understood most of the paper, but it doesn't seem to be saying much that couldn't be picked up from reading some of Eric Davidson's papers. I'm not sure why this is getting published in Science.

  4. The title of your post is incorrect. The name of the publication is "Science magazine" not "Science journal".

  5. Larry, I'll bet this paper made it into Science because the editors (and referees) there agree with Stuart Newman about the following (from the last paragraph of his paper): "The idea that physics acted on early multicellular forms to define in broad strokes the patterns of development resolves several seemingly paradoxical aspects of the evolution of the animal phyla."

    In other words, the long-unsolved problem of the Cambrian Explosion calls for new thinking.

    Did you really not understand what Newman wrote, or do you simply disagree with him? If the latter, then the paper is not gibberish: it's just --by your estimation, anyway -- wrong.

    1. Unless I'm missing something, there's no new thinking to be found here. It's largely a rehash of what evo-devo has concluded about the Cambrian explosion. And I'm not sure most current evolutionary biologists would call the explosion a "long-unsolved problem" - perhaps a problem still mired in controversy, but the controversy is about the details, not the overall process.

    2. Saying that “physics acted on early multicellular forms to define [or should we read ‘design’?] . . . patterns of development” is basically a grammar of cosmic teleology. It is a sky-hook proposal in sheep clothes. With regard to self-organization (sounds like something Henri Bergman would buy into), it would be less deceptive to say that natural selection grabs onto [a personification without any intent to misrepresent what is clearly a non-teleological material process] whatever phenomena/principles physics has to offer. Self-organization occurs in the same sense that the flames of candles are self-organized. Describing a candle in Newman-talk -- ‘physics acts on melted wax to develop and organize an erect flame’ -- seems neither informative nor honest.

      @invivoMark -- Paul Nelson may be the Discovery Institute creationist of the same name.

    3. I don't interpret that statement as you do. If physics doesn't act on something then what does? To me, the only meaningful implication of saying that physics acts on something is that something else [say, a deity] didn't have to. The cellular developmental programs are an expected result of the physics and chemistry involved.

      It is neither a lie nor, in my opinion, misleading to state that the laws of physics cause sodium ions to precipitate into cubic structures in an evaporating medium. That is exactly what happens, and nobody should ever interpret that as an endorsement of "intelligent crystallization theory".

      I maintain my opinion of this paper, including its closing paragraph: nothing new or particularly exciting here.

      Thanks for the heads up about Paul.

    4. invivoMark: I'm not sure why this is getting published in Science

      Paul Nelson: I'll bet this paper made it into Science because the editors (and referees) there agree with Stuart Newman about the following

      I bet this paper made it into Science because of who wrote it. In other words, if a non-influential scientist would have submitted this piece to Science it would not have been published.

    5. invivoMark: The cellular developmental programs are an expected result of the physics and chemistry involved

      I agree with you, I thought that this common sense concept has been with us for at least a few decades. Are we going back to the dark ages of trying to understanding how biology works, or we haven't got out yet?

    6. @Claudiu Bandea
      InvivoMark: “The cellular developmental programs are an expected result of the physics and chemistry involved.”
      Yup. Sounds bout right.
      @ InvivoMark
      Observe, I do not say that the “laws of physics” do not cause development, I affirm that the reified personification “Physics”, implied to be a living entity in the semantics of Newman, plays to believers in cosmic guidance. Finalism is disturbingly ingrained in the exact sciences as well as the educated public.* While not formally endorsing a deity (or a cosmic teleology), the implication that an anthropomorphic "Physics" does purposeful things is certainly there. Why else would New Agers like Mansur and fundamentalists like Nelson be drawn to this guy?
      *The study documenting widespread teleological reasoning among academic physicists at major research institutions in the NE U.S. [the epicenter of rationalism] can be downloaded at

  6. I'm with you on the hype about ENCODE, though :-)

  7. Re W. Benson

    Mr. Nelson is, indeed, the IDiot associated with the Dishonesty Institute.

  8. I don't know what's happening at Science these days.

    Bruce Alberts is getting older and no longer can restrain failed scientists who work for him as editors?

  9. The abstract is gibberish for sure. Read the article. Less of a gibberish and more of a truism. Also, to talk about physico-chemical fundamentals of development and restrict it 100% to animals is, ummm, not smart. Other than the post-hoc "dynamical patterning modules", the article offers nothing new. That "Science" would publish something that claims that it, for the first time, introduced "The idea that physics acted on early multicellular forms to define in broad strokes the patterns of development" should be shocking. (But isn't; it's Glamour Mag, with all that it entails).

  10. A good creationist observation would be that there is not agreement amongst researchers on what is told the public settled fact about evolutions workings.
    Somebody is wrong here and so creationists can gop AHA.
    These rogue science reporters also casts discredit on these science publications.
    AHA again.

    Evolutionary biology is after all very speculative and not established by thye same principals as other subjects .
    In short the scientific method has not and is not, I think can not, being applied to origin subjects like biology and geology.
    That's what we have been saying for years.

  11. Hey robert, have you ever thought of applying what you said to creationist beliefs and the people who promote them, including yourself? No? AHA

    And if another person who also calls him/her self a creationist disagrees with you and/or discredits your interpretation of the bible, what 'method' should be used to determine which one of you is right? Since both of you are just speculating (i.e. expressing of an opinion without sufficient evidence for proof), and since no creationist has ever come up with any reliable or universally agreed upon method to establish which creationist beliefs are 'right', can either of you actually be 'right' in your particular beliefs, or does it just come down to a matter of opinion?

    You do know, don't you, that there are thousands of different creation stories in thousands of religions, some going back to before your religion was even invented, and that even many christian creationists, including some who call themselves 'YEC', would disagree with you on your particular beliefs?

    Yeah robert, there's disagreement in science but at least scientists are looking for evidence and answers, and disagreement in science usually encourages scientists to improve their methods and tools and to look even harder for evidence that may or will 'settle' the disagreement. You creationists, on the other hand, arrogantly believe that you already have ALL the answers for ALL time even though you have no evidence, don't agree on the so-called answers, and aren't looking for any evidence or real answers. Making up and promoting religious fairy tales is not a real answer to serious questions about nature.

    1. Oh no.
      No matter how much a-looking researchers do in origin subjects they are still proclaiming this and that as true about origins.
      They put themselves out there and their methodology and are rightly corrected.
      Don't wimp out!

      I am confident evolutionary biology has no biological evidence for its remarkable claims and rejection of the historic biblical truths.
      In a criminal trial one can't prove guilt with civil trial evidence.
      Evolutionism needs persuasive and enough evidence for its claims and show its claims are from scientific methodology.

      This is why people innately find unpersuasive evolutionary ideas.
      They don't make a good case.
      If more people read sandwalk , who were entry level to evolution, and watched debate hee they would move to the creationist side more then move to the other side.
      People agree with evolution because they think smart people have proven it paid professions.
      It's not because the case was proven to them on the merits.

      Creationists problems are in getting audiences. No problem in debunking evolution and friends.
      The 50% denial or evolution in North America is proof of something.

    2. Hey robert, have you got any evidence of alleged "biblical truths" (that pertain to the topics of creation, the origin of life, or evolution) that would hold up in a civil trial, let alone a criminal trial? Why don't you take it to court and find out?

      You said:

      "Evolutionism needs persuasive and enough evidence for its claims and show its claims are from scientific methodology."

      Since it's obvious that you haven't studied the evidence that supports evolutionary theory and don't use or understand scientific methodology, how could you know whether the evidence is persuasive and enough? Exactly what evidence would be persuasive and enough to convince you? And maybe you could also show the persuasive and enough evidence, that was acquired via scientific methodology, that supports your creationist claims?

      "Creationists problems are in getting audiences."

      Well, that's debatable and it depends on the venue, but if it's true it's likely because many people are figuring out that creationism is baloney and are also tired of giving their money to con artists.

      "No problem in debunking evolution and friends."

      When you and your creationist friends actually get around to doing that, let me know.

      "The 50% denial or evolution in North America is proof of something."

      If your figure is right it shows that half the people are persuaded by the evidence acquired by evolutionary scientists via scientific methodology.

    3. "The 50% denial or evolution in North America is proof of something."

      If your figure is right it shows that half the people are persuaded by the evidence acquired by evolutionary scientists via scientific methodology.

      Now let's break these figures down by age group and level of education... What are we going to find? Any predictions? ;)

    4. 50% is 50%.
      The bible says "with the old there is wisdom' so I suspect older one gets the more skeptical and dismissive of evolution one gets.
      Otherwise it would mean 99% disagreed with evolution when the Beatles came.

      Education levels may reflect, somewhat, smart levels as you seem to suggest by your segregating identity here.
      However it more clearly shows that confidence in the degree-ed people in these subjects is most likely from people who identity with being educated themselves.
      Yet in reality origin subjects require lots of study and most people have ot done such study.
      In fact educated or less educated are all likewise green regarding evolution.
      Their opinions are equally uninformed.
      Only the common sense of people really knocks up creationist numbers.
      Evolutionist numbers are knocked by confidence in the authority behind it.

      The 50% is a smashing rejection of a idea.
      Especially coming from the most intelligent nation in human history. (Sorry Canada).
      I am confident the more intelligent one is the more one is less likely to be wrong on origin subjects.
      So North America is number one in evolution denial.
      As to be predicted.

      Anyways it still true that creationists only lack audience opportunities.
      Evolution has had all the audience it cxould ask for and still struggles.
      Excellent creationist programs or even great debates before great audiences would move numbers even more to our side.
      AIG and ICR and ID authors have done well with very little but more could be done with a wee bit more audience and resources.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Especially coming from the most intelligent nation in human history. (Sorry Canada).

    Or shall we say, the nation with the most striking contrast between the well-educated and... uhhhm... your share of the audience.

  13. Aaprt from the abstract and last paragraph, Newman's article reads like a very condensed summary of well understood developmental processes.