Physics is an atavistic form of biology, then

I have addressed the nonsense about cancer as an atavism multiple times here, and I even made a video about it. Paul Davies is a medical crackpot, and his pal Charley Lineweaver is just as goofy, but it seems they noticed me, and I got a nice polite email from Lineweaver about it.

Hi PZ,

I just came across your video

I plead innocent of subscribing to the Haeckelian view that

“Development stages recapitulate adult evolutionary stages”

at 14:38 of your video.

If you remove the word “adult” then I would agree more with the statement.

You might be interested in our two recent papers (attached).

Also, as a biologist, you might be interested in an online video course
I just put up at

It’s got a lot of biology in it.

If you find any egregious mistakes, please let me know.

Yours for better science,

Charley Lineweaver

First, I would note that removing one word doesn’t help: “Development stages recapitulate evolutionary stages” is just as bad as “Development stages recapitulate adult evolutionary stages”. Development does not recapitulate the evolutionary history of the organism. Are we going to claim that mammals evolved from an ancient ancestor with a trophoblast that attached to a larger organism to leech off its fluids? Of course not. Mammalian extra-embryonic membranes are great examples of an evolutionary novelty appearing at a time in development that does not reflect a phylogenetic sequence.

As for his claim that cancers are atavistic reversions to a primitive state, see the links I posted above. Enough said. It’s garbage science. I’m just mildly horrified that yes, he sent me two more papers on the subject, published in 2021, and the idea is still getting published in respectable journals. Maybe I’ll dig into those papers some other time, but I think it’s sufficient to dismiss them out of hand since they provide no new information, and are just more exercises in frantic handwaving. Flap, flap, flap, oh look, we made another paper. Flap, flap.

I was mildly intrigued by the web site he mentioned, calling it an “online video course”, which it isn’t. It also doesn’t have much biology in it. But you be the judge: visit for yourself.

It was very nice of him to include a video summary of the “course”, titled “The Course in 7 Minutes”. Great, I can spare 7 minutes!

I didn’t even give it 7 minutes, I’m afraid. I skipped a lot, missing nothing of substance, because all it is is an excerpt from Beethoven’s Fifth played while random images flash by. There is no content there. There are no words, no explanations, not even an attempt to stitch any kind of story or explanation to it. It’s an incoherent mess. It is an accurate summary of the “course”, I’ll give him that.

I dug deeper, and he does have kind of a syllabus.

Week 1 – What does “Are We Alone?” Mean?
Week 2 – Our Evolution Over 20 Million Years
Week 3 – Our Evolution Over the Past 500 Million Years
Week 4 – Our Evolution Over the Past 3 Billion Years
Week 5 – Our Evolution Over the Past 4 Billion Years
Week 6 – Origins of Life: What is Life?
Week 7 – Intelligent Extraterrestrials?
Week 8 – More Conversations with Experts

Each of those entries is a link to more videos, and once again, we descend into chaos. Lineweaver’s approach seems to be to ask various of his science friends to let him interview them, and he drops by and sets up a camera in their office and asks a bunch of questions, like these:

This video-based course probes the question “Are we alone?” Unlike SETI scientists, Mars rovers and planet-hunting astronomers, we take a biological approach and ask: “How did WE get here?” Like salmon swimming upriver to the pond where they were born, we are led upstream from whence we came. We take a pilgrimage into the past to the origin of life 4 billion years ago. During this evolutionary odyssey with astrobiologist Charley Lineweaver, we ask: Who is “we”? Why did our brains get so big? How did life get started? Are viruses alive? What is life? Answers to these questions may help us get from How DID life start? to How DOES life start?

This leads to a confusing collection of short (typically 5-6 minutes) video interviews. There is no synthesis. There are no answers, not even an attempt to assemble some kind of consensus. I watched a few and then gave up.

If I were asked, “are we alone?”, my answer would be something like, “I don’t know, but probably not. I think the prebiotic chemistry that led to life is probably universal, so it could be common, but we’ve got an n of 1 so far. If we found signs of ancient life on Mars, though, that would increase the probability of life of some sort being common.” That’s all we’ve got so far. I also think that anyone who says yes, absolutely, or no, absolutely, isn’t worth talking to further.

I would turn the questions about, though, and ask how Charley Lineweaver, an honorary associate professor at the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics and Research School of Earth Science at the Australian National University, a man with an advanced education that is entirely in physics, who has a PhD in physics from Berkeley, gets to call himself an astrobiologist, and does that mean I get to call myself an astrophysicist, despite an education that was almost exclusively in biology, and despite having a position as a biology professor?

Oh, wait. He also says he is “the son of a high school biology teacher”, so I guess he inherited his parent’s qualifications. With that logic, that means that my father’s line of work means I get to call myself a diesel mechanic now. Or maybe an astro diesel mechanic?


  1. blf says

    The mildly deranged penguin, who sometimes claims she knows everything about everything, has just founded the University of Astrodieselogy, and is happy to bestow on poopyhead its first ever honorary degree — indeed, its first ever degree — even before there is any of that other stuff, such as staff, website, schedule of fees, or subject matter.

       That is, on very the few occasions she hasn’t some cheese in her beak. She may also so-claim while there is cheese inside her beak, but then she’s even harder to understand, and could just be reciting Hamlet backwards.

  2. hemidactylus says

    You can get a gas powered motor to emulate a diesel (which can be verbed):

    I thought octane level was causative, but what do I know with my bachelors in bio and psych. And my dad wasn’t a mechanic.

    Anyway maybe not helpful but your pal Mayr held that Haeckel and previous recapitulationists weren’t focused on adult stages, plus Haeckel recognized cenogenesis (eg- adaptive features like extraembryonic membranes).

    Immunologist Ted Steele has also taken to astrobiology with a bizarre panspermist origin for SARS-CoV-2

    “The origins and global spread of two recent, yet quite different, pandemic diseases is discussed and reviewed in depth: Candida auris, a eukaryotic fungal disease, and COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2), a positive strand RNA viral respiratory disease. Both these diseases display highly distinctive patterns of sudden emergence and global spread, which are not easy to understand by conventional epidemiological analysis based on simple infection-driven human- to-human spread of an infectious disease (assumed to jump suddenly and thus genetically, from an animal reservoir). Both these enigmatic diseases make sense however under a Panspermia in-fall model and the evidence consistent with such a model is critically reviewed.”


    So not just physicists have odd biological speculations.

  3. snarkhuntr says

    Obviously, as a devotee of Haeckle Mr. Lineweaver believes that Proficiency Recapitulates Phylogeny, and as such he is entitled to claim an understanding of biology due to his ancestor’s accomplishments in that field.

    @hemidactylus – Higher octane levels in the fuel actually reduce the tendency for an engine to diesel (also called pre-ignition or ‘knocking’ if it happens while the engine is running) where the adiabatic heat created during the compression of the fuel/air mix in the cylinder self-ignites.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    Bowhead whales are good at escaping cancer, and can live 150-200 years. So they are the opposite of atavistic.

  5. hemidactylus says

    Recapitulation can be seen similarly to Santayana’s overdone dictum: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

    There is no literal repetition in either case but the modified statement holds: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”

  6. StevoR says

    If I were asked, “are we alone?”, my answer would be something like, “I don’t know, but probably not. I think the prebiotic chemistry that led to life is probably universal, so it could be common, but we’ve got an n of 1 so far. If we found signs of ancient life on Mars, though, that would increase the probability of life of some sort being common.” That’s all we’ve got so far. I also think that anyone who says yes, absolutely, or no, absolutely, isn’t worth talking to further.

    Well, it depends.

    Statistically, (though I am NOT a statistician) given the sheer number of planets likely to exist in the Cosmos and the remoteness of the possibility that ours is the only planet with life – even intelligent technology developing life – to think we’re truly alone in the univesre seems absurd. Arguably ,there are several species that use technology here.. depending on definitions and what you call tech.. It seems ridiculuous to me to think that we ‘re the only technologically advanced lifefrom in the Cosmos In our Milky Way Galaxy maybe but still unlikely. In the local region of of our glaxy? Whole other story.

    OTOH, we know of five thousand plus exoplanets already and virtually none are like our own as far as we know and most orbit dimmer, more violently activeregularly flaring stars with narrower habitable zones (M-type) or are problematic in different ways. There’s a quote forman old issue of New Scientist magazine here that, well, it’d take me a whiel todredge up but anyhow. In essence, lots of plaets, none like ours -certainly not for sure. No firm evidence but famously “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence ” given the literally cosmological scale and scope of the question here.

    I don’t know. I’d perhaps say its almost absolutely certain that other Exteatrerrestrial intelligences must exist elsewhere given the sheer numbers but we certainly haven’t found them yet and mnay never do so. Especially if we destroy ourselves relatively soon as looks disturbingly likely.

    There are a lot of further questions raised most of which are hard to answer without resorting to a lot of speculation which is intriguing and fun but very far from being conclusive.

  7. PaulBC says

    He also says he is “the son of a high school biology teacher”,

    He’s the only boy who could ever reach her… the son of a teacher man. Just guessing here. He must have some point.

  8. StevoR says

    By ‘depends” it may be that we might not be exactly alone but may be still very lonely and far out from anyone else indeed and depending on what you mean by anyone else species~wise and capabilities ~wise & likeness to us~wise.

    How different from us and far apart from us do “they” have to be before the difference between them being out there and not is moot~ish from our POV?

    If they are like “us” would we even want them to be nearby or very far way indeed? Whole other question too.

    Its also worth pointing out in the history of Earth as far as we know we are the first species to build rocketships and the internet in its 4 .5 billion years of existence so far – and see Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar to give a bit of perspective to how very rare critters like us may be..

    There’s the “Rare Earth” hypotheisis and also its opposite (put very well indeed in a book I recall reading but not that book’s author or title right now..) which I think there’s also a very good case for and really just ..insufficient evidence as yet to choose between them or somewhere in-between them..

    PS. I swear this bloody computer changes letters round on me.. midn you it is very late at night /early morn here.

  9. StevoR says

    @ 9 PaulBC : Well, its some sort of background in terms of familiarity with biology and its main ideas I guess?

    Knowledge by osmosis and exposure to that knowledge from an expert in the house for many years..

    For whatever, that is worth..

  10. PaulBC says

    StevoR@11 Maybe… my father was a mathematician and did some work in Operations Research. It didn’t hurt, but my computer science credentials come from my later education. My mother had a degree in chemistry and even did some substitute teaching, but I know very little chemistry, just what I half remember from high school and a little bit that I picked up while trying to do some work on protein folding in grad school (that didn’t pan out but the algorithm took on a life of its own and became my dissertation).

    I will tell you this. When I left home for college at 18, I didn’t know jack s*** about anything or at least not nearly as much as I thought I did. Heh, maybe I do know enough chemistry to doubt the efficacy of “osmotic” learning.

    People who point to parental credentials really annoy me. Ben Stein is a great example. His father Herbert Stein was an actual famous economist with peer reviewed research. Ben Stein (of “Bueller” fame) is “writer, lawyer, actor, comedian, and commentator on political and economic issues” but he has always been quick to pull out the “my dad was an economist” card as if this qualified him to promote rightwing economic policy.

  11. StevoR says

    @ ^ PaulBC : Yup. Then there was Trump boasting that he was somehow a scientist because he had an uncle who was one as well as boasting about his bloodline ( gag, spit) making him better than everyone else.. Nope, nothing problematic there much!

  12. StevoR says

    So, yes, it doesn’t count for much at all hence my “for whatever its worth – which is really very little.

  13. hemidactylus says

    @12- PaulBC

    Ah I recall Win Ben Stein’s Money which gave us Jimmy Kimmel who would go on to be a forerunner of Joe Rogan on The Man Show.

    The Wikipedia page says Stein did major in economics at Columbia (guessing as bachelors seeking undergrad).

    But notoriously there was Expelled of which PZ may have said: “I went to attend a screening of the creationist propaganda movie, Expelled, a few minutes ago. Well, I tried … but I was Expelled!” and Dawkins: “P.Z. is in the film extensively. If anyone had a right to see the film, it was him.”

  14. PaulBC says

    hemidactylus@15 True. Ben Stein majored in economics. His father was an actual economist though, and a famous one. He is known for the truism Stein’s Law: If something cannot go on forever, it will stop. This is a half-useful point about sustainability but it ignores the manner in which something stops.

    “bachelors seeking undergrad” I got the gist, but that reads like the heading of a personal ad.

  15. felixmagister says

    @16 Or, to paraphrase, “there is no need to bother installing breaks, since a runaway car will eventually run into something”.

  16. ColonelZen says

    An Astro Diesel Mechanic??

    Where do I sign up for an apprenticeship? !!!!

  17. blf says

    felixmagister@17, The runaway car could go over the edge of the Earth, albeit it might, eventually, hit one or more of the turtles. Whether or not that would stop it, or a turtle, is not immediately obvious, but the truism at @16 does allow for things to go on forever; albeit I imagine the turtles would eventually get annoyed with downcoming cars crashing bouncing off them.

    ColonelZen@18, Contact the yet-to-hired careers staff at the yet-to-have-a-website-or-anything-else University of Astrodieselogy (see @3).

  18. asclepias says

    The question “Are we alone in the universe?” (like “What does it mean to be alone?”) has always struck me as odd. From a scientific point of view, it would be really cool to find that there are forms of bacterial life on other planets, but I doubt we are going to end up in a Star Trek-like future. When people ponder that we might (and probably are) alone in the universe, that’s what they’re going for. I always wonder if the people who ask that question are lonely. We certainly don’t lack for company (wanted or not) here on Earth. Is being a singularity in an ever-expanding universe really so bad?

  19. birgerjohansson says

    We will one day find plenty of exobacteria. But that’s it. Remember Fermi’s Paradox.

  20. StevoR says

    @ ^ asclepias : “From a scientific point of view, it would be really cool to find that there are forms of bacterial life on other planets, but I doubt we are going to end up in a Star Trek-like future. When people ponder that we might (and probably are) alone in the universe, that’s what they’re going for.”

    Is it though? Seems to be attributing motives and mind-reading a bit there. For some of those interested in SETI possibly I guess but for many others – even most others – I don’t think so necessarily.

    Same with the loneliness thing. Some might well be, FSM knows there’s enough lonely people on this planet, and who doesn’t sometimes feel lonely? But most of them and having that as the reason for wanting to find aliens? Like, for companionship because humans & critters here aren’t enough for them? Wow. No, I think there might be quite a lot more to it for mostly for them (us?) who are keen on doing SETI.Even if that was true – which again, I don’t think it is then so what? We should just stop asking that question or trying to answer it or speculate about it?

  21. StevoR says

    @22. birgerjohansson : Life has had as long to come up with lifefroms more complex than bacteria inside the sub-surface oceans of Europa, Enceladus, other icy moons and even Pluto as it has on Earth so I’m thinking we could well have bigger and more complex than just bacterial life there in our own solar system let alone elsewhere with potentaillymore promising conditions..Seems a bit early to be making that conclusion based solely on Fermi’s paradox alone.

  22. chrislawson says


    The dictum “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is useful, but I find that it is often mangled to dismiss skepticism even when there is evidence of absence. True believers have a habit of interpreting clear negative evidence as merely an absence of positive evidence (e.g. cryptobunnies, flat earthers, people who still insist Theranos was onto something…).

  23. PaulBC says

    @21 @23 I wouldn’t say loneliness as much as curiosity. It would be incredibly fascinating to receive a signal from outer space that carried intentional semantics such as a mathematical theorem (beyond mathematics, I don’t know what else could translate). Also, in the very unlikely event of contact with another species that was comparable to use at all (i.e. intelligent but not so far advanced as to transcend our comprehension) having some kind of comparison would give us insight into universal values, if any such exist. E.g., are there analogies to competition, cooperation, grief, jealousy, joy, etc. or can these only be understood in terms of the distinct circumstances of human beings? Unfortunately, that is getting far into fantasy, but I still enjoy thinking about it.

    One other reason I would like to believe there is intelligent life out there doing something amazing, whether we meet them or not, is my strong doubt over our own future. Great things are afoot! What does it matter in the scheme of things, if I or even my species is a participant?

    The flip side is that I sometimes wonder if consciousness itself is overrated, “the means by which the universe understands itself.“ (I thought Carl Sagan, but I find it attributed to physicist Brian Cox). Hey, maybe the the universe doesn’t want to know itself. We’re just this little infection on the cosmos that does. I often feel this way around plants. I like plants. They are a beautiful and apparently egoless expression of creativity. Could all life be more like that?

    Exobacteria would of course be extremely cool and I wouldn’t be disappointed at all if we found “only” that. Presumably we’d find entirely new kinds of information bearing molecules… or maybe not. It depends on how fundamental RNA and DNA are. We might still find proteins, but a different set of amino acids and different encodings. Even that is thinking very narrowly. We might find something entirely different, only recognizable as life because it reproduces.

    I doubt we will find any of this in my lifetime, unless Mars is less desolate than it seems or if some of the outer planet moons show some promise.

    I can only think of one plausible “alone in the universe” scenario and that would require living in one of many multiverses such that sentient life is so rare as to happen in an average of less than one “universe”. If what we call the universe is all of reality, then assuming there is any intelligent life, finding exactly one example is not reasonable.

    There’s no easy way to rule out “alone in the galaxy” without more information, though I am not that pessimistic. There are numerous answers to Fermi’s Paradox which only makes sense if you assume that some sentient species will expand unchecked (e.g. with von Neumann replicators). First, there may be very little reason to do so given the resources around an individual star, and second, even if someone tries there could be others who got there first who will stop it. There could be more intelligent life than we think, just not drawing attention to itself. (Lots of other proposals true, none of them new.)

  24. whheydt says

    Re: chrislawson @ #25…
    It appears that Theranos was onto something. It’s just that evidence is that whatever they were onto, wasn’t a medical diagnostic breakthrough.

  25. whheydt says

    Re: PaulBC @ #26…
    Consider what we’ve been beaming out to the rest of the universe…. Radio and television programs.

    Then there was the SF story in which a clearly intelligent signal was received that worked it’s way through chemistry to nuclear reactions, ending by repeating one that wasn’t familiar to those looking at the message. Then it suddenly stopped. The researchers went outside, looked up, and there was a nova at the location where the signal had been coming from.

  26. PaulBC says

    John Morales@29 There’s serious selection bias given that the parts of the galaxy that sentient life can observe up close are limited to places that support some form of sentient life.

    The mediocrity principle is relevant to observations on which our own existence is not contingent (I would guess for instance the existence of the outer gas giant planets), but there could still be a very unusual set of conditions required to produce sentient life that would need to be present here on earth by definition.

    For that matter, we already occupy a very unusual place in the universe. If you picked a random place to be from a uniform distribution of space, you’d probably be far from any stars at all. If you picked a place weighted by mass density, you’d probably be inside some massive object, maybe a black hole. The conditional probability of being on an earth-like planet given that it’s a planet with sentient life has some bearing on whether sentient life happens mostly on earth-like planets, but tells you nothing about its overall probability.

  27. KG says

    I can’t see any justification for using the mediocity principle in arguments about the likely prevalence of life/intelligence/advanced technology in the universe. To use it to argue for the common occurrence of these phenomena is simply (and in the original use of the term) begging the question.

    I was going to say that the study of exoplanets hints that our solar system is unusual, but a recent preprint suggests otherwise: while “hot Jupiters” have got a lot of attention, the overall distribution of giant planets indicates they are most common between 1AU and 10AU from their stars, Jupiter being at 5.2AU from the sun (data on Earth-sized planets is still sparse).

  28. KG says

    most common -> more common @32 – further out than 10AU orbital periods are too long for many planets to have been detected.

  29. birgerjohansson says

    It may be that the Solar System is average among systems that have advanced life, but are completely different from the average (non zooic) planetary systems.

  30. says

    Why does Lineweaver have the split at 3 and 4 billion years??? That makes no sense to me. The 500 million year step might make a little more sense, but it looks like he’s got some kind of bizarro evolutionary narrative going on.

    Also, FWIW, I’m an astro metallurgical engineer, and an astro astro high school teacher, so I’m at least as qualified as Lineweaver. I should write books!