James Shapiro has responded to my review in the latest issue of NCSE reports: Reply to Laurence A Moran’s review of Evolution: A View
from the 21st Century.
Shapiro seems to be really upset that NCSE would choose someone like me to review his book. He opens his rebuttal with ...
Before I saw Laurence A Moran’s book review (Moran 2012), I wrote the following: “It is a shame that NCSE chose Larry Moran to review my book; not because of anything he said in the review but because he is hostile to new ideas and perspectives.”I stand by my criticism of physicists who think that all they have to do is think about biology in order to set the rest of us straight on some important concepts. And I stand by my criticism of biologists who support them.
A year ago, Moran posted a piece entitled “Physicists and biologists” on his Sandwalk blog [Physicists and Biologists1]. In this post, he ridiculed the enthusiasm I expressed in the book for physicists coming into evolutionary studies and bringing new skills and new ideas.
Meanwhile, I welcome all those physicists who know nothing about evolution, protein structure, genetics, physiology, metabolism and ecology. That’s just what we need in the biological sciences to go along with all the contributions made by equally ignorant creationists.What a great way to make new friends for evolution science—equating physicists with creationists and calling them “equally ignorant”!
What I object to is is being characterized as someone who is "hostile to new ideas and perspectives."
I suspect that NCSE agreed to my review because I have a bit of knowledge of biochemistry, molecular biology, and evolution. I'm particularly interested in new ways of looking at evolution from the perspective of randomness and accident. I'm also fairly knowledgeable about the history of recent attacks on modern evolutionary theory.
I can understand Shapiro's frustration because everyone who knows anything about his subject matter thinks he's way off base. On the other hand, Intelligent Design Creationists are big fans of his writing. I suppose he would have preferred it if Casey Luskin had written the review for NCSE Reports. I don't think that was going to happen.
Shapiro continues ...
My argument is that molecular research over the past sixty years on DNA change processes has taught us that virtually all genetic variation results from the action of regulated cell biochemistry, including a wide array of cutting, splicing and polymerizing functions that I summarize under the term “natural genetic engineering”. I assert that this realization represents a fundamental shift from the conventional view that genetic change is a random, accidental process.Yep, that's true. Shapiro claims that the "old" idea of variation caused mostly by accidental DNA replication errors is wrong. The implication is that of the roughly 100 new mutations in every new born baby, most are due to "natural genetic engineering."
And when we compare the DNA sequences of genes from different species the results don't actually show mostly neutral changes that have been fixed by random genetic drift but, instead, they show that most of this variation is due to "natural genetic engineering." There's no defense of these implications in his book but I suppose that's simply because he thinks they are self-evident.
The history of life represents 3.5 billion years of evolution of tens of millions of species. Shapiro presents several pages of references documenting or speculating that there have been some interesting mutations due to gene rearrangements, transposon insertions, genome duplications, and other such events. I found this stuff boring and uninteresting because it's mostly old stuff from the 1970s and 1980s it doesn't address his claim that this is novel and that it represents "a fundamental shift from the conventional view."
In his review, Moran tells us “I have to confess that I skipped most of this chapter [that is, Part II, emphasis added]. I know about genome rearrangements and so does everyone else who has read a textbook in the past forty years” (Moran 2012:9.2). Frankly, I am not aware of textbooks that have routinely covered mutator polymerases, diversity-generating retroelements, retrosplicing group II introns, CRISPRs, SINE elements and many other natural genetic engineering systems over the past 40 years. In fact, one of the reasons for writing the book was that people who had seen my journal articles would often ask, “Is there a book where I can read more about this?”I discussed all those topics, except CRISPRs, in my big biochemistry textbook twenty years ago (Moran, Scrimgeour, 1992). They have also been covered in the various editions of Genes by Benjamin Lewin, beginning in the mid 1980's. I can't begin to imagine how James Shapiro can claim to be an expert on these things without being aware of what's taught in undergraduate molecular biology classes. He seems to be living in an intellectual vacuum.
One of the main points of my critique was that rare events such as genome duplications do occur but that is fully consistent with the role of chance and accident in evolution. Events occurring on million year time scales do not justify a claim that "virtually all genetic variation" is due to "natural genetic engineering."
Here's how Shapiro responds to that criticism ...
When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.
To counter my position, Moran writes,So, Shapiro claims that there were actually FOUR events spread out over 400 million years. That's one every 100 million years. I caution RNCSE readers not to assume that those are random accidents. And please, dear RNCSE readers, understand that this is powerful evidence for a "fundamental shift from the conventional view that genetic change is a random, accidental process."
His main thesis seems to be that such mutations are not random as neo-Darwinism demands. Genome duplication is one example. There may have been two genome duplications in the vertebrate lineage. Both of them occurred in fish. (Moran 2012:9.2)This is wrong and misleading. There were indeed two genome duplications in the history of teleosts, at key points of phylogenetic diversification, but they were far from unique in vertebrate evolution. I was quite explicitly referring to the pair of duplications that, successively, coincided with the origins of all vertebrates and then of all jawed vertebrates (Nakatani and others 2007). I think RNCSE readers will agree that these certainly constituted major events in animal evolution.
I raised the same issue with respect to transposon mediated events. Are they common and do they provide evidence for some directed form of evolution ("natural genetic engineering"). Are they evidence against randomness and accident as the main source of variation?
Shapiro thinks my criticism was misguided ...
Moran continues to depict what I had to say about the evolutionary role of natural genetic engineering as exaggerated:What I "skipped" is the litany of references to papers documenting the occasional beneficial mutation events due to transposon insertions in various species.2 The list does nothing to convince readers that this is a common process and it does nothing to convince readers that it is planned ("natural genetic engineering"). It's very much like the approach taken by creationists when they list all the papers critical of evolution or all the papers showing evidence that some little piece of DNA is not junk.
Another example involves transposons. In the hominid lineage there may be evidence of a few transposon-related genome alterations that turned out to be beneficial and subsequently became fixed in the population. That’s a rate of approximately one every million years or so. (Moran 2012:9.2)This downplaying of the role of transposons (a class of mobile genetic elements) is quite an ironic assertion. The rate with which “transposon-related genome alterations” are being discovered by parsing genome sequences is truly astonishing. At the end of last year, a group of bioinformaticians published a Nature paper examining the human genome as compared to 29 other aligned vertebrate genomes. They said:
We report … 280,000 non-coding elements exapted from mobile elementsand more than 1,000 primate- and human-accelerated elements. (Lindblad-Toh and others 2011:476)Perhaps Moran would not have made his tendentious error about the rarity of “transposon related genome alterations” if he had not have skipped so much of the core of my book.
Good science requires much more than just long lists of references that you think support your claim. It also requires putting that work into context, reporting the papers that conflict with your view, and discussing the possible flaws and misinterpretations in the scientific literature. In other words, good science requires healthy skepticism and critical thinking.
Finally, since I spoke of cell sensory mechanisms and cognition, Moran pulled out the “intelligent design” card and made disparaging use of the fact that I published two peer-reviewed papers on the importance of repetitive DNA in 2005 with Richard von Sternberg (Shapiro and Sternberg 2005; Sternberg & Shapiro 2005). Sternberg turned out to become something of an ID cause célèbre the following year.I thought long and hard about this part of the review. The problem is that Shapiro's thoughts are rejected by the scientific community but enthusiastically endorsed by Intelligent Design Creationists. That requires an explanation because it goes to the heart of what NCSE is all about.
Shapiro’s views seem to be philosophically similar to those of Richard Sternberg (Richard von Sternberg)—the two of them published several articles together a few years ago. (Moran 2012:9.3)What Sternberg’s personal views have to do with these papers or the contents of my book, readers can judge for themselves. I am happy to stand by their scientific validity. The fact Moran chose to use a “guilt-by-association” approach to criticize my book speaks volumes about the character of his review.
I think it's interesting that Shapiro choose to publish with a well-known creationist and I think it's interesting that he agreed to post an article on the main Discovery Institute blog. I think it's interesting that his style of argument is so similar to that used by the Intelligent Design Creationists.
I once asked James Shapiro whether he believes in god(s) and whether his "discovery" of some form of directed evolution has anything to do with that belief. He declined to answer.
1. I added the link. Here's part of what I said in my post.
Why don't I move to physics and solve their problems? I've got all the proper qualifications, "lacking a formal education," "less prejudicial background," and I haven't been taught to exclude impossible things. I bet I could convince half a dozen of my biologist colleagues to abandon the difficult problems of biology in order to help the physicists. It shouldn't take more than a few years.2. Shapiro thinks that dozens of pages of lists represent the "core" of his book. I find that very interesting.
We need a name for this discovery, let's call it The Shapiro Conjecture.