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Metamorphosis – Frank Ryan ****

Every now and then a theory comes along that challenges mainstream thinking in a scientific field and all too often the established scientists are not great at taking on board the new mode of thinking. Of course the theory could be incorrect – but often the scientific establishment don’t even take the trouble to really think about the idea, or dismiss the theory out of hand because it breaks with orthodoxy.
This has always happened. Newton’s first submission to the Royal Society on light and colour was pushed aside by Robert Hooke, who later admitted that he didn’t really bother to read it properly. I’m not saying that the biological establishment haven’t bothered to read the theory that is a major part of Frank Ryan’s book, but they certainly have shown signs of sticking with the standard approach without really thinking about the alternatives, as if Darwin’s support for an idea makes it inevitably right. Come on guys, even Einstein got it wrong occasionally.
The theory in question is that of British biologist Donald Williamson. Williamson has suggested that some (perhaps all) organisms where the animal goes through a metamorphosis from a very different larval stage (think caterpillars and butterflies) is the result of hybridization between different species, where an animal that initially had a straightforward lifecycle had blended in the early forms of another animal.
Because this runs counter to basic Darwinian theory (without in any sense countering the basics of evolution or its mechanisms) the idea’s supporters have really had to fight for it to get it noticed – and yet the more you think about it, the better the idea is.
Williamson’s isn’t the only story that Frank Ryan covers in this wide-ranging book about metamorphosis (he even identifies puberty as a sort of partial metamorphosis in humans), but it is the central thread. In terms of the story, the characters, the theory – this is a brilliant book. But it has a couple of flaws. One is the lack of illustrations. Each chapter has a picture as a heading, but that’s it. There are many points in the book that really cry out for illustrations to make it clearer what is being described.
The second problem is that Ryan isn’t a great writer. His style is approachable but he can be long-winded. For example he takes 3 pages to tell us that insects have to moult because their rigid exoskeleton doesn’t grow. And some of the detail he gives can be a little mind-numbing. But it is perfectly possible to see past any style issues to discover a superb story, some excellent scientific insights and a fascinating theory. Recommended.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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