More Recent Comments

Monday, May 03, 2021

More illusions/delusions of James Shapiro and Denis Noble

It was just a few weeks ago that I discussed short articles by Denis Noble and James Shapiro that were published in the journal Biosemiotics [The illusions of Denis Noble] [The illusions of James Shapiro].

Several readers questioned whether Biosemiotics is a real science journal and they were right: it's a kooky journal and that's why it publishes papers by kooks. However, we now have a new paper by Shapiro and Noble that's about to appear in a legitimate scientific journal; albeit, one that has seen better days. This would normally raise red flags concerning peer review but we're long past the time when we can count on peer review to weed out the kooks.

Here's the paper. I'm not going to discuss all the main points because they were covered in my previous posts. I'll just concentrate on the most ridiculous part in order to illustrate the (lack of) quality of this paper.1

Shapiro, J. and Noble, D. (2021) What prevents mainstream evolutionists teaching the whole truth about how genomes evolve? Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology. [doi: 10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2021.04.004]

The common belief that the neo-Darwinian Modern Synthesis (MS) was buttressed by the discoveries of molecular biology is incorrect. On the contrary those discoveries have undermined the MS. This article discusses the many processes revealed by molecular studies and genome sequencing that contribute to evolution but nonetheless lie beyond the strict confines of the MS formulated in the 1940s. The core assumptions of the MS that molecular studies have discredited include the idea that DNA is intrinsically a faithful self-replicator, the one-way transfer of heritable information from nucleic acids to other cell molecules, the myth of “selfish DNA,” and the existence of an impenetrable Weismann Barrier separating somatic and germ line cells. Processes fundamental to modern evolutionary theory include symbiogenesis, biosphere interactions between distant taxa (including viruses), horizontal DNA transfers, natural genetic engineering, organismal stress responses that activate intrinsic genome change operators, and macroevolution by genome restructuring (distinct from the gradual accumulation of local microevolutionary changes in the MS). These 21st Century concepts treat the evolving genome as a highly formatted and integrated Read-Write (RW) database rather than a Read-Only Memory (ROM) collection of independent gene units that change by random copying errors. Most of the discoverers of these macroevolutionary processes have been ignored in mainstream textbooks and popularizations of evolutionary biology, as we document in some detail. Ironically, we show that the active view of evolution that emerges from genomics and molecular biology is much closer to the 19th century ideas of both Darwin and Lamarck. The capacity of cells to activate evolutionary genome change under stress can account for some of the most negative clinical results in oncology, especially the sudden appearance of treatment-resistant and more aggressive tumors following therapies intended to eradicate all cancer cells. Knowing that extreme stress can be a trigger for punctuated macroevolutionary change suggests that less lethal therapies may result in longer survival times.

The section on "selfish DNA" is the one that seems to have the highest number of misleading and false statements per paragraph.

1.4. The end of “selfish” or “junk” DNA

A major shortcoming of the MS is that it was based on a “gene-centric” view, which assumed that the genome is basically a collection of “genes” that are the protein-coding units of heredity and heritable variation. As we saw in the quotation from Goldschmidt's 1940 book, this view failed to take the evolutionary importance of chromosome structure into account (Goldschmidt, 1940). It also blinded evolutionary biologists to the importance of McClintock's mid- 20th Century discovery of mobile “controlling elements” (McClintock, 1987). Both the ideas of genetic transposition and control of gene expression by these non-coding mobile elements did not fit within the narrow confines of the MS concepts of genome function and variation. A further empirical assault on the limited MS conceptual framework came in the late 1960s when Britten and Kohne discovered that a significant fraction of genomic DNA from complex eukaryotes consists of highly repetitive sequences rather than the unique coding sequences expected to make up the hereditary material (Britten and Kohne, 1968).

  • The title is ridiculous since no respectable scientist ever equated selfish DNA with junk DNA [Selfish genes and transposons].

  • The Modern Synthesis (MS) was not based on a "gene-centric" view.
  • For the past 50 years, no respectable scientist, and no knowledgeable expert in molecular evolution, has restricted the definition of "gene" to just protein-coding genes.
  • For the past 50 years, no expert in molecular evolution has ever thought that the genome is just a collection of protein-coding genes.
  • For the past 50 years, experts in molecular biology have known about transposons and have considered the view that some of them might be "controlling elements." They have concluded that most transposon-related sequences are just fragments of defective transposons with no biological function.
  • Nobody cares whether mobile genetic elements fit within the narrow confines of the Modern Synthesis as described by Huxley and other in the 1940s because no exeprt in molecular evolution has believed in that view of evolution since the late 1960s.
  • The Britten and Kohne paper established that the genomes of most multicellular eukaryotes contain large amounts of repetivie DNA. This was an attempt to resolve the C-value paradox. Britten and Kohne didn't like the idea that this could be junk DNA so they offered some speculation about function. However, futher data established that most of this repetitive DNA is, indeed, junk and Britten and Kohn's speculations have been discredited. Britten and Kohn were attempting to interpret their result within the context of the adaptationist views that characterized the the Modern Synthesis back then. The correct interpretation of their results came with the overthrow of the Modern Synthesis and the adoption of a new view of evolutionary theory that focused on Neutral Theory, Nearly-Neural Theory, and the importance of random geneitc drift. Shaprio and Noble missed that revolution so they continue to attack an old-fashioned strawman version of evolutionay theory.

Before continuing, it's important to realize that by the early 1970s selectionist thinking had been abandoned by the experts in genome evolution. By 1978 Gould and Lewontin tried, unsccessfully, to convince all other biologists to abandon the old selectionist way of thinking [The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm]. James Shapiro and Denis Noble are among those other biologists who didn't get the message.

In order to apply selectionist thinking to explain the presence of so much non-coding DNA, evolutionary biologists called this unexpected portion of the genome “junk DNA” (Ohno, 1972) or “selfish DNA” (Orgel and Crick, 1980). Richard Dawkins used an extreme view of these “selfish genes” to erect a whole philosophy of strictly passive evolutionary gradualism (Dawkins, 1976). Today we know that the human genome contains at least 30X as much repetitive non-coding DNA as protein-coding sequences (Lander et al., 2001). Repetitive DNA provides formatting signals for transcription, epigenetic modification and chromosome mechanics and also is the most variable component in the evolutionary diversification of complex genomes (Symonová and Howell, 2018; Subirana et al., 2015; Matsubara et al., 2016; CioffiMde et al., 2015; Chalopin et al., 2015; Shao et al., 2019; Böhne et al., 2008; Li et al., 2016; Oliver et al., 2013). A 2013 plot of organismal complexity against protein-coding and non-coding DNA showed that coding DNA peaked at approximately ∼3 × 107 bp, while the non-coding DNA increased linearly with growing complexity up to ∼2–3 x 1010 bp (Liu et al., 2013). In other words, non-coding DNA tracked organismal complexity better than the protein-coding genes. The “encyclopedia of DNA elements” (ENCODE) project, which largely abandoned the term “gene,” revealed that the large majority of the so-called junk DNA is actively transcribed in a regulated manner, indicating that it is functional (Consortium, 2012; Pennisi, 2012).

  • It is completely, totally, ridiculous to say that the idea of junk DNA was due to selectionist thinking. The first statement in this paragraph is powerful evidence that Shaprio and Noble don't know what they are talking about. The concept of junk DNA is a rejection of selectionist thinking.
  • The use of "noncoding DNA" is what's called a "tell."
  • Again, equating junk DNA with selfish DNA is stupid. If all the excess DNA were selfish then it isn't junk because it has a function.
  • Richard Dawkins' view on evolution is closer to the old-fashioned adaptationist view that was abandoned by the experts by the time he wrote The Selfish Gene. Dawkins book is not really about "genes," however, as is clear to anyone who has read it. He's talking about any piece of DNA that confers a fitness advantage. The Dawkins strawman is a favorite target of the Third Way types but it's just a strawman.
  • No significant proportion of repetitive DNA has a function in spite of the references quoted above.
  • There is no significant correlation between organismal compexity and noncoding DNA. Lots of very similar species, such as onions, have very different genome sizes.
  • No knowledgeable scientist since the 1980s thinks there should be a significant correlation between the number of genes and organismal complexity. We know that most of the phenotypic differences between multicellular species are due to changes in the timing and amount of expression of a standard set of genes. This is the main discovery of evolutionary-developmental biology (evo-devo), another revolution that Shapiro and Nobel missed. They should educate themselves by reading Sean B. Carroll's books.
  • The ENCODE researchers did lots of silly things but they did NOT abandon the term "gene."
  • The idea that most of our genome is functional because of ENCODE is laughable in 2021. The fact that Shapiro and Noble would bring this up is another "tell" and the fact that they would reference Elizabeth Pennisi is even more revealing. These guys are incapable of thinking critically.

Shaprio and Noble then describe a few examples of repetitive DNA sequences that have a known function and they point out that a number of noncoding genes have been indentified. They imply that these functional sequences make up a signifcant fraction of the genome thus calling the concept of junk DNA into question. They close the section with,

Clearly, none of the eminent scientists who wrote about junk or selfish DNA could possibly have imagined the wide range of cellular functionalities that we know today are executed by ncRNA molecules. The idea that a genome was just a collection of protein coding sequences has proved completely inadequate.

  • I don't know about you, dear reader, but I'll match those "eminent scientists" against Shapiro and Noble any day. I'd love to see them try to defend their views in a public debate against some of the leading proponents of junk DNA. I know where my money would be.

Let me close by quoting the last chapter of this paper. I don't intend to comment on it except to say that it gives new meaning to the word "irony."

The campaign to sustain the Modern Synthesis causes real harm in a number of different ways. Among doctors treating bacterial infections, ignorance of real-world evolutionary processes has led to a situation in which the available antibiotics have lost their effectiveness against many life-threatening conditions (CDC et al., 2019). Among the general public, the inability to comprehend the potential all living organisms possess for transferring and reorganizing genomic configurations makes them unprepared to form sound judgements about how society should utilize its growing arsenal of biotechnology tools acquired from our microbial neighbors, like CRISPR (Doudna, 2020). Among oncologists, MS thinking prevents the practitioners treating cancer patients from recognizing the dangers of overtreating tolerable tumors in ways that may provoke a macroevolutionary transition to a far more lethal and untreatable disease (Heng, 2019). Finally, in the battle against obscurantism and anti-evolution prejudice, insistence on an outdated set of assertions about how life can change itself leaves the defenders of rigorous scientific inquiry without satisfactory responses to critics. Clearly, the time has come for the mainstream evolution community to recognize and join the scientific reality of the 21st Century.

Finally, one of the most important properties of kooks is that they find each other and they tend to hang out together, either physically or virtually. I'm not sure why this happens since they often espouse mutually exclusive views. I'm guessing that we can explain it in two different ways: (1) they are all outsiders fighting against a common enemy; namely, real science, and (2) they lack critical thinking skills so they don't see the flaws in each other's arguments.

1. In case you didn't recognize the quality from the title.


John Harshman said...

Have you considered submitting this to the journal as a rebuttal?

Larry Moran said...


1. I don't have time to make it into a publishable article.

2. I doubt very much that the journal would accept it.

3. Blogging is better. By the time a rebuttal would appears the damage is done.

4. I don't want to spend the money to publish. The fee for an open access article in that journal is $3,050 (USD).

John Harshman said...

Fair enough.

3. But isn't the audience of that prospective rebuttal exactly the one you have to reach?

4. They don't waive page charges for people without grants?

Salvador Bianco said...

You didn't assimilate the fact that reality doesn't obey human reason.

Larry Moran said...

Human reasoning is flawed. Why should reality obey it?

Did you mean to say that human thinking does always conform to reality?

Salvador Bianco said...

No, but we must strive to get closer to it.

agne said...

Hi Larry !
You wrote that the journal Biosemiotic "it's a kooky journal and that's why it publishes papers by kooks."

I'm not sure that I can get a good definition of a "kook"
so I will take some examples :

Terrence Deacon a "kook" ?
I think his book " The symbolic species " - is really good when we try to understand the evolution of humans. Co-evolution of brains and language.

Is Barbieri a "kook" - Karl Popper didn't thought so - he encouraged him. Maybe we should put Karl Popper among the "kooks" ?

Those theoretical biologists ( that started from physics, and tried to answer the question what is life ?) :
Howard Patte , Robert Rosen , René Thom . Are they "kooks " ?

I see them all as serious scientist trying to answer questions .

Who are "kooks " ?

agne said...

Hi Larry !
Thanks for accepting my comment (because you are not "kooks" who just "find each other and ..... tend to hang out together" )

I'm not going to argue about your comments about Noble (I agree with some of it) , but when you say that the Journal Biosemiotics : "it's a kooky journal and that's why it publishes papers by kooks" .

One of those is Terrence Deacon - Is he in your eyes "a kook"

Another "kook" is Marcel Barbieri ?
He once was encouraged by Karl Popper ( maybe he also is a "kook" ?)

Or Howard Patte who started as a physicist and asked the question : What is special about living systems ? ( they all obey the laws of physics).
A "kook" ? --- Why ?

Stuart Kaufmann ( he refers to biosemioticans in his late papers) Do you regard him as a "kook" ? Is he not doing "REAL SCIENE"

As you have written in another blog : "” The failure to critically examine one's own mental models leads to weak, faulty models, with little confidence behind them."
I think that is correct - even for scientists .

Barbieri, M. (2008). Biosemiotics: a new understanding of life. Naturwissenschaften, 95(7), 577-599.

Barbieri, M. (2008). Is the cell a semiotic system?. In Introduction to biosemiotics (pp. 179-208). Springer, Dordrecht.

Deacon has published a lot - the evolution of Brains - The evolution of human language etc . etc

Pattee, H. H. (2008). The necessity of biosemiotics: Matter-symbol complementarity. In Introduction to biosemiotics (pp. 115-132). Springer, Dordrecht.

John Harshman said...

Larry didn't say that Biosemiotics exclusively publishes kooks. So it isn't necessarily true that he thinks the authors you mention are kooks. Though in fact you haven't made a case for any of them.

Lamarck said...

Hi Unknown,

LOL... Is fact already reality here or still human reason?



Marcel said...

Sorry, but this is such weak sauce. You say "no expert believes this" so many times, it's like the "no true Scotsman" fallacy on a loop. The fact that you call them "kooks" and accuse them of "blatant lies" robs you of credibility. For example, regarding information flow, you said "There are no serious evolutionary biologists who believed that in the 1960s or 1970s or at any time since." So was James Watson "not serious"? Or can we descend to your childish level and just call you a blatant liar?

Larry Moran said...

I can't find the quotation you reference but I'd like to point out that James Watson is not a "serious evolutionary biologist."

It's pretty easy for you to refute any other claims by simply providing examples that prove me wrong.

Waiting ......