Misquoting Science in the Texas Textbook Battles

December 6, 2013 | 5:19 pm
James A. Shapiro
Professor of Bacterial Genetics and Microbiology

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.

Jim Shapiro is a Professor of Microbiology at the University of Chicago in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. His undergraduate degree in English literature is from Harvard, and his PhD in Genetics is from Cambridge University in the UK, where he was a Marshall Scholar. Jim is a bacterial geneticist and has studied mobile genetic elements for over 40 years. He has applied his knowledge of how cells manipulate DNA to evolution and in 2011 published "Evolution: A view from the 21st Century." He has debated both Creationists and traditional evolutionists and blogged on the science page of the Huffington Post. Jim is a UCS National Advisory Board and Science Network member.

The UCS Science Network is an inclusive community of more than 25,000 scientists, engineers, economists, and other experts, focused on changing the world for the better. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the authors alone.