Counterpunch this week features an interview with molecular biologist James Shapiro, whose new book, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, seeks to offer a comprehensive view of current work in evolutionary biology and concludes that concepts of innovation, self-organization, and self-directed evolution have now overtaken traditional Darwinian views of evolution driven by random mutations.
The book begins:
How does novelty arise in evolution? Innovation, not selection, is the critical issue in evolutionary change. Without variation and novelty, selection has nothing to act upon. So this book is dedicated to considering the many ways that living organisms actively change themselves. Uncovering the molecular mechanisms by which living organisms modify their genomes is a major accomplishment of late 20th century molecular biology.
There’s much resonance here with concepts of participatory evolution that were advanced by Murray Bookchin in the 1990s, and on page 2, Shapiro references the work of molecular biologist Barbara McClintock, who was widely discussed at the ISE during that period.
One serious difficulty is that Shapiro appears to have latched onto the phrase “natural genetic engineering” to describe some of the underlying processes. If the book catches on, the biotech industry could have a field day promoting this oxymoronic phrase. Also unusual is that the book is published by FT Press, the publishing arm of the Financial Times.
For further background, developmental biologist Stuart Newman discussed the implications of these ideas for ongoing debates – both scientific and political – about the nature of evolution, in an important article in the journal Capitalism/Nature/Socialism (19:1, March 2008), titled “Evolution: The Public’s Problem, and the Scientists’.”