In general I find Shapiro’s views very exciting and well worth disseminating as widely as possible. I think that his theory of Natural Genetic Engineering has the capability of finally unseating the rigid doctrinaire paradigm of neo Darwinism, with its overly simplistic and outdated view of the mechanism of evolution. If there is one universal rule that governs biology, it is that nothing is ever simple. Shapiro’s NGE is complex and chaotic enough to be true.
I see the biggest problem with NGE to be semantic. Shapiro likes to say that NGE replaces natural selection as the creative driver of evolution, the real source of major evolutionary change, the engine of innovation in biology. The problem is that this statement is incorrect on a few grounds. First, natural selection is not the source of variation in neo Darwinism either. So it’s a mistake to compare NGE to NS. What is correct is that NGE may be more important than random mutations (mostly point mutations or small deletions or insertions) in the creation of novel biological entities, and that therefore, the model of slow accumulation of small genomic changes must be modified to include major leaps of huge changes in genomes, which have very dramatic phenotypic consequences. Second, natural selection is still a critical component of evolutionary change, since whether the genome has undergone a single base change or large chromosomal rearrangement, there will be no fixation of this mutagenic event unless it has some selective advantage. Shapiro acknowledges this grudgingly by stating that there must be some purifying selection to weed out detrimental changes, but that really isn’t quite right.
While this is a minor complaint about the NGE theory, it does form the basis for most of the attacks on it by neo Darwinians. They defend natural selection (which is a safe strategy) while the real target that Shapiro should be going after, random mutations as the universal source of variation, is not discussed.
The other aspect of NGE that often gets less attention than it should is that all of the mechanisms by which such drastic and dramatic re-engineering of genomes take place are in response to extreme environmental stress. Under normal conditions, cells do not suddenly duplicate their whole genomes, or hybridize parts of their genomes with DNA from viruses or plastids. But cells do respond to all kinds of shocks, including massive DNA damage (from radiation or damaging chemicals) starvation, changes in salinity, osmotic pressure, temperature and so on.
So NGE is a stress response, and it is very valuable therefore as an explanation for evolutionary explosions following major environmental shocks like extinction events. As Shapiro says, in between these large and rapid changes, fine tuning (or micro evolution) by slow random mutations must certainly continue to improve the fitness of species, according to the standard synthesis.
I see all of this as the start of a new evolutionary theory, which does not supplant Darwin’s great idea, but refines it and gives it much stronger explanatory power. I am confident that given the evidence we have already, and that which is accumulating continuously, NGE will replace standard Neo Darwinism as the standard scientific model in a matter of a few years. (It might go faster if James Shapiro would simply change his rhetorical position and leave natural selection alone. Its random mutation that is the issue, Jim).
And what does this mean for Christian theology and the evolution/faith debate? I think it means a lot. The NGE idea has no direct theological implications. It does not fill a gap in knowledge with proof of divine intervention. But as Christians, that isn’t what we are, or should be looking for. What we do need are answers to questions about God’s role in creation, assuming we accept modern scientific data, and the truth of Biblical inerrancy. These are huge questions, and there will not be a single answer. But I think that NGE and similar ideas do point the way to a new theory of evolution that is both essentially Darwinian, and Christian. This would be a theory that is consonant with the great theological lessons of Genesis and the New Testament.
The general idea (clearly most of it remains to be worked on) is that God rules the biological universe on Earth through his dominion over the Earth. The rain, lightening, cosmological events, floods, droughts, all the events we still, in our secular world, call “Acts of God” are the very sources of stress that trigger the NGE mechanisms which lead to major and dramatic evolutionary leaps. Planetary disasters, like the Cretaceous asteroid strike, led directly to a tremendous explosion of mammalian evolution. In other words, the Neo Darwinian model of steady, automatic, random mutation, leading to slow accumulation of tiny changes, a model that requires and admits of no input from the outside, is much more difficult to reconcile with the concept of an actively creative divine force in shaping life on Earth. In contrast, the NGE model, with its clear dependence on dramatic environmental stressor events (global or local), seems to be quite well accommodated to the concept of God having an active, continuous role in biological creation.
The flood story is symbolic and paradigmatic of this approach. What is interesting is that while God caused the flood to punish mankind, Genesis makes it quite clear that this was a general extinction event. Only a small number of living creatures (two of each kind) survived. The Bible tells us that this environmental catastrophe had an effect on all of life, exactly what we know has happened many times in terrestrial history. What the flood account teaches us in the context of a Christian evolutionary theory is that God’s actions upon the Earth, even His destructive actions, are part of his creative power, and with Shapiro’s NGE idea, we can begin to make the connection between that power and the reality of biological evolution.