Thought I’d whack the hornets’ nest with that deliberately provocative title.
But Dawkins isn’t the only person who can pack a lecture hall to capacity these days. Last Friday evening (1/22), molecular biologist James Shapiro of the University of Chicago spoke to a standing room-only (800+) audience in Ramsey Auditorium at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. His topic was “Evolution in the 21st Century,” and you can see his slides here. I don’t know if an audio file will eventually be made available, but here are some observations about the lecture and Q & A:
1. Shapiro mentioned ID a few times, always with sobriety — meaning he didn’t say “those ID people are dangerous anti-science theocrats” or other polemics of that tenor. Rather, he noted that his ideas about ‘natural genetic engineering’ helped to answer ID objections.
The implicit message was that the difficulties on which ID focused — e.g., the origin of new features rapidly — were real, and needed to be answered. Current theory was not adequate. Genes were not in the driver’s seat of life, he urged; rather, the organism was. Biology needs to understand how organisms intelligently modify their genomes in response to challenges. Genetic change is not random, but controlled.
2. Shapiro repeatedly contrasted his ideas with neo-Darwinism, and had nothing but scorn for Richard Dawkins, whom he said “lives in a world of fantasy.” He stressed that evolutionary theory needed mechanisms for very rapid, coordinated change.
3. During the Q & A, a man sitting just behind me asked — with unmistakable agitation — why Shapiro had frequently used the word “macroevolution.” The questioner protested that macroevolution was a concept dreamed up by creationists, so how could Shapiro use the term? Was Shapiro intending to “repurpose” macroevolution for his own ends?
Shapiro respectfully, but forcefully, disagreed. Macroevolution is not simply microevolution plus time. “Macroevolution,” he argued, “refers to when we have a major change in the nature of the organism. When a chordate changes into a vertebrate, that’s macroevolution. When one kind of plant changes into a flowering plant and the genome doubles at the same time, that’s what I would consider a macroevolutionary change.”
By contrast, Shapiro continued, “when a butterfly changes the pigment on its wings so it doesn’t get predated when it’s sitting on a city wall, that’s microevolution. That’s a small change. So I think the two changes can be distinguished from each other.”
“These are sudden events,” he concluded. “They can’t occur over many cell generations or many organism generations. They must occur within a single generation. Big changes can happen suddenly. How that all works, we don’t know yet. But we have to recognize that it must work suddenly and try and figure out what are the control processes and how does the complexity of the living cell allow these things to happen.”
The audience was enthusiastic, and didn’t want to leave; the moderator had to halt the Q & A to allow everyone to move to a reception in Wilson Tower.
Final note: it wouldn’t be fair to Shapiro, or to Dawkins for that matter, to leave the remark “lives in a world of fantasy” without explanation. So I strongly recommend the reader follow up with the paper, “Revisiting the Central Dogma in the 21st Century,” posted at Shapiro’s site. In particular, pay attention to the Boolean propositions featured on page 22.
In Shapiro’s estimation, Dawkins adheres thoughtlessly to the causal primacy of DNA, which is biologically nonsensical: DNA + 0 = 0.
Now Dawkins surely knows that naked DNA (or RNA) is going nowhere. But to come back to biological reality requires returning to the whole organism — see the list of Boolean propositions below, under “Contemporary picture” — which one can guess for Dawkins is uncomfortably close to ID or vitalism. Dawkins starts with naked replicators because they’re small, imaginably close to prebiotic chemistry, and don’t need a lot of extra machinery around.
Problem is, such entities would disappear on the early Earth more or less overnight.
• Crick’s central dogma of molecular biology:
1. DNA –> 2X DNA
2. DNA –> RNA –> Protein –> Phenotype
• Contemporary picture of molecular information transfers:
1. DNA + 0 –> 0
2. DNA + Protein + ncRNA –> chromatin
3. Chromatin + Protein + ncRNA –> DNA replication, chromatin maintenance/reconstitution
4. Protein + RNA + lipids + small molecules –> signal transduction
5. Chromatin + Protein + signals –> RNA (primary transcript)
6. RNA + Protein + ncRNA –> RNA (processed transcript)
7. RNA + Protein + ncRNA –> Protein (primary translation product)
8. Protein + nucleotides + Ac-CoA + SAM + sugars + lipids –> Processed and decorated protein
9. DNA + Protein –> New DNA sequence (mutator polymerases)
10. Signals + Chromatin + Protein –> New DNA structure (DNA rearrangements subject to stimuli)
11. RNA + Protein + chromatin –> New DNA structure (retrotransposition, retroduction, retrohoming)
12. Signals + chromatin + proteins + ncRNA + lipids –> nuclear/nucleoid localization
SUMMARY: DNA + Protein + ncRNA + signals + other molecules: Genome Structure & Phenotype