Crackpot or genius? Danny Vendramini may be labelled both. The anti-religious amateur biological theorist is challenging mainstream evolutionary thought.

Danny Vendramini didn't wake up one morning and say to himself: "Today, I'll shatter half of the accepted beliefs about evolutionary biology." It has been more gradual than that. In fact, his theory, that a second evolutionary process is at work alongside natural selection, has been percolating away for quite some time, emerging from the primordial soup of the subconscious and slowly taking form over several years.

It's a theory that seems both preposterous and wonderful, taking, as it does, the core of Darwinian biology and cladding it with some truly extraordinary ideas about trauma, the genetic transmission of emotions and the origin of instincts.

Could his evolutionary process - known as "teemosis" - really explain the explosion of new species 543 million years ago? Does it really provide a plausible means for environmental information to be passed on to offspring? Does it truly describe the evolutionary purpose for the "junk DNA" that makes up 98.5 per cent of our genome?

And, even if it all ends up as discredited hocus, there's another equally fascinating question. What's it like to generate a brand new theory that challenges many of the big assumptions about the origins of living organisms? How does an amateur without any formal training in biology pull off a feat like that without getting locked up, or, perhaps worse, completely ignored?

Well, according to the infectiously enthusiastic Vendramini, the solution is to read a lot - about 8000 academic papers to be precise-— on anything to do with the human genome, NeoDarwinism and even palaeontology. Initially, his mission was to decipher the gobbledegook but later, as his theory took shape, his task was to find anything that disproves the ideas underpinning his theory.

So far, he says, he hasn't found anything. In fact, Vendramini's website,, lists supportive comments from a range of academics, including Noam Chomsky of MIT.

We're sitting under the veranda of a cafe as he explains all this. He has made a day-trip to Melbourne from his home in Sydney and he knows he's in for a long chat. Somehow, he has to outline the evolutionary process of both his idea and every multicellular species on earth. And, along the way, he's going to have to distance himself from all those crackpot anti-evolutionists by stressing he's not a Christian, has little time for creationists and reveres Darwin deeply.

For the 57-year-old sculptor, scriptwriter and all-round Renaissance man, this is an important chat. After six long years developing his ideas, the time has come for some mainstream exposure. So the chinotti are ordered as he takes a deep breath and starts at the beginning.

We're not talking about the Big Bang. Instead, Vendramini chooses the moment when he first started thinking that Darwin might have missed something and that perhaps there was an evolutionary process working in tandem with natural selection. He came to this conclusion after thinking about myths and the way so many cultures have sagas in which catastrophic floods are meted out as God's retribution for bad behaviour. He became curious about the way different nations have the same epic stories about monsters, dragons, good and evil.

"It's as if they're hard-wired into our genes," he says. So he looked for the scientific literature to explain this and, apart from some "esoteric stuff by mythologists", he says he found a "nothingness". Eventually, he came up with the hypothesis that it may have something to do with the inheritance of emotional memories.

Comment: How much better can one sleep at night thinking that these stories of monsters, dragons, good and evil have nothing to do with the outer world and are at most some form of emotion coded into our genes. How much more reassuring than the "nothingness" found in "esoteric stuff by mythologists".

Vendramini believes that environmental factors, if powerful enough, can trigger changes in non-coding or "junk" DNA, which in turn are passed on to offspring and govern their behaviour. He calls these "teems" or Trauma Encoded Emotional Memories and he believes they're triggered by lifethreatening events such as attacks by predators or profound emotions such as sexual arousal.

When these emotions are encrypted into an animal's noncoding DNA, they can be passed on so that subsequent generations begin life with that teem already archived in its emotional memory.

The teem then affects the offspring's behaviour. Whereas Darwin argued that a creature such as a woodpecker would evolve over many generations based on the random selection of mutations giving certain birds thick skulls, Vendramini argues that a starving woodpecker once experienced a powerful emotion associating pecking with satiating hunger.

This emotion was encoded into the bird's DNA, and passed on so that eventually all woodpeckers were genetically programmed to peck at trees for food.

But this works only in certain life forms. To experience a teem you'll need not only non-coding DNA but also a central nervous system and sensory organs. Vendramini says these are important because it's the central nervous system - not the brain — that is the real emotion-producing organ and because sensory organs are the means of collecting the data that generates the emotion.

Vendramini then goes a step further, proposing that teemosis helps explain something Darwin could not, namely the rapid profusion of species, especially multicellular organisms, during the period palaeontologists describe as the Cambrian Explosion, about 543 million years ago. It was at the moment he made this link that Vendramini reckoned his theory started feeling good because, suddenly, organisms had some control over their destiny and weren't completely dependent on random mutations for evolutionary success.

He believes Darwin explains incremental or microevolution whereas teem theory explains the complexity of creatures, biodiversity and behavioural evolution.

But because Vendramini's theory questions some aspects of Darwin, he says he is often befriended by creationists. So the time has come to shatter that illusion. When I ask him about intelligent design - the stream of creationism that is sweeping the US and claims life is too complicated to be left to chance - he reacts impulsively, jerking his hand forwards and knocking over a pepper shaker. It's as if his own fear-of-religion teem has reacted violently to this external threat.

"There is absolutely no need for an intelligent designer. It's all a lot of crap," he fires off before sitting back to reflect, "Yeah, that'll stir ‘em up."

This is a lapsed Catholic speaking, the son of Italian immigrants who grew up in Melbourne's working-class northern suburbs in the 1950s and who "had the faith literally beaten out of me by a pack of aged, malevolent and extremely sadistic Good Samaritan nuns".

There's a maverick streak in Vendramini. He calls himself a theoretical biologist, but happily tells you his only qualification is this theory. He says he relishes his amateur status because it has allowed him to escape the shackles that bind professionals.

"Being an amateur is usually a disadvantage, but, for me, it was fortunate because I didn't have the normal respect for the paradigms that scientists work within."

He says established scientists won't leap at his theory because "if they've been teaching a certain paradigm all their lives and then discover that Darwin needs updating, it would be a violation of their core beliefs".

So I went in search of academics to make a comment on the theory. The first port of call - a leading biologist in one of our prominent universities - appeared to vindicate Vendramini's pessimism.

After offering the scientist a potted overview of teemosis, he replied in a derisive tone. "It sounds to me like the second cousin to the flying saucer. I'd prefer not to run with it. There's enough genuine stuff based on natural history and, if it's coming off a website rather than proper scientific study, I'd prefer not to be quoted. It sounds like a great Doctor Who story," he concluded.

When I explained that Vendramini had published his work in the British journal Medical Hypotheses, there was a haughty laugh down the phone. "Well the name says it all," he scoffed. Would you like to have a look at the website," I inquired?

"No, I'd rather not run with it."

Dr Martin Burd of Monash University's School of Biological Sciences was more accommodating and, after reading Vendramini's paper and navigating his way round his website, he concluded that he was "very sceptical" about the theory for at least two reasons. The first is that plants have as much repetitive non-coding DNA in their genomes as animals, a fact not explained by Vendramini. He hints that Vendramini might be tempted to argue that repetitive non-coding DNA serves a different function in plants than the teem function in animals. But, according to Burd, this would amount to "special pleading" - something scientists frown upon.

He also accuses Vendramini of failing to explain the mechanics of it all adequately. He concludes it's "not very convincing" because Vendramini doesn't reveal how teems are actually written into non-coding DNA and how that affects emotions or creates instincts.

"We now know about many specific genes that affect behaviour so any theory that claims to explain emotions, instincts and behaviours needs to have a pretty convincing biochemical and genetic mechanism to be up to current standards of plausibility."

Philip Bock, a research fellow at Deakin University, describes the theory as "certainly interesting" and gives it sufficient credence to encourage further research. He envisages loads of PhDs from budding scientists all testing individual strands of Vendramini's work. But he echoes the caution of Burd. He is troubled by the lack of evidence that shows how an emotional event triggers a physiological change in the non-coding DNA and then how that DNA makes its way into the gene line in order to be reproduced and inherited. He's also worried about the lack of detail about how this inherited DNA then drives emotional or behavioural changes in the offspring. "There are a lot of gaps in that chain that are glossed over," he says.

Vendramini responds to this criticism with characteristic optimism. "Given that the history of science shows that radical new scientific ideas are initially almost universally disparaged, these comments seem quite moderate. I'm encouraged."

He points to a handful of papers on his website where he fleshes out the mechanics further and cites recent laboratory evidence. However, Vendramini also admits this evidence is still on the light side.

"I'm the first to concede these five papers don't provide the kind of detailed, precise molecular and genetic evidence I'd personally like to see. This, of course, doesn't mean the theory is flawed. It simply reflects the fact that theory precedes observation, often by many years."

He refers to Darwin, who went public with his theory of natural selection in 1859. "It wasn't until the 1950s that the mechanical-molecular mechanisms of natural selection - including DNA itself were fully understood."

So now the maverick Vendramini is seeking acceptance - or at least the courtesy of having his ideas tested to assess whether they have anything to offer. And, as he braces for the reviews, he has taken heart from Darwin himself: "Darwin loved to have his mistakes pointed out. I'd have an enormous sense of pride if my theory adds just a little to his noble edifice, but if I see evidence that it's wrong, I just have to admit it."