Not Your Grandmother’s Evolution

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

I just finished reading James Shapiro’s book, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century. Shapiro is Professor of Microbiology at the University of Chicago and a deeply influential figure in evolutionary biology.

He is not a fellow at the Discovery Institute, but, shockingly, he finds the currently popular evolutionary mechanisms of natural selection and random mutation to be woefully inadequate to explain how biological evolution occurs. Shapiro’s book is difficult reading, as he has written it, it seems to me, primarily for professional biologists. There are, however, several places in the book where he brings things back down to earth for the layperson. I’d like to share a couple of his thoughts.

Contrary to the popular view that changes in the genome occur randomly in single nucleotides, Shapiro claims that “genomic innovations occur at many different levels of complexity.” We know this because “we can observe genome reorganization in real time and relate what cells do now to what the DNA record tells us has happened over the course of evolution.”

So what is it microbiologists have found?

Genomic innovations occur at many different levels of complexity. These levels cover the entire range of DNA modifications: from single nucleotide substitutions, to short strings of nucleotides comprising regulatory signals, to longer polynucleotide strings encoding functional regions (“domains”) of protein molecules, through larger DNA segments encoding entire RNA or protein molecules, and finally extending to complexes of multiple coding segments and their attendant control regions.

In a surprisingly large number of cases, genome analysis tells us that reorganization events have comprised whole genomes. Because genome evolution is multilevel, amplifying, and combinatorial in nature, the end results are complex hierarchical structures with characteristic system architectures.

Genomes are sophisticated data storage organelles integrated into the cellular and multicellular life cycles of each distinct organism. Thinking about genomes from an informatic perspective, it is apparent that systems engineering is a better metaphor for the evolutionary process than the conventional view of evolution as a selection-biased random walk through the limitless space of possible DNA configurations. (emphasis added)

If you didn’t follow all of that, here is the bottom line. Genetic changes in organisms are far more complex, multilevel, and systems oriented than previously thought. So what does this say about the standard Darwinian view of evolution as the gradual accumulation of random point changes in the genome over long periods of time? Shapiro explains that

the advent of molecular genetics and genome sequencing was a major step forward in evolutionary science. Examining the DNA record made it possible to subject traditional evolution theories to rigorous empirical testing. Do the sequences of contemporary genomes fit the predictions of change by “numerous, successive, slight variations,” as Darwin stated, or do they contain evidence of other, more abrupt processes, as numerous other thinkers had asserted?

The data are overwhelmingly in favor of the saltationist school that postulated major genomic changes at key moments in evolution. Only by restricting their analyses to certain classes of genomic DNA, such as homologous protein coding sequences, can conventional evolutionists apply their gradualist models. Moreover, we will see from genome sequencing that protein evolution itself often proceeds in relatively large steps. Contrary to the views of Linnaeus and Darwin, nature does indeed make leaps, and we now have molecular evidence of how some leaps occurred. (emphasis added)

One of the central dogmas of evolution, that change occurs by “numerous, successive, slight variations,” is wrong, according to Shapiro. Intelligent design proponents have been making this same argument for decades, but it seems that they now have company. I have no idea where this will all end up, but the ne0-Darwinian edifice continues to crack.

  • sean

    “that change occurs by ‘numerous, successive, slight variations'” is not one of the “central dogmas of evolution”
    You have too many qualifiers. Evolution is simply that change occurs. Specific theories posit those adjectives.

    The keyword is RELATIVELY large steps. These leaps talked about in the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution (which is what I think is being talked about are talking about) still take millions of years. It is not even close to the intellegent design movement’s claims. In addition, this model doesn’t say the slow progress is wrong, just that it isn’t what accounts for the majority of evolution. But it’s still selection pressure and mutation that drives the process. Yes, it’s usually more complex than Gregor Mendel’s pea experiments or Darwin’s finches, but that doesn’t make it different, and it doesn’t make Darwin or Mendel entirely incorrect. Indeed, ID even acknowledges that evolution works. Do you really think that just because genetics is complicated it requires an intelligence? What about the laws of physics? That’s pretty math heavy stuff to interpret, but the laws themselves don’t actively have God behind them, if that is, any god is behind them at all.

    Your conflation at the end that ID and this professor are on the same side of the court is just so wrong. This guy is saying genetics is complicated. We know that, but to debate with the complicated stuff losses 98% of the audience. The fact that he calls it a metaphor is precisely the point in not your favor. The emphasis shouldn’t be on systems engineering, but on metaphor.

  • Au Contraire, ask any layman, who is somewhat familiar with evolution theories and ‘numerous, successive, slight variations’ is still a central dogma. Probably ask Science teachers and get the same agreement. You make good points, but so did the reviewer.

  • Me

    What a layman thinks is irrelevant. It is not a ‘central dogma’. It actually never was a dogma, simply a model.

  • Something that has been taught to every public school student for at least half a century has moved beyond “model” to something more. If you don’t like dogma, fine, but the vast majority of people who are taught evolution believe that it is by “numerous, successive, slight variations.” The scientific establishment hasn’t been offering any alternative views.

  • sean

    The scientific establishment isn’t the same as a high school science teacher. There is a large divide in the scientific world in terms of how evolution happens specifically. Punctuated equilibrium is under serious consideration. The “establishment” if it can be called that, does offer alternate ideas.

    As far as what science teachers know and teach in public school, my biology teacher didn’t even accept macro-evolution, so I dunno what to tell you about in terms of dogma.

    And it doesn’t move on to something more. What do you think math is? it’s a way to model data. It’s also correct. But it is most assuredly a model. Just like evolution.