In the ongoing discussion between the ID theorists, including Dembski, and self-organization theorist James Shapiro, Dembski asks “Is James Shapiro a Darwinist After All?” (Evolution News & Views January 25, 2012):
Neo-Darwinism essentially localizes the creative potential of evolution in genetic mutations. Shapiro rightly sees that this can’t be the main source of evolutionary variation. So he expands it to include “horizontal DNA transfer, interspecific hybridization, genome doubling and symbiogenesis.” Fine, now you’ve got a richer source of variation. But what is coordinating these variations to bring about the increasing complexity we find in biological systems? Shapiro’s answer is “natural genetic engineering.” Cells, according to Shapiro, are intelligent in that they do their own natural genetic engineering, taking existing structures through horizontal DNA transfer or symbiogenesis, say, and reworking them in new contexts for new uses.
But in making such a claim, has Shapiro really solved anything? Has he truly understood the evolution of any complex biological structures? For instance, does his third way now provide some real insights into protein evolution? I’m hammering on these words “solution” and “understanding” because they are easily misused to suggest greater knowledge and conceptual progress than exists.
Natural genetic engineering would actually mean something, providing genuine understanding of and solutions for the origin of novel biological structures, if Shapiro could point to actual, identifiable mechanisms and show how they take existing structures and then refashion them into new ones. But Shapiro doesn’t do this. For him, natural genetic engineering is a magic phrase, a label, that he attaches to hypothesized processes that are opaque to him and yet that he claims result in evolutionary novelty. Note that I’m not talking here about the mechanisms he regularly cites, such as lateral gene transfer or symbiogenesis, which are mechanisms for generating evolutionary variation. Rather, I’m talking about deeper mechanisms that must exist if natural genetic engineering is to be real and take advantage of more obvious mechanisms such as symbiogenesis.
Note: Is “natural genetic engineering” another example of attributing intelligence to a nature that is supposed to be devoid of intelligence? If not, what?