This important and illuminating book reveals how the study of metamorphosis - one of nature's most dazzling conjuring tricks - is shedding new light on evolutionary theory. Ryan begins with the groundbreaking early naturalists who focused on the process by which a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, or a tadpole into a frog or toad. He then walks us through the development of modern entomology and brings the story right up to date with a detailed account of marine biologist Don Williamson's controversial 'evolution through hybridization' theories. Williamson's argument, still something of a hot topic in the scientific community, is that various otherwise inexplicable anomalies in evolution can be explained by the principle of cross-species fertilization, involving the sperm of one creature and the egg of another.
Frank Ryan writes with verve and conviction, skillfully marshaling his facts and painting vivid pen-portraits of his central characters - not least the engaging and self-deprecating Don Williamson, now 89, retired and relishing the debate his theory has sparked. Metamorphosis is aimed squarely at the general reader rather than the scientific cognoscenti and it is a lively and thoroughly entertaining read; one of the best scientific books of recent years.
Anyone who has contemplated the awe-inspiring transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly understands that nature is capable of many enchanting yet baffling surprises. Indeed, the phenomenon of metamorphosis, common in insects and sea life, appears to defy Darwinian natural selection, in which wholesale anatomical changes mostly happen slowly over eons. In describing the intricacies and theories behind this ancient natural mystery, former physician and science writer Ryan introduces the reader to some fascinating dramatis personae, including aptly named entomologist Vincent Wigglesworth and marine biologist Don Williamson. Wigglesworth’s major contribution to solving the metamorphosis riddle involved identifying the hormones that trigger it while studying a South American insect known as the “kissing bug.” More controversial is the theory proposed by Williamson, suggesting that such dramatic differences between pulpy infant larva and multi-appendage adult can only be explained by gene-swapping between radically dissimilar species. While some of these overviews veer into jargon-laden explanation, overall Ryan provides the reader with an engrossing survey of one of nature’s most transfixing puzzles.
— Carl Hays
Book News - June 2011
Ryan, a former physician, describes the trajectory of research on animal metamorphosis over the last 200 years, from the work of Darwin through Sir Vincent Wigglesworth (the father of insect physiology), entomologist Carroll Williams, and the husband-and-wife team of Lynn Riddiford and James Truman. This train of research leads to contemporary marine biologist Don Williamson and his controversial theory that evolution occurs not just through mutation but also through hybridization, implying that larval and adult forms of many animals were once wildly different creatures whose genomes melded during trans-species hybridization. The book also makes note of the role of the internal politics of science, in which new ideas are not always welcomed. Ryan has written other books explaining current science research.
ForeWord Review - April 1, 2011
In 2009, retired zoologist Donald Williamson published a radical theory shocking the scientific world. His paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) suggested the dual stages of an insect's life, larval and adult, are a result of hybridization rather than through more orthodox evolutionary methods.
The majority of the uproar came not from the audacity of Williamson's suggestions, but from his bypassing the journal's peer review process. His paper had been accepted through a now defunct system unique to PNAS that afforded publication to papers providing they had two referees. The scandal overshadowed Williamson's arguments. The academy faced accusations of nepotism and, in the words of one Duke University biologist speaking to Scientific American, of publishing a paper "better suited for the 'National Enquirer than the National Academy.'"
Now, almost two years later, physician and evolutionary biologist Frank Ryan examines Williamson's claims on the basis of their scholarship in The Mystery of Metamorphosis: A scientific Detective Story. The author of several books, Ryan sparked discussions among academics and casual readers alike with Darwin's Blind Spot and in 1993, the New York Times selected his book The Forgotten Plague as the non-fiction book of the year. The Mystery of Metamorphosis marks Ryan's return to the stormy waters of modern science in an attempt to understand evolution's dynamic concepts, and their relationship to the mystifying lifecycle of many marine and terrestrial creatures.
The enormity of Ryan's task and the complexity of the cross-disciplinary research would have overwhelmed a lesser writer. Part history lecture and part science class, Ryan brings an accessible passion to the subject comparable to Carl Sagan's popularization of astronomy. As he builds the case for hybridization in The Mystery of Metamorphosis, Ryan leads readers through the earliest ideas put forth by Darwin and his contemporaries to the modern questions raised by the Cambrian explosion. Like Sagan, Ryan is able to communicate complex theories without becoming simplistic while challenging basic evolutionary concepts.
Opening with a foreword by biologist Lynn Margulis, who refereed Williamson's paper, and Dorion Sagan, Ryan nods at the past controversy but avoids revisiting its ad hominem accusations. Regardless of the scandal, however, Williamson's idea is inescapably radical. To be accepted, a massive amount of testing, proof, and elucidation is needed. This is where The Mystery of Metamorphosis ultimately leads the reader: not to a limiting declaration, but rather to a call for greater understanding and exploration.
Frank Ryan frames metamorphosis as one of the most mysterious of all biological processes. He describes the role in elucidating it of a colourful cast of characters including Jean-Henri Fabre, the 19th-century French naturalist who studied silk moth pheromones, and Vincent B. Wigglesworth, who pinned down the hormone triggers of metamorphosis through decapitation experiments on blood-sucking bugs.
More recently, Donald Williamson has proposed a controversial, non-Darwinian "larval transfer" theory which proposes that genes specifying new larval forms can jump between animal lineages by cross-species, cross-genus and cross-phylum fertilisations.
Some may feel a little lost in taxonomical trivia in parts, but as a whole, the book is a must for entomologists, marine biologists and the downright curious.
Metamorphosis, or the dramatic physical change from one life stage to another (such as with insects and amphibians), is one of nature's most fascinating enigmas. As Ryan (Virolution, Darwin's Blind Spot) so movingly notes, "even in its scientific exploration, metamorphosis remains both awesome and beautiful." In his attempt to unwrap the mystery of metamorphosis, Ryan explores some of the field's most important players, summarizes some of the complex biological phenomena, and discusses its implications for disease prevention. But much of Ryan's material is so technical that it will likely be accessible to only scientifically sophisticated readers. Ryan hypothesizes about how controversial ideas on the subject may cause us to rethink some basic evolutionary principles. In particular, he examines the work of Don Williamson, a marine biologist, who believes that metamorphosis is due to the hybridization of very distinct life forms. If correct, this means that dramatically different species, from widely diverse phyla, occasionally come together and create completely new life forms. Readers willing to fight their way through the technical developmental biology presented will be left with more questions than answers. (May)
Isle of Man News - Hybridization, Different Thinking
Published on May, 16 2011
NEW book The Mystery of Metamorphosis, A Scientific Detective Story by Frank Ryan is set to propel the work of a Port Erin marine biologist on to the world stage.
Don Williamson’s controversial theory of evolution – in which he postulates that evolution also occurs through hybridisation – is known in some areas of the scientific world, but this is the first time it has been introduced to popular audiences in the US and UK.
More than two thirds of the book are devoted to the work of Dr Williamson, who is described as ‘the iconoclastic modern-day scientist . . . whose studies of marine life led him to the boldest and most controversial theory of evolution since Darwin’s own’.
It charts Dr Williamson’s life, his upbringing in Seahouses, Northumberland, the discovery of his theory while lecturing at the Port Erin Marine Laboratory and his battle to gain acceptance of his theory in the scientific community – a struggle made far harder after he had a major stroke in 1990 that left him partially paralysed and, for a time, unable to speak, read and write.
‘It is quite weird reading a book about yourself,’ said Dr Williamson, 89. ‘It seems unreal, but at least he (Frank Ryan) has got his facts right. He does record my views and he made a very good job of it.’
And, he noted wryly, it is rather like reading his own obituary!
The island and Port Erin naturally feature in the book as Ryan casts his eye over events and the setting.
This means the book also reinforces the great loss felt to the scientific community following closure of the laboratory in 2006.
Dr Williamson described his ‘eureka’ moment.
‘When I was revising a lecture on larvae and evolution that I gave to honours BSc students, I pointed out there were various anomalies that could not be explained, but I did not go beyond that,’ he said.
‘But this particular year, 1983, I tore up my lecture notes and rewrote them.
‘I said that all these anomalies could be explained if larvae transferred between one group of animals and another. It was only in the subsequent two years I worked out it must have been done by hybridisation and must be done by the sperm of one animal and the egg of another.
‘ It’s more possible in the sea where eggs and sperm are broadcast and fertilisation is not in the female but in the sea. From time to time there is every chance eggs could be fertilised by foreign sperm, in most cases it comes to nothing but if it happens over millions of years, something will hatch out.’
His battle to gain recognition of his theory and have his papers published has been enormous.
Martin Angel, the editor of Progress in Oceanography, the publication in which Dr Williamson’s paper appeared, said: ‘Darwin would probably have had less trouble submitting a draft of the Origin of Species to the Bishop of Oxford.’
A very important part of the journey has been the support of Lynn Margulis, distinguished professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whom Dr Williamson first contacted in 1988 because his theory shared elements with her theory of cells.
She wrote the foreword to the book with her son, Dorion Sagan (whose late father was astrophysicist Carl).
The battle to get his papers accepted by scientific journals continues and he has written an entry in the book ‘Evolution from the Galapagos’ to be published next year.
Dr Williamson has also challenged other biologists to conduct experiments to prove hybridisation occurs and said he has had a couple of ‘expressions of interest’.
Gratified that Ryan’s book is helping to introduce his theory to a wider audience than ever before, he said: ‘I like to think Darwin would welcome it. He was a broad-minded man, and going back to Darwin’s time – although I didn’t realise it until well after I developed my theory – the first suggestion that larvae had been transferred was made by a young man at Cambridge, Frank Balfour. He had the beginnings of the same idea, he died up Mont Blanc, aged 31, before he could develop his theory further. He was tipped as the successor to Darwin.’
He added: ‘I’m reasonably satisfied that my theory has got so far – it cannot now be swept under the carpet so somebody will take it up in the future.
‘It should be Frank Balfour’s name attached. He wrote a treatise on embryology in two volumes, it was a massive thing. He was an international expert on the development of animals. The theory of larvae evolution was tucked in behind it.
‘He did not get anywhere as far as I got, but it’s the start of my theory.
‘Had Darwin and he lived, they would probably have developed it together and it would probably be mainstream biology.’