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November 25, 2013

An Open Letter to Armand Marie Leroi

Dear Armand,

I’ve recently been persuaded that I should stop identifying you as “Doctor X” and as “Reviewer Number One” of the rejected manuscript. Hence this Open Letter.

This will of necessity include material you may have read in my post-rejection email to the editor of Trends in Ecology and Evolution (TREE) and, perhaps, in prior posts to this site. Sorry, but some duplication cannot be avoided. After all, the prime purpose of an “open” communication is to reach other people, not the nominal addressee.

Parts of this message will be disrespectful. Sorry about that, but you’ve earned it.

In your 2003 interview with Geoff Watts you advised him and all the readers of The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) that I thought the sole function of snails’ shells was to provide protection from carcinogenic radiation. Although snails are not even mentioned in my book and although I did not write a general biology book (where comprehensive explanations would be expected) but an extended explanation of my idea that lethal juvenile cancer played a significant role in Bilaterian evolution, what is truly outrageous is your presumption (or was it just a pose?) that someone with no scientific training who managed to be published twice in the Journal of Theoretical Biology and to write a book favorably reviewed in Nature was nonetheless ignorant and stupid.

(In that interview you also give the impression that I went overboard—you said “willy nilly”—in identifying putative effects of lethal juvenile cancer.  More about that later.)

In 2009 a candidate for a PhD in biology decided he would review my book without reading it and published an on-line screed saying my idea was worthless. He wrote that I was opposed to scientific tests of my theory. I attributed that grotesquely erroneous conclusion to the Watts interview where you implied I was opposed to experimental science. As you know I proposed in my book a specific experiment (on pages 143-144) and three different refutations (166-170.) In the interview you ignored those explicit invitations to test my idea and distorted my agreement with Ernst Mayr on the limited value of experimental science in understanding evolution. Annoyed that the student had published something so at odds with the facts, I sent an email to you suggesting that he got his wrong idea from the THES article. You then emailed the student, half-heartedly suggesting that he retract his comments and added this: “Mister Graham has fallen in love with his idea.” (Thanks for that bcc.) As with your comment about snails’ shells, that gratuitous comment was another sign you seem to have a psychological need to play a de haut en bas role with me. (The utter stupidity of your comment did have one unintended benefit: I couldn’t find it insulting.)  

I did not respond to those juvenile remarks of yours when they were made. After all, you did call attention to my idea and I was gratified that your paper precipitated some citations in other cancer-oriented papers. You obviously had a severely distorted conception of my theory but some notice was better than no notice. Or so I thought.

However it eventually became clear that my theory was ignored by my intended target, the professional evolutionists. To address that problem I began posting articles on this site, hoping to reach biologists who were unaware of my theory’s existence. I also initiated a serious effort to achieve publication in an evolution journal. After some hesitancy on his part, the editor of TREE decided to accept a brief manuscriptsubject, of course, to approval by his reviewers. In an email he disclosed that he had some pre-review input from you and once I read his emailed rejection and its enclosures I concluded that you had been his primary reviewer.

As I wrote the editor I am convinced you persuaded him to reject what was not a new proposal, but a concise fact-based argument for the theory published in 1983 and 1984 in my two peer-reviewed Letters and in my 1992 Nature-reviewed book. You reject a theory which had been approved for publication by the late James F Danielli, FRS, and his co-reviewer, a fellow member of JTB’s Editorial Board. You also imply that Nature’s reviewer was wrong in expressing agreement with my theory and that Nature’s editors were wrong to publish his review. You single-handedly accomplished quite a bit, all behind the scenes and with no risk, so far, of public disclosure.

I told the editor in my emailed response to the rejection that I thought your review was of poor quality and even explained how you might have legitimately criticized the theory:

“Here’s my message to Armand. Turn to the opening paragraph in the JTB 1983 Letter (reprinted in the back of the book) and highlight this portion of its final sentence “all selected defenses against cancer would have enhanced the ability of the genomes to create organisms in which the genetic program is expressed with great fidelity in all somatic cells.” I consider any negative criticism of my idea that ignores that assertion (by refusing to agree with it, but failing to offer logical or factual refutation) a sign that the critic either does not understand my idea or that he is not being serious.”

In February 1978 (when you were fourteen years old) I grasped the momentous significance to evolution of the mutagen-carcinogen correlation established by Bruce Ames: anti-cancer adaptations would have enabled hyper-precise development. You have never commented on that, the logical core of my theory; not in your review, not in the interview with Watts or in your several emails to me. Let’s review briefly some of your actual objections.

In the rejected manuscript I compared the limited transformational evolution accomplished by jellyfish gene pools (after ~500 million years they still produce jellyfish) to the enormous fecundity of the Ur-Bilaterians, ascribing that difference to the putative occurrence of lethal juvenile cancer in Bilaterians and its putative absence in jellyfish. How do you counter that argument? By noting that there are thousands of jellyfish species, implying that jellyfish diversity is comparable to the diversity found throughout the descendants of Ur-Bilaterians. Not only are you convinced but you may even have persuaded TREE’s editor that the distinguishing differences between Jellyfish Species A and Jellyfish Species B is comparable to the differences between, for example, Brontosaurus and Bumblebee. In other words on the basis of that utterly ridiculous comparison you conclude that my previously published peer-reviewed proposal that a unique evolutionarily effective mechanism is required to explain Bilaterian evolution is wrong.

In the rejected manuscript I repeated my published assertion that the spectacular somatic complexity found throughout Bilateriansand only in Bilateriansrequired a unique selection-based mechanism operating during development at the level of individual somatic cells and that lethal juvenile cancer was that mechanism. In your review you counter-argue that there is comparable complexity in other multicells and you offered to the editor as a paragon of such complexity the tentacles of jellyfish. Really, Armand? Compared to Bilaterian organ systems that include the eye of the giant squid? The heart of an elephant?  The human brain? Jellyfish tentacles are as precisely constructed as a butterfly? Really?

In listing for the editor other "spectacular" parts of non-Bilaterian multicells which, so you claim, refute my theory you mention the petals of primroses. Well I guess if you think I was so stupid as to claim snail shells perform only one function and that I was so uninformed as to think all jellyfish comprise a miniscule number of species you would also conclude that I had overlooked those precisely-constructed complex organs in plants: the flowers. Armand, you read my book. You had it on display during the Watts interview and you mention it in the TREE review. Did you forget what you read on pages 114-116? Where I explain at some length that the complexity of flowers and their precise construction is adequately explained by conventional theory, that cancer selection was not involved? Or did your obsessive need to prevent TREE’s readers of even learning of my theory’s existence outweigh your obligation as a reviewer not to make such an egregious error?

Continued here.

© 2013 by James Graham