James Shapiro – Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (Book Review)

The first book to explain how evolution actually works has finally been written.

What most people think they know about evolution is 30 to 70 years out of date. The most popular books (even recent ones by very famous authors) make it sound as though the last five decades of scientific research never happened.evolution-view-150x150

That’s a tall claim, I know. But James Shapiro’s new book “Evolution: A View From the 21st Century” is the first to spell it all out in a comprehensive way.

This is not in any sense a religious book. Nor does it indulge in any of the mud-slinging that is typical of creation-evolution arguments. Shapiro is a bacterial geneticist from one of the world’s great research institutions, the University of Chicago.

The late Nobel Prize winner Barbara McClintock mentored him and he discovered DNA transposition in bacteria. He has an Order of the British Empire medal from the Queen of England. Impeccable credentials.

In this new book, endorsed by two Nobelists, Shapiro sets the record straight. I first encountered Shapiro’s work six years ago, when guy sent me a link to one of his papers.

I had become fascinated with the question of evolution from the perspective of an Electrical Engineer. I designed speakers for Honda, Mazda, Chrysler and Acura in the 1990’s. Then sold networks for manufacturing and robotics for 7 years; in 2002 wrote an Ethernet book.

In e-commerce, I consulted in 200+ industries, optimizing sales processes on the web. As a specialist in Google advertising, I saw that Google’s #1 job was to accurately simulate natural selection.

Because of my work in communications, control systems and the web, in DNA I saw an utterly remarkable communications protocol. Something vastly superior to anything humans had ever designed. I found myself increasingly frustrated with the Darwin-design debate.

One side charged that evolution was a fraud; the other claimed it happens by accident. I doubted both. I couldn’t help but wonder: “If random mutation and natural selection are all you need to produce the most amazing machines, how come they never uttered a single word about these things in engineering school?”

And furthermore: “If evolution is true, what design principles should they be teaching in engineering school that they’re not teaching now?” This really was THE question that drove me. I guessed all that “junk DNA” might possess some evolutionary function.

I figured that once we understood exactly how evolution produces novel features, we’d be able to produce miraculous new technologies. James A. Shapiro

Shapiro’s work was a revelation. He described how cells, like wireless routers, militantly guard against copying errors. He lifted the hood on the splendid information processes of the cell.

He described how the genome is like an operating system, organizing information, cleaning up files, repairing damage, regulating activity. He even had the humility to point out that sexy new 21st century computer metaphors are dangerous because they limit our thinking.

The truth of mother nature, he said, is even more amazing than that. He referenced the Nobel Prize winning work of Barbara McClintock. I was surprised her name wasn’t a household word in biology, because her discoveries had radical implications for evolutionary theory.

He defined an alternative to both creationism and Darwinism, a “Third Way.” In this view, the information capacities of the cell are the real star of the show. He recounts how molecular geneticists showed a protozoan under stress splicing its own DNA into 100,000 pieces, re-arranging them to produce a new functional nucleus, freshly adapted to its environment.

As I probed further, I discovered that thousands of PhD’s are aware of this. Any cell biologist worth his paycheck knows that bacteria exchange genes with each other, much the same way musicians trade guitar riffs.

This is how germs battle antibiotics. They do this very deliberately, and at tremendous speed. But John Q. Public knows nothing of this. He’s been told it happens so slowly that it can hardly even be replicated in the lab. He’s been led to believe it all happens by accident.

Until now.

In his book, “Evolution: A View from the 21st Century,” Shapiro outlines the adaptive systems of evolution in detail:

  • “Natural Genetic Engineering” refers to cells’ innate ability to re-organize their genomes in response to hundreds of kinds of inputs. This is the star of the show. Not natural selection.
  • Horizontal Gene Transfer, cells exchanging segments of DNA to instantly gain new features;
  • Inter-species hybridization – new species form when unlikely mates cross from two different species;
  • Symbiogenesis, when completely different organisms merge to form a new species;
  • Epigenetics, switching genes on and off without altering the DNA sequence;
  • Whole Genome Duplication – DNA doubling to expand “hard drive space” and make room for novel features.

These purposeful systems, in combination, generate the huge diversity we see on planet earth. Not random copying errors.

At last count, I have 114 books that address the question of evolution in some way, shape or form. They span a century and a half.

Dr. Lynn Margulis, for example, does an outstanding job of explaining symbiogenesis in “Acquiring Genomes” – but symbiogenesis is only about 15% of the story.

Other books describe Horizontal Gene Transfer but that too is only part of the story. Shapiro’s book is head and shoulders above the others. No other text assembles the picture as completely and coherently as this. Remarkably, he accomplishes all this in 150 pages.

This thing is dense. It’s like the richest chocolate cake you’ve ever eaten. You can spend a week digesting one page. Most evolution books are cotton candy.

For example, Richard Dawkins’ “The Greatest Show on Earth” asserts that evolution is driven by random changes in genes. Then, in 450 pages, Horizontal Gene Transfer is briefly mentioned once. Epigenetics is dismissed as a confused theory that will enjoy 15 minutes of fame.

Symbiogenesis and transposition are never discussed at all. Nor is whole genome duplication.

When it comes to the exact mechanisms of evolution – the systems that make it possible – many books have almost no content at all.

Last year I attended a lecture at Fermilab by Dr. Shapiro. After his talk, a group of people huddled around him in the cafeteria, peppering him with questions.

One guy suddenly ‘got’ what he’d been saying all night long. “You mean the mutations aren’t random?” he asked. “No sir. They’re not random at all. “When bacteria are comfortable and well-fed, certain DNA changes occur at a frequency of less than one per billion cells.

But when they’re starving, the mutation rate skyrockets by a factor of 100,000. They develop new adaptations so they can survive.”

The man looked to be in his fifties and I imagine he’d bought into the random mutation myth decades ago and never questioned it since. I watched the guy’s face. You could see the gears grinding inside his head.

So will it be for many readers of this book. It challenges widely accepted dogmas and replaces them with systems.

If you doubt Shapiro, consult the 1162 references he provides. Then decide for yourself. In any case, be prepared to discover things nobody else told you. Be prepared to ask yourself why the “evolutionists” never bothered to show you how evolution really works.

This book is written at a college level. Lay readers may only be comfortable with a third of it, and he has suggestions for what portions to read first. But you’re far better reading 50 pages of real research from the University of Chicago than 500 pages of “evolution thru random copying errors” by the Darwin lobby.

If you are remotely interested in the “behind-the-scenes” truth of evolution and its systematic mechanisms, you must own this book. In future installments I’ll peer inside its pages and share more with you.

Meanwhile . . . pick up a copy for yourself. Perry Marshall Get Evolution: A View from the 21st Century by James A. Shapiro on Amazon

One Response

  1. probo rahadianto says:

    Hi Perry,
    I have spent my weekend to read and listening all of your pdf and mp3. By far I think that your case are the most compelling proof that life is intelligently designed.

    I’ve even now consider that well maybe evolution did happend. Not gradual and random+natural selection, but punctuated equibrillium and designed. Like you said, God seem more great and intelligent if He wrote software that can edit itself than if He drop monkey there, whales here.

    The funny thing is that recently I have a debate with atheist. When I point to him that a manual to build a machine cannot be improved by randomly change it in its letters (bottom up) but have to be from intent, plan, and changing it from paragraph, sentence, to letters (up to bottom). Then he point out that random mutation can change a whole paragraph, and you know what he cited to backup his case? Yes, James Shapiro book. At that time I do not know anything about gene transfer, or dna recombinant or other mechanism you mention.

    Is that funny? The same stuff are used to proof design and also orthodox darwinian process?

    Could you address on this matter? And make a definitif sentence to proof that all mechanism that saphiro mention cannot be random but intelligently designed.

    Thanks, and regards,

    Sorry for the bad english, I’m not a westerner.


Leave a Reply

You must use your real first and last name. Anonymity is not allowed.
Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *