Misquoting Science in the Texas Textbook Battles

James A. Shapiro, , UCS | December 6, 2013, 5:19 pm EDT
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December 4th brought a striking concurrence of events revealing how the opponents of science education operate.

I had just participated in a Union of Concerned Scientists webinar about “Getting Science Right in the Media: Rapid response to the good, the bad, and the provocative.” The point of the webinar was to provide information about how to combat misinformation about research.

Following the webinar and dinner, I checked my email — only to find out that I had myself been the victim of skillful misquoting for an anti-science purpose. An email informed me that certain members of the Texas state’s school board textbook review committee had submitted a report quoting me. The board members raised some objections to the textbook co-authored by Kenneth Miller. They cited excerpts from my 2011 book to make their point (the caps were in the original):

THE CURRENT UNDERSTANDING OF THE GROWING BODY OF EVIDENCE IS THAT NATURAL SELECTION ONLY PURIFIES BUT SOMETHING ELSE IS REQUIRED TO CREATE SIGNIFICANT VARIANTS TO BE SELECTED. The critical aspect is introduction of novelty. It is gradually being recognized that no mechanism for this has been firmly established. See “Evolution: A view from the 21st century,” James A. Shapiro, Prof of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Univ. of Chicago, (2011), page 144, “Selection operates as a selective but not a creative force.”

I was astonished to see that my book was being cited by the opponents of evolution in textbooks. In particular, I was outraged by the completely false statement that “no mechanism for this [introduction of novelty] has been firmly established.”

If the authors of this misleading statement had read my book and looked at its 1,162 references, they would have found abundant evidence about “mechanisms” for the “introduction of novelty.”

I stated on the very first page of the Introduction: “Uncovering the molecular mechanisms by which living organisms modify their genomes is a major accomplishment of late 20th Century molecular biology.” Collectively, I call these processes Natural Genetic Engineering.

Symbiogenetic cell fusions, horizontal DNA transfer, mutagenic DNA repair, reverse transcription of RNA into DNA, mobile genetic elements, interspecific hybridization and whole genome doubling are only some of the topics discussed in my book.

The opponents of evolution are trying to confuse and mislead the public and the Texas school board textbook review committee. They have taken a real scientific debate and made it appear as a challenge to the legitimacy of evolution science itself.

It is true that I disagree with the Neo-Darwinist theory that Natural Selection is the major creative force in evolution. I see the generation of novel genome structures as a more important source of evolutionary innovation. Traditionally, what I call natural genetic engineering has been called Variation in the evolution literature. To me Natural Selection operates post-Variation as a purifying force eliminating novelties that are not adaptively useful. The difference between my view and traditional Neo-Darwinism is a legitimate and typical scientific disagreement.

There is no question that evolutionary novelties arise. We see them in the genome sequence record. And we know in considerable detail the underlying molecular mechanisms for many of these changes. We regularly observe the same processes occurring in real time in our laboratories and fields.

The fact that evolution science changes over time with new molecular evidence should not be surprising to anybody. That is how science works. New data and new ideas are inherent to the scientific process. Vannevar Bush recognized this ceaseless process of revision when he entitled his 1945 report proposing the National Science Foundation to solidify American technical superiority after World War II Science, The Endless Frontier.

There is much that remains to be learned about the evolutionary process. Many problems remain without known solutions. But the sources of genome variation, including rapid changes throughout the genome, are no longer mysterious. We can describe how dozens of them occur in detail, down to the level of individual phosphodiester linkages in novel DNA structures.

The school textbook board members who misquoted my work are not just against evolution. They are against freedom of speech in scientific research, honesty in public decision-making, and suitable modern education for the students of Texas. That sounds counter to the ideals of liberty, democracy and opportunity on which this nation was founded.

Note: This post was first published in the Huffington Post on Dec. 5, 2013.

Posted in: Science and Democracy Tags: , , , , ,

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  • Brian Myres

    Excuse me for being stupid, but I thought that everyone agreed that molecular/genetic changes of various types are the raw material for natural selection. Nobody I know thinks of selection as the origin of novel characteristics, but the process that acts upon that novelty. Random genetic change gives rise to the novelty. Selection can only act given that variation in the genome has occurred. Thus, just how do his ideas differ from the typical ideas about evolution? If Shapiro is giving aid and comfort to the design creationists that’s a shame, but I can see why in his expression of his ideas.

    • Brian,

      If you read online comments by the leaders of neo-Darwinist thinking, like Richard Dawkins or my University of Chicago colleague, Jerry Coyne (http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/), I think you will find they give pride of place to Natural Selection as the creative force in evolution. I invite you to ask them the question.

      The point of my 2011 book is that DNA changes are not the result of accidents. They arise from the action of coordinated cell biochemical complexes. This action often has surprising abilities (e.g. the mobilization of defined DNA segments to many sites throughout the genome), are regulated by stresses and challenges of various kinds, and can be highly targeted within the genome, sometimes in ways that makes adaptive sense. You can find the evidence in the book and on my web site (http://shapiro.bsd.uchicago.edu/evolution21.shtml). In these ways, genetic change is not a random process.

      If you look at the book or my Huffington Post blogs, you will see my arguments for attributing an important creative role to the cell processes which restructure DNA molecules. As the comment following yours indicates, these arguments are not accepted as obvious by many people, especially neo-Darwinists.

      The Creationist camp is trying to take advantage of a real scientific difference to question evolution science as a whole. I felt an obligation to object. Don’t you think that was the right thing to do? If you don’t see the substance of the difference, read the book and the blogs.

  • Lynne Batik

    In his Huffington Post pieces, Dr. Shapiro quite frequently not only outruns evidence in order to postulate a metaphysical “intelligence” guiding evolution, he also tolerates and sometimes even encourages Intelligent Design proponents commenting approvingly about said metaphysical intelligence, and the inadequacy of a wholly physical process of evolution.

    A fair few other biologists have expressed their discomfort to him that the way he expresses his opinions about biology is so easily turned into support for pseudoscience, as well as discomfort when he himself operates with disregard for evidence. I have seen him consistently dismiss these criticisms with contempt. Maybe he should rethink a little bit, if this current use of his work actually distresses him so much. But for him to profess himself shocked — shocked! — that creationists would misuse his work, is disingenuous in the extreme.

    • Lynne,

      Please tell me where I “postulate a metaphysical intelligence guiding evolution.” I have said that we need to investigate the role of cell control networks in biasing the outcomes of regulated natural genetic engineering functions towards adaptive utility. I don’t think that is metaphysical, and I have proposed experiments to examine this hypothetical possibility (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-a-shapiro/experimental-evolution-ho_b_1619171.html). What’s wrong with that? Are we never to think outside the box?

      As for Creationists taking advantage of new ideas that they want to misuse for their own purposes, that danger is always present. It seems to me the appropriate response is to clarify when they misquote, which is what I did. Where is the harm in that?

  • Steven G Worthman

    Good work Dr Shapiro. Science operates on the principal that mutations and selections advance a species. Certainly this is God’s plan for life throughout ages.

    • Steven,

      I don’t claim to know God’s plan. If there is one, it works through natural processes. The job of scientists is to investigate the explanatory potential of those processes as we learn more about them. Ultimate ends are the business of theology and philosophy, not scientific research.