Evolution – a View from the 21st Century

I’m surprised the new book from James Shapiro has not received more attention that it has so far. After all, as Archaea discoverer Carl Woese says on the cover, “the book is a game changer.” Evolution – a View is basically a general primer of the discoveries about cell and genome structure of the last few decades, and their connection with newly understood mechanisms for evolution. It’s by a leading bacterial geneticist, himself the discoverer of mobile genetic elements in bacteria, and it is grounded in the research literature and extensively referenced.

Most of these mechanisms operate on the “variation” side of the evolution equation. The list is not unique, and nor does it appear to be controversial: Allen MacNeill  lists all of them and probably more. But the real deal is what the book does to the Modern Synthesis. To many of us used to population-genetics talk, our reaction to “natural selection and gene frequencies did this, with random point mutations keeping the variation tank full” is “How could that possibly work?” The handwaving explanations fail to convince. But the mechanisms described in Shapiro have us saying, “That, at last, makes some sense. That could work.”

Like MacNeill, Shapiro considers that these complex and highly organised mechanisms give plenty of scope for all the variation we see. Unlike him, however, he demotes natural selection from its place as the creative power of evolution to a mere fine-tuner. And rather than integrating the new discoveries into an ever-more bloated Extended Modern Synthesis, he sees that they simply render the MS obsolete. To Shapiro, Neodarwinism was simply a useful, but ultimately erroneous, mid twentieth century attempt to explain evolution before the real data came in. The game changer is that evolution is no longer an accident that happens to organisms or their genes as they struggle to maintain their integrity, but a series of sophisticated and even directed mechanisms they use purposefully (teleologically, even) to change and survive. It’s a process for which he has coined the term “natural genetic engineering.”

Most remarkable of all, to me, Shapiro doesn’t so much take issue with the traditional view as, with the confidence of the better-informed, to ignore it as merely irrelevant to modern biology. In other words the paradigm shift is not something to be anticipated – it has already happened, and we should get on with living and researching under the new regime. I don’t think this can be far from the truth.

Such a conclusion, though, has significant implications for the science-religion interface. For theistic evolution, in its BioLogos form anyway, it points to the danger of tying one’s banner to the wrong mast. If the MS is indeed a busted flush, it’s foolish to defend it as the proven truth by which both science and theology are judged. Constructing a theology that glorifies undirectedness in nature looks pretty daft if nature turns out to be  directing its affairs quite intentionally.

For Intelligent Design there are different implications. In the first place, and most importantly in my view, it is fast becoming time for ID to disengage from tilting so singlemindedly at the windmill of Neodarwinism, and to start engaging positively and seriously with the new thinking. Irreducible complexity is a lot less inexplicable if cells are themselves in the design business. It is no longer adequate to question the ability of stochastic mutation and natural selection to produce new biological information, but IDers must interact with the increasing understanding of complex and directed, but natural, mechanisms. To what extent does a self-directed cell act as a proxy for intelligence? Critiquing last century’s superstitions is going to be increasingly irrelevant to the real issues.

It’s not that natural genetic engineering answers all the questions. Biology will be working on how such sophisticated mechanisms themselves evolved, and ID might have something to say on the matter. What evolved the sophisticated machinery of evolution? Certainly the origin of life question remains open, and if anything more challenging to naturalism: once chance and necessity are shown to be inadequate to explain evolution, they become even less plausible as the root of abiogenesis.

The new biology, indeed, is a lot more open to serious questions about teleology than Neodarwinism, because it is perforce less tied to naturalistic determinism. Shapiro himself says as much, though he neither expresses support for ID in the book, nor commits himself to any metaphysical position. But researchers of his kind, I would suspect, are more likely to engage positively with well-constructed ID arguments than traditionalists are, provided those arguments are fully cognisant of the explanatory power of the new science. 

It would indeed be tragic if both theistic evolution and ID became trapped in twentieth century debates while science moves into their natural territory. But it would be exciting if all three moved forward together.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to Evolution – a View from the 21st Century

  1. James Penman penman says:

    Once I’ve finished my current work, I must read my copy of Shapiro, & your review provides welcome inspiration! If BioLogos don’t take this seriously, they’ll be doing a monumental disservice to the faith-science project they wish to advance. Maybe it will bring Rich back to the forum….


  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    And thanks for your comment, Penman.

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