Chief Science Correspondent
The first rule of evolution is that you do not talk about evolution.
At least, that's the way we seem to view our understanding of the progression of life. As a large part of our society continues to resist the concept of large-scale evolution, we remain stuck trying to explain 19th-century ways of thinking about science.
In his 2011 book Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, professor James A. Shapiro proposes a new perspective that challenges the way evolution is currently taught and generally understood. While evolution is currently explained as a process based on selection for random variation within a population, Shapiro argues that the process is actually an organism's deliberate molecular response to the environment.
The process seems fairly straightforward and logical. The only problem? Shapiro claims that the process is simply not true.
Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution with no knowledge of molecular biology or even Mendelian genetics. His only method of observation was external appearance, which he studied extensively.
Shapiro claims that, contrary to Darwin's predictions, no new species has ever formed via natural selection. The process is actual a bit more complicated.
Shapiro argues that evolution actually occurs as the cellular and molecular level, through various regulations and mutations that cause fundamental changes in an organism. He writes, "Life requires cognition at all levels." Shapiro then goes on to discuss a variety of factors that influence these changes, such as UV radiation-induced repairs, antibiotic resistance, epigenetics, transposable elements in the genome, and horizontal gene transfer between organisms.
While evolution is traditionally taught at a population level, Shapiro is guiding his readers to understand the various processes that cause a single individual to change its physiology or expression. If one cell transmits a signal calling for apoptosis, the cells around it will die. If a chromosome is duplicated or split, a new species will likely emerge. If one organism provides DNA to another, a new hybrid species is likely to form.
Shapiro points out that, despite Darwin's predictions, no new species has arisen via natural selection alone. Other scientists have asserted that Shapiro's claim is correct, despite many misconceptions.
Most biologists describe evolution from an outward level, explaining that the cellular and genomic modifications occur as a result. However, Shapiro says the cellular and molecular modifications actually drive evolution, rather than serving as an after-effect.
Shapiro said he believes the view of evolution as a result of random variation has persisted as a resistance to the Intelligent Design argument. If an organism is self-regulating, with deliberate changes to its chemical and physical makeup, it's hard to argue that the change is not guided by a divine force. Therefore, evolutionists have pushed the random view of evolution throughout the past century.
In his book, Shapiro does not necessarily offer information that the scientific community did not previously possess. In fact, the book is written in the style of a review article - albeit an extremely detailed review article. He is simply calling for his readers to appreciate that these generally known cellular and molecular processes are important in regulating how organisms change over time.
While Shapiro's research is compelling, I did have some issues with his argument on certain regulatory factors that fundamentally change the makeup of an individual, such as cell differentiation in response to the environment, and the modification of certain regulatory proteins. I remain skeptical about whether some of these factors would be effectively inherited through generations. If an organism cannot pass along these changes, evolution cannot occur.
I also believe Shapiro is a bit too hasty to completely disregard population-based selection. Although selection cannot cause speciation, the process has been shown to induce various phenotypic changes, often on a rapid scale.
So is evolution the response of population resource limitation, or an individual's complex innovation? It is most likely a combination of the two. Shapiro's book is important because he challenges the world to recognize that the year is no longer 1859; evolution is about more than four simple postulates. Life is simply much more complex.
Shapiro compiles a large mass of scientific research into a single review in order to formulate his argument. He has clearly made an effort to satisfy the expert reader, but attempts to simultaneously make the book understandable to the general reader. His sections start out broad and gradually become more technical. He provides references and links to suggested readings that provide the reader with a general background on various processes and experiments. (I highly recommend purchasing the Kindle version, as the reader can jump to find various definitions, references and websites within the text.)
However, this is definitely not an easy read. If you want to tackle it, I would recommend going through the text one subsection at a time. You'll want to take in the content slowly, and be sure to have Wikipedia close at hand. But don't be afraid to skip a section if you get frustrated; I skipped a few sections and returned to them later, and I didn't find that I needed them to fully understand them to finish the book. Even the general "big picture" parts of the section are well worth the read, and much more accessible to the general reader.
This book takes quite a bit of effort to get through, but it is well worth it. Although Shapiro's argument has a few issues, it brings to light a new way of thinking and provides a view of many extraordinary discoveries that could potentially change the way we view the dynamic world and our own biological experience within it.