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.’