Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Why is a Fly not a Horse?

Why is a Fly not a Horse?
Giuseppe Sermonti
2005. Discovery Institute, Seattle, Washington.
Reviewed by
Andrea Bottaro, University of Rochester Medical Center
At the ripe age of 80, Giuseppe Sermonti can hardly be considered the new kid on the block of creationism, even more so because he has been pushing his personal brand of anti-evolution, an idiosyncratic brew of supernaturalism, structuralism, and postmodernist anti-rationalism, already for a couple of decades. Judging by the treatment this retired Italian genetics professor recently received in the United States by the local creationist “intelligent design” honchos, however, one would be almost forgiven for thinking that Sermonti might be the movement’s next star. Much of the newfound enthusiasm is, I suspect, due to his editorship of Rivista di Biologia/Biology Forum, a third-tier but historical and, importantly, ISI-indexed biology journal which he has turned into a haven for all sorts of creationist and anti-Darwinian material. Sermonti’s Rivista provides “intelligent design” advocates a much-needed back door to the “mainstream scientific literature” without the inconvenience of proper peer-review — a unique opportunity that they have already started to exploit. Hard on the heels of Sermonti’s trans-Atlantic travel to appear at Discovery Institute-sponsored lectures and as an “expert witness” at the Kansas anti-evolution hearings, now comes a translation of his book Dimenticare Darwin (“To forget Darwin”), published by none else but the Discovery Institute itself, under the title Why is a Fly not a Horse?

Despite the back-cover claim that the book is “loaded with scientific facts,” it can hardly be called a scientific treatise. In fact, the book lacks any coherent thread, any substantial argument that is logically developed. In its place, two main ideas reverberate and echo throughout the book: first, that modern evolutionary theory and the current mechanistic models of development — indeed, the scientific method itself — are utterly inadequate to explain biological form in all its fascinating and rich complexity, and second, that abstract form exists apart from, and precedes — indeed must precede — its physical ontogenetic and phylogenetic realization. Sermonti bounces these two ideas around, roaming across themes as diverse as fractals and paleoentomology, prions, and anthropology. This could have even been an instructive approach, if it were not for the fact that the treatment is mostly superficial, and often outright misleading, practically overwhelming the reader with an avalanche of factoids, pseudo-claims, and anecdotes which, due to the general lack of proper citations and attributions, a general reader will not even be equipped to confirm and evaluate properly.

The lack of citations is actually strategic, because for the most part Sermonti runs through the usual gamut of well-known creationist rhetorical arguments and scientific misrepresentations (key transitional forms are missing, no models exist for the origin of genetic information, evolution contradicts the Second Law of Thermodynamics, natural selection is a purely conservative force, and so on), sometimes with highly personal twists, such as his creative claim that the evidence indicates that Homo sapiens appeared first (and abruptly) among hominids, and that all other fossil hominids and extant great apes are its degenerate forms. When support for an argument is missing, Sermonti does not turn away from inventing some, for instance when he argues that modern evolutionary theory, via its adherence to the “Central Dogma” of molecular biology, posits that DNA must act as a thermodynamically closed system (and therefore is subject to the Second Law).

In most cases, Sermonti’s arguments are based on mere misrepresentations or cherry-picking of the existing evidence; I can’t say whether intentionally or due to ignorance. Thus, the finding that homologous “master” genes (hox genes, pax6) can drive similar developmental programs in morphologically different organisms is cited as a strong argument that morphological differences cannot be genetic in origin, but must be due to “some vague ‘field’ that unfolds to the point of being the very form of a fly or a cat” — a view, Sermonti assures the reader, that is “gaining ever wider support” (which may be news to developmental biologists). Later, he claims that leaf insects, or phasmids, predated the appearance of the leafy plants they mimic (angiosperms) in the Cretaceous. This is simply false.

First, there is no fossil evidence at all of Phasmida before the radiation of angiosperms. Second, the Permian fossil insects of the order Protophasmida, which Sermonti cites as problematic evidence, do not particularly mimic sticks or leaves, and certainly not angiosperm leaves. (As Sermonti notes with characteristic suspicion for scientists’ motives, they are unfortunately named: they are not even related to modern Phasmida at all.) Third, leafy plants, such as ferns and gymnosperms, existed in the Paleozoic anyway, and with visual predators such as amphibians and early reptiles around, it would hardly be a surprise if some insects did find an advantage in forms of camouflage. Sermonti says, “The entomologists I have consulted prefer to gloss over the phasmids.” Quite possibly, he simply did not like their answers.

Also on an insect topic, Sermonti cites as another case of impossible evolutionary “premonition” the fact that most of the extant insect mouth apparatuses existed before angiosperms (Labandeira and Sepkoski 1993). He asks, “How did it happen that these complex and delicate apparatuses existed millions and millions of years before they had a job to do?” The straightforward answer is, because they had a job to do on non-angiosperm plants, as highlighted by the damage detected on plant fossils.

A review paper by Labandeira (1998) describes insect feeding modes for which Paleozoic evidence already exists: “spore feeding and piercing-and-sucking” (extending to the early Devonian), “[e]xternal feeding on pinnule margins and the intimate and intricate association of galling” (in the Carboniferous), “hole feeding and skeletonization” (in the early Permian), “surface fluid feeding” and possible but inconclusive evidence of “mutualistic relationships between insect pollinivores and seed plants” by the end of the Paleozoic. In other words, insects pierced, sucked, gnawed, crushed, lapped, imbibed, scraped and otherwise fed on non-angiosperm plants then, much as they do on angiosperms today (the only exception being the current highly specialized flower-feeding apparatuses, whose appearance in the fossil record not surprisingly overlaps that of flowering plants).

Quite amusingly, these supposed entomological “evolutionary mysteries” so struck “intelligent design” advocate and biochemist Michael Behe’s fancy that he made them the centerpiece of his endorsement of Sermonti’s book: “With charming prose Sermonti describes biology which contradicts Darwinian expectations: leaf insects before leaves, insects before plants [sic] …“ It would have taken Behe some basic knowledge of biology and paleontology and a few hours of checking the appropriate literature to figure out the facts. Perhaps Behe blindly trusted Sermonti’s scholarship, but he should have asked the book’s editor (Jonathan Wells of Icons of Evolution fame) and translator first, who (to their credit) went to the trouble of correcting several banally gross errors from the Italian version of the book (such as the claims that all animal phyla, including Protozoa, Porifera, and Cnidaria, appeared in the Cambrian, and that there are no known fossil transitional forms in cetacean evolution).

The alternative view of the biological world Sermonti proposes has less to do with science, even anti-Darwinian structuralism, and more with some sort of passive, contemplative mysticism. Ultimately, Sermonti seems to suggest, we should just marvel at nature’s intricacies, and give up on trying to understand it with our faulty tools: “The budding flower of the world is a cathedral of cathedrals, and it remains to us to bend our knee and say ‘Domine, non sum dignus’”.

I am all for being transported by contemplation of nature at times, but Sermonti is not St Francis, and his anti-scientific approach ultimately sounds alternatively resentful (of the veil-piercing successes of science) and defeatist (of its future prospects). The goal of Sermonti’s approach, however, is not knowledge but, as he states in a 1996 open letter to Rupert Sheldrake in Rivista di Biologia (Sermonti 1996), to endow the modern world with an “enchanted and magic aura” (interestingly, Sermonti is also the author of several books and articles of literary criticism of fables and fairy tales).

If one has to look for a positive aspect in the book, it may reside in the exposure of creationist and “intelligent design” readers to some of the more respectable structuralist ideas, which although limited may be something not often encountered in their pamphlets. As one of the founders of the Osaka Group, Sermonti should at least have a reasonable understanding of structuralism. Alas, he barely runs through the topic in a couple of chapters (most effectively in the one entitled “Prescribed forms of life”). He talks about D’Arcy Thompson and even describes Brian Goodwin’s more pragmatic approach to structuralist embryology, only later to essentially apologize for its empirical nature, and fall back on empty fluff such as Rupert Sheldrake’s “morphic resonance” and the “inherent collective memory” of natural systems.

So, all in all, between the poor arguments, the many errors, and the misrepresentations, what is left of this book to leave a mark on the reader is the “charming prose” Behe alludes to. Certainly Sermonti loves to turn out flourishing phrases and rich descriptions — possibly even too much for many English readers, more used to terse and utilitarian prose. Another Discovery Institute Fellow, Jonathan Witt, crows, “Anyone who believed in reincarnation would say Sermonti was a poet in a former life.” Judging solely from this book, any knowledgeable reader would have a hard time believing that Sermonti has been a scientist in this life.

[Some material and ideas in this essay first appeared on the Panda’s Thumb website in Bottaro’s review of the Italian version of Sermonti’s book and later commentaries.]

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.