I’ve been criticizing James Shapiro’s HuffPo columns on neo-Darwinism (he sees it as all wrong) for a while now, but only recently noticed that for some time Larry Moran has been making more thorough criticisms of Shapiro’s columns and his recent new book at Moran’s website Sandwalk. You can find Larry’s comments collected here.
As you may know, Shapiro’s beef against the modern theory of evolution is that it neglects sources of variation that have been discovered only in recent years, e.g., hybridization, genome rearrangement, and capture of genes from distantly related organisms. He sees these, in a way that he’s never specified, as the drivers of evolution, neglecting or denigrating well-understood processes like natural selection and genetic drift.
In fact, Shapiro’s criticisms of natural selection as an important component of evolution resemble those of creationists or advocates of intelligent design, which explains why he’s been taken up as a “pet biologist” by The Discovery Institute. Although he’s never produced an alternative to natural selection for producing adaptations like, say, the eye, Shapiro seems to have an almost teleological view of how evolution operates, as if—and Larry points this out—organisms have immanent within themselves the ability to guide their own evolution.
Now Larry and I don’t agree on everything. Whenever I mention natural selection, for instance, he usually raises genetic drift as a plausible alternative, even for complex features like the genitals on a fish’s head. My own response would be that such complex features couldn’t evolve by genetic drift or as spandrels or maladaptive traits, but Larry does keep me honest by holding the specter of genetic drift before my eyes. He’s also done hugely valuable work in attacking creationism, and, hey, I have to like anybody who drives me to the best poutine in eastern Canada.
Larry has put himself further on the good side of the ledger by writing a critical review of James Shaprios’s book, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, for Reports of the National Center for Science Education (download free at link). If you want to see why Shapiro’s criticisms of the modern theory of evolution don’t hold water, go read it. I’ll quote just one small bit:
The novel part of Shapiro’s model is that these cell-directed genomic changes are targeted and goal-oriented, leading to the view that cells design their own future. This view replaces the “traditional” view that “inherited novelty [mutation] was the result of chance or accident.” If this sounds a lot like “facilitated variation” or evolvability, then, congratulations, you’ve been keeping up on your knowledge of modern discussions of evolutionary theory. Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart have described a similar concept in their 2005 book The Plausibility of Life, but others have also talked about it over the past few decades. Are there any references to those ideas in the 1162 articles cited in this book? No.
This brings me to the second thing that distinguishes Shapiro from most other critics of the Modern Synthesis. He does not want to be identified as an advocate of “intelligent design” creationism and yet he protests a bit too much. His writings sound an awful lot like those of some “intelligent design” creationists, but Shapiro prefers a “third way,” as he first described in a Boston Review article (1997). His way isn’t creationism but it’s not exactly science either because he postulates a kind of evolution that has a goal, or purpose. He claims that one can investigate natural genetic engineering from a purely scientific perspective without invoking the supernatural. But if that’s true, then why don’t scientists routinely invoke goal-oriented processes? It’s because they have a philosophical bias against religion, according to Shapiro.
. . . Shapiro, like [Richard] Sternberg, is widely admired in the “intelligent design” community and there’s a good reason for this. This book is highly critical of old-fashioned evolutionary theory (neo-Darwinism) using many of the same silly arguments promoted by the Fellows of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Those fellows are dead wrong and so is Shapiro.
Virtually all of the non-creationist opposition to the modern theory of evolution, and all of the minimal approbation of Shapiro’s views, come from molecular biologists. I’m not sure whether there’s something about that discipline (the complexity of molecular mechanisms?) that makes people doubt the efficacy of natural selection, or whether it’s simply that many molecular biologists don’t get a good grounding in evolutionary biology.
And now we learn that another respected philosopher (Jerry Fodor was the first) has come out against neo-Darwinism, too: the distinguished philosopher Thomas Nagel is about to issue Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Concept of Nature is Almost Certainly False. The Amazon blurb is, well, disturbing:
The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.
Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such.
Nagel’s skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic.
In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility.
First Fodor, then Nagel: what is going on with philosophers and evolution? But remember that Nagel chose Stephen Meyer’s pro-ID book Signature in the Cell as his “book of the year” in The Times Literary Supplement,and has defended ID.
I’ve ordered Nagel’s book and will review it either here or somewhere else.