If James Shapiro Is Right, Materialist Explanations of Life's Origins Are Even Less Plausible than Previously Thought
Our friend and ENV contributor James Barham is engaged in a fascinating dialogue with maverick University of Chicago biologist James Shapiro, likewise an esteemed contributor. Shapiro (Evolution: A View from the 21st Century) argues for "natural genetic engineering" as the non-random force driving genetic variation that, in evolution, is then "purified" by natural selection. This is a provocative alternative to the Darwinian conception, where random mutations are assumed to do the job, and it makes Darwinists very uncomfortable.
Today at his Huffington Post blog, Shapiro responds to Barham's challenge to distinguish his view from vitalism of one kind or another.
Shapiro responds in part:
Unfortunately, scientific vitalism, as championed by serious people like Hans Driesch, acquired a bad name in the early 20th century. Reliable observations definitely indicated sensory and control processes at work in embryonic development, wound healing and regeneration following experimental disruption. But the vitalists had no objective way to describe the cellular "home" of these capabilities.The most intriguing take-away point is Shapiro's observation that natural genetic engineering must have appeared "quite early" following the origin of life.
Molecular biology has pointed us toward solutions by uncovering complex arrays of sensory, signaling, and decision-making networks in all living cells. In many cases we can enumerate network components and interactions, although in no case can we be sure the list is complete.
How these immensely sophisticated analog molecular networks operate is still a mystery. We can look to electronic computation systems for models and ideas. But I am not aware of any truly original conceptual understanding of how cell circuits operate that goes beyond the limits of current digital computers, which have neither the flexibility nor robustness of cell networks (let alone the capacity to reproduce).
I think the ability to change the genome is a basic vital function. Change is repeatedly necessary to adapt to a dynamic environment, as the fossil record demonstrates so well. Life is the story of organisms that succeeded in changing in response to periodic evolutionary crises.If Shapiro is right about this whole natural genetic engineering idea, which we've debated here at length in the past, that would make materialist explanations of life's origins even harder to maintain than they otherwise appear. Materialists would have to explain a vastly sophisticated layer of "engineering" functionality -- where did it come from? -- whose existence they previously didn't even suspect. Or am I missing something?
I took pains in the book to say that origins-of-life questions are still beyond rigorous scientific investigation. We do not yet understand enough about life as we find it. This gap in understanding includes the issues of agency and teleology so fascinating to Barham.
I wrote here recently that -- again, if Shapiro is right -- that leaves intelligent design as the sole explanation of life's origin that seems remotely plausible, a major if implicit concession to the case Stephen Meyer makes in Signature in the Cell.