I hate to give attention to my Chicago colleague James Shapiro’s bizarre ideas about evolution, which he publishes weekly on HuffPo rather than in peer-reviewed journals. His Big Idea is that natural selection has not only been overemphasized in evolution, but appears to play very little role at all. Even though he’s spreading nonsense in a widely-read place, I don’t go after him very often, for he just uses my criticisms as the basis of yet another abstruse and incoherent post. Like the creationists whose ideas he appropriates, he resembles those toy rubber clowns that are impossible to knock down. But once again, and for the last time, I wade into the fray. . .
In his post of August 12, “Does natural selection really explain what makes evolution succeed?” (his answer, of course, is “no”), Shapiro simply recycles some discredited arguments used by creationists against evolution. The upshot, which we’ve heard for decades, is the discredited idea that natural selection is not a creative process. I quote:
- “Darwin modeled natural selection on artificial selection by humans. He ignored the inconvenient fact that human selection for altered traits has never generated a truly new organismal feature (e.g., a limb or an organ) or formed a new species. Selection only modifies existing characters. When humans wish to create new species, they use other means.”
This is the old canard that artificial selection doesn’t create “new features.” His definition of a “new organismal feature” is, of course, one that hasn’t been generated by artificial selection, so it’s all tautological. Of course we haven’t seen whole new organs or limbs arise in the short term, for people have been doing serious selection for only a few thousand years, and have not even tried to create new organs or limbs. But we can create a strain of flies with four wings, breeds of dogs that would be regarded as new genera if they were found in the fossil record, and whole new biochemical systems in bacteria. Both Barry Hall and Rich Lenski, for example, have demonstrated the evolution of brand new biochemical pathways that have evolved to deal with new metabolic challenges. Now that is a “new organismal feature”!
Often new species are created by hybridization, but Shapiro forgets that that hybridization is often followed by either natural or artificial selection for increased interfertility of the new hybrid form, so it truly becomes an interbreeding population that characterizes a species. And that, of course, gives a crucial role to selection, as it did in the experiments of Loren Rieseberg and his colleagues on hybrid sunflowers.
Finally, we have selected for increased reproductive isolation in the laboratory, showing that full speciation is possible via artificial selection. My own student Daniel did this, as did Bill Rice and William Salt in lab experiments on Drosophila, which in effect created—by artificial selection—new species from a single original species.
What Shapiro fails to offer is an alternative mechanism for the origin of those features of organism that appear “designed”? Was it God? What turned an artiodactyl like Indohyus into a whale—a transition that is fully documented in the fossil record? Was it simply the “self-organization of the genome” that somehow fortuitously moved the nostrils atop the head, turned the front limbs into flippers, got rid of the hair and external ears, and wrought many other morphological and internal changes? How exactly did this happen, Dr. Shapiro? Might natural selection have played a role? Or was it “spontaneous genome organization,” whatever that means?
- “Unlike most followers, Darwin acknowledged later that significant, sudden changes could occur in a fundamentally different way. He wrote about ‘… variations which seem to us in our ignorance to arise spontaneously. It appears that I formerly underrated the frequency and value of these latter forms of variation, as leading to permanent modifications of structure independently of natural selection’ (Origin of Species, 6th edition, Chapter XV, p. 395, emphasis added). So a way to rephrase my question is to ask: Have we learned since 1859 about processes that can lead to organism change “independently of natural selection?” The answer is overwhelmingly positive.Two fields principally illuminated the basic mechanisms of heredity and variation:
- cytogenetics (the study of chromosome behavior in heredity using both genetic and microscopic methods) and
- molecular genetics (using DNA analysis to identify the nature of genome change).”
Neither of these_though they can lead to organism change (i.e. “mutation”)—can also produce adaptation. As always, Shapiro is ducking the whole question of how organisms acquire those features that make them thrive in their environments.
If he’s going to respond to this post at HuffPo, which he will, here’s a challenge for him: what role, precisely, do you think natural selection plays in evolution—especially the kind of evolution that produces the “adaptive” features that so excite our wonder? How on earth do cytogenetics or molecular genetics alone explain the transformation of fish into tetrapods, deerlike animals into whales, or account for cryptic coloration, mimicry, and adaptive behaviors? They can’t, for there has to be some process that winnows out the variation that arises. That process is natural selection. How did the ancestral marsupial produce descendants like marsupial “flying squirrels” and “moles” in Australia that look very much like placental mammals? Did that have anything to do with natural selection? If not, explain how you think it happened.
Shapiro’s latest post, “Cell mergers and the evolution of new life forms: symbiogenesis rather than selection,” is just about as bad. Here he merely reprises Lynn Margulis’s argument that symbiosis was important in evolution: both mitochondria and chloroplasts (which respectively produce energy and photosynthesis), were the result of ancestral cells taking up and using symbiotic bacteria. And yes, that’s correct, and was a huge contribution of Margulis.
The problem for Shapiro, as it was for Margulis, is that they went on to suggest think that symbiosis is a replacement for natural selection. It isn’t. In fact, symbiosis occurs hand-in-hand with natural selection, because following the origin of an organism like a lichen or a chloroplast-containing cell via symbiosis, one finds natural selection acting on the “combination” organism, modifying both components. In fact, neither chloroplasts nor mitochondria can survive on their own outside of cells: both have been modified by natural selection to become part of an integrated and adapted cell. It is the whole vehicle—the symbiotic combination organism—that undergoes selection, with the best combinations leaving more offspring. In fact, Shapiro unwittingly alludes to this when he says this:
In all these cases, there is active DNA transfer between genome compartments. Typically, DNA sequences travel from the organelle genomes to the nuclear genome. Thus, the nucleus actually encodes most of the proteins in each of its organelles, even though they have their own genomes and protein synthesis machinery.
Restructuring of both nuclear and organelle genomes is an important aspect of evolution. Some groups of organisms are actually identified by the organization of their mitochondrial DNA.
Yes, and how does that “active DNA transfer” happen? It’s because those cells that best reapportion the genomes between “host” and “symbiont” DNA leave more offspring. And that’s natural selection.
I wouldn’t go after Shapiro except that he spews this anti-evolutionary nonsense at HuffPo, and naive readers might get the impression that biologists are beginning to doubt that natural selection is important. Well, as far as evolutionary biologists regard adaptations, it is: natural selection is the only game in town.
Yes, we now know of a whole host of new mechanisms to generate genetic variation, including symbiosis and the ingestion of DNA from distantly related species. But to produce adaptation, something has to winnow out the wheat from the chaff: those variants that reduce reproduction from those that enhance it. And that’s natural selection. There is no alternative, and Shapiro, despite his endless series of “blogs,” has never suggested one. His never-ending attacks on natural selection and neo-Darwinian evolution should be an embarrassment to HuffPo, which will apparently publish anything since they don’t have to pay for it; but they’re also an embarrassment to me, for Shapiro works at my university and, in my view, his writings impugn our reputation for excellence in evolutionary biology.
So again, I tender my challenge: tell us, Dr. Shapiro: you’re always banging on about new sources of genetic variation, but you never seem quite able to tell us how that variation is translated into adaptive evolution. If it’s not natural selection, what is it?