For the past 14 years, Periannan Senapathy has been digging into the molecular origins of life on earth. And what he says he's found is that things didn't happen the way Charles Darwin said they did.
In November 1994, Senapathy, an Indian-born molecular biologist, released Independent Birth of Organisms, his 635-page, self-published book claiming that Darwin's 1859 classic, On the Origin of the Species, is fundamentally wrong. Senapathy's radical counter-theory, asserts that all life -- simple and complex -- formed independently from randomly combined genetic material in prehistoric pools left over from the earth's formation. (Conventional evolutionary theory states that life began simply in these primordial ponds, with one or a few simple organisms gradually mutating and evolving into the billions of distinct organisms that exist today.)
So far, Senapathy is his own greatest fan. Aside from the praise of Giuseppe Geraci, a molecular biologist at the University of Naples in Italy -- who says he's gathered data indicating that organisms like snails and sea urchins were independently formed -- no scientists have thrown their support behind the theory. And, though his tome has been out in hardcover for five months, few scientists have read it.
But Senapathy, an articulate spokesman who tends to digress into scientific complexities, remains resolute. He contends that Darwin observed artificial selection -- the ability to produce variations within a species -- and then assumed that similar changes occurred among different, distinct organisms over thousands of years (natural selection). "From then on, whatever he said was simply a leap of faith. No proof, no nothing."
This certainty has marked every inch of Senapathy's path, from hunch to published theory. In fact, he was so sure that his "independent birth" could upend Darwin that he guarded the theory until it was released as a book -- keeping it from colleagues at both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the University of Wisconsin, where altogether he spent 10 years. When outsiders -- including proofreaders, friends and printers -- did see the text, Senapathy required that they sign a confidentiality agreement, securing the theory as his own and controlling its release to the scientific public.
It was an embarrassing request, but Senapathy says he feared that if the theory surfaced before the book's publication, "it would be ridiculed."
Curiously, while no scientists contacted for this piece are buying into Senapathy's heretic theory, no one is calling him a quack either. "He's definitely not a crackpot," says Eric Ackerman, a researcher in DNA repair at NIH. "It's serious science, and he's presenting a thorough case."
During his years as a graduate student in Bangalore, India, Senapathy was a believer in evolution. "I had absolutely no doubt in Darwin's theory," he says. It wasn't until later, when researching DNA sequencing for the NIH, that Senapathy began pondering life's molecular ancestry.
He'd stay up late after work recording his thoughts in a wire-bound notebook. Even as an associate scientist at UW-Madison's Biotechnology Center and genetics department, the work consumed him, filling most of his spare time. The book took Senapathy 14 years to produce, with much of that time spent on developing the computer software needed to test his theories about the probabilities of randomly combining genes.
Now, Senapathy has the time to pursue his own research as founder and president of Genome International Corporation, a biotechnology firm on Madison's west side. Genome, which has only one other full-time employee, got off the ground in 1992 with a $200,000 technology development grant from the state Department of Development and $336,000 invested by Senapathy and other private sources, state records show. In a small office off Mineral Point Road, the company develops computational algorithms and software for mapping the structure and functions of genes and, particularly, the function of certain proteins.
Though Senapathy relishes his new-found independence, it hasn't come without a price. His lack of institutional affiliations -- including the vast publishing, peer review and publicity networks that major universities and research firms use -- makes promoting a rebel theory and extra-hard sell.
Senapathy complains that evolution is entrenched in high school curricula and remains virtually unchallenged in higher education. This "evolutionary mindset," he says, "has befogged the light."
Is Senapathy a genius ahead of his time? It's possible, but not likely, says Dr. James Crow, UW-Madison professor emeritus in genetics, and a dyed-in-tweed evolutionist. "Senapathy's theory, although buttressed by page after page of molecular details and mathematical arguments, involves a basic assumption that is out in left field. There have been far-out arguments in the past, and unrecognized geniuses, but for each Mendel and Einstein, there are hundreds that turn out to be wrong."
This is not the first time that Senapathy has gone head-to-head with the established scientific community. In 1986, while still at NIH, he proposed a theory explaining why genes are split into introns and exons -- something that had puzzled scientists since the split was discovered. The theory, far less controversial than Independent Birth of Organisms, was met with resistance in the scientific community for more than two years. Despite publicity in journals like New Scientist, it was only after Nobel laureate Marshall Nirenberg of NIH gave his support that the theory was widely accepted. Recalling that lag-time between the theory's publication and acceptance, Senapathy is taking aggressive measures to see that his one is heard.
He designed the text of Independent Birth of Organisms to be user-friendly: Organized as a genetics primer, it is meticulously laid out and includes a summary of Darwinism and subsequent revisions, as well as diagrams and texts explaining his own theory. The book's cover, bearing an original representation of his theory -- a turtle, a butterfly, an earthworm and a frog slinking away from a DNA-infused pond -- is far slicker than most scientific volumes.
And, at $29.95, it's priced to sell. "There's a magical boundary: People think, 'Under $30, yes, over $30, no.'" Having printed an initial run of 3,000, at a cost of over $60,000, it's clear Senapathy's not in it for the book's royalties.
Now, if he can only get people to read it. Since November, he's been hitting up radio and TV stations coast to coast for interviews and appearances. He's already done radio spots in Palm Beach, Fla., and Yakima, Wash., and he recently established a home page -- an informational public-access screen -- on the Internet's World Wide Web, which includes the preface and first chapter of the book.
Senapathy has also placed ads in journals ranging from Cell to The Journal of the European Molecular Biology Organization and managed to convince two national bookstore chains -- Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks -- to carry his book (it's also available at local independent outlets).
Yet, despite all this self-promotion, Senapathy's book has yet to be reviewed by any scientific journal or lay publication. A critique, however, is forthcoming from California's Book Reader -- advertised as the country's largest independent book review. Senapathy remains hopeful, though, pointing out that feature articles have appeared in newspapers like India Abroad, whose audience consists mainly of Indian expatriates.
Over the years, many others have taken swipes at evolution theory, but the vast majority have been creation scientists who've used science and faith to support a biblically-based explanation of life.
Yet Senapathy distances himself from creationists, insisting that his theories are not influenced by scriptural decree. Creationists attack Darwin because evolution theory challenges their beliefs, he says, adding that his theory is based on science.
"This is not because I'm interested in independent birth," he says, "it's because my research shows that organisms formed independently."
Secular scientists since Darwin have pondered the questions unanswered by evolution, including "missing links" between evolutionary ancestors, the difficulty in evolving complex organs, and the Cambrian Explosion -- a period 570 million years ago when multicellular life burst into existence, casting doubt on the gradual progress of evolution. Even Stephen Jay Gould, arguably the greatest living paleontologist, offered a re-interpretation of evolution based on the discovery of the Burgess Shale, a fossil field in the Canadian Rockies.
Senapathy began questioning Darwin's theory gradually, after finding inconsistencies on a natural and molecular level. But to replace the theory, Senapathy says he had to cross the scientific boundaries between paleontology, biology, geology and computer science. When he speaks of his self-education, he takes on a voice of grand purpose, much like Darwin did in Origin. "I had to cross a sea of understanding evolution very well and then come to another land that is new" he says.
And then he had to find the guts to take on Darwin. "It was not an easy thing for me because Darwin is a godlike figure for scientists. To go against him, I was scared." But, he adds, "I knew I was right."
Copyright Paul Schmelzer, 1995. This article is the sole property of Paul Schmelzer. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint, contact email@example.com, or write: Paul Schmelzer, 1216 Williamson St. #5, Madison, WI, 53703; phone 608-250-0097. A version of this article appeared in Isthmus, April 7, 1995.
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