James Shapiro goes after natural selection again (twice) on HuffPo


I hate to give attention to my Chicago colleague James Shapiro’s bizarre ideas about evolution, which he publishes weekly on HuffPo rather than in peer-reviewed journals.

 His Big Idea is that natural selection has not only been overemphasized in evolution, but appears to play very little role at all.  Even though he’s spreading nonsense in a widely-read place, I don’t go after him very often, for he just uses my criticisms as the basis of yet another abstruse and incoherent post. Like the creationists whose ideas he appropriates, he resembles those toy rubber clowns that are impossible to knock down.  But once again, and for the last time, I wade into the fray. . .

In his post of August 12, “Does natural selection really explain what makes evolution succeed?” (the answer, of course, is “no”), Shapiro simply recycles some discredited arguments used by creationists against evolution. The upshot, which we’ve heard for decades, is the discredited idea that natural selection is not a creative process. I quote:

“Darwin modeled natural selection on artificial selection by humans. He ignored the inconvenient fact that human selection for altered traits has never generated a truly new organismal feature (e.g., a limb or an organ) or formed a new species. Selection only modifies existing characters. When humans wish to create new species, they use other means.”

This is the old canard that artificial selection doesn’t create “new features.”  His definition of a “new organismal feature” is, of course, one that hasn’t been generated by artificial selection, so it’s all tautological.  Of course we haven’t seen whole new organs or limbs arise in the short term, for people have been doing serious selection for only a few thousand years, and have not even tried to create new organs or limbs. But we can create a strain of flies with four wings, breeds of dogs that would be regarded as new genera if they were found in the fossil record, and whole new biochemical systems in bacteria.  Both Barry Hall and Rich Lenski, for example, have demonstrated the evolution of brand new biochemical pathways that have evolved to deal with new metabolic challenges. Now that is a “new organismal feature”!

Often new species are created by hybridization, but Shapiro forgets that that hybridization is often followed by either natural or artificial selection for increased interfertility of the new hybrid form, so it truly becomes an interbreeding population that characterizes a species.  And that, of course, gives a crucial role to selection, as it did in the experiments of Loren Rieseberg and his colleagues on hybrid sunflowers.

Written By: Jerry Coyne
continue to source article at whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com


  1. Please, if you work for RDF: get rid of the dual pop-up texts when you scroll over a story link on the main page. I scroll over the story, get a pop-up with a description & then (?!) another pop-up with different (?!) text pop-up over (?!) the first pop-up.

  2. Don’t know if this helps but I get the same thing. When I scroll over a heading on the home page two boxes come up, a main one, often with an image, followed by a smaller one with what seems to be HTML code. Annoying.By moving the cursor to the right of the heading the code box disappears, leaving the first box. I had thought this was a long standing problem with me using the Opera browser, don’t know if there are similar problems in I(spit)E or Firefox.

  3. Shapiro may be a closet creationist, or he may be one of those people who don’t understand just how big a million is much less three billion.

    It is similar to a fight mathematicians went through at the time of Newton — that when you  add an unbounded number of infinitessimal quantities, the result can still be finite and substantial.

    His intuition says that the change that can come in a million years can only be a tiny bit bigger than the amount you could expect in a year.  This is blithering nonsense.  A million times even a change too small to notice is still drastic.

    Perhaps we need some animations or analogies to help the intuition over this hump. One of my ideas was a very very slow evolution animation that appeared not to be changing at all unless you viewed it daily or weekly.

  4. Yes, that is the problem for all of these people. After the symbiosis, hybridization and anything else they can think of there is natural selection waiting to winnow and adaptively shape the organism over time just like it always has done and like it always will do. 

  5.  Closet secular creationist. As bad, or worse than your garden variety creationist!

  6. Good lord, Markuze is back in the comment below. I got a nearly identical comment on my site yesterday. 

  7. Evolution doesn’t succeed. It just happens. It has no aim. Darwin identified natural selection as a key mechanism but it has no reason, it just is. What decides the success or otherwise of a species is reproduction. The alternative is extinction.

    The more and the longer species survive, the more they propagate. Each gene has probably millions of vectors that carry it and not all die out (though over 99% of species have). All the current best genes exist in millions of todays species but thse will change as genes mutate.

    Actually, it’s more likely they will all disappear since our predominate meme, religion, seems focussed on ending everything on our planet. Armageddon here we come. Genes don’t have a chance.    

  8. The mathematicians’ objections were based on some more challenging aspects of calculus, all of which were born of the fact that the theory was developed historically prior to the formalisation of limits, which (as we now realise) are necessary to rigorously prove all of calculus works. One famous objection was the ghosts of departed quantities; you calculate a gradient by assuming dx is non-zero so the ratio isn’t 0/0, and then you plug in dx=0 in the answer! Of course, more careful statements in terms of limits fix this; but let’s not pretend the mathematicians’ objections were identical to those of modern creationists, who have even less sense in their skull than did the mathematicians of yesteryear.

  9. The RSS feed still goes to the old site – fix please! You might like to clean up Dennis Markuze’s comments, too…

  10. celtlen – It is unfortunate that your post here is in response to a habitual troll, with numerous sock-puppet names, who repeatedly posts the same irrational rubbish –  which is then deleted by the mods after being flagged. 
    They usually also delete any response to such posts to keep the discussion on topic.

    I suggest you comment on the OP or reply to others who will give you a reasonable response.

  11. This website has turned into an uglier version of its previous self.  It’s not just ugly, it’s looks cheap and badly designed.   It looks like something my 14 year old self would have designed.     It’s lost all of its style.   Just look at the tacky banner, with the tacky search box that expands when you click it.   

  12. Jerry has done a good job of demolishing this silly article. I would emphasise even more strongly the point about explaining the illusion of design. All the processes that Shapiro lists may or may not have an effect on evolution:-

    “independently of natural selection” — hybridization, genome duplication, symbiogenesis, chromosome restructuring, horizontal DNA transfer, mobile genetic elements, epigenetic switches, and natural genetic engineering (the ability of all cells to cut, splice, copy, and modify their DNA in non-random ways

    But  the point is irrelevant because in any case they can not explain adaptation and the illusion of design without natural selection. If you want to incorporate any of them in a theory of evolution, they belong, broadly, in the mutation half of the Darwinian formula. The selection half is still vitally necessary for every adaptation. All the proverbial examples so beloved of creationists – the eye and all other ingenious devices which, in Hume’s words ravish into admiration all who contemplate them – cannot be put together so that they work, by any known process except natural selection. The only other non-trivial suggestion that has ever been made (intelligent design trivially leads to an infinite regress) is the Lamarckian theory of Use and Disuse coupled with Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics (IAC). Even if IAC were true, which it might be on some other planet, there are good reasons for concluding that it is not in principle capable of producing complex adaptation (see The Blind Watchmaker, Chapter 11).

    It is possible (though I doubt it) that somebody may one day think of a workable alternative to natural selection which really would be capable of explaining adaptation. But nobody has yet, and certainly none of the mechanisms listed by Shapiro even comes close. He should stop purveying this actively misleading nonsense.

  13. Note to Mods. I noticed that I cannot comment on the new site. My gravatar shows up, but to comment, Disqus is requiring a new login (though I’m transferred) and another password. Is this correct?

  14. “scientific positivism (the notion that science has all the answers)” 
    Stop reading NOW. How can a Professor of Microbiology  be SO stupid? Not only that but education fails him regarding spelling/typos, and rigour/accuracy (‘evolurtion’… ‘Rochard’??)

  15. I believe the great man Christopher Hitchens my of laughed at this comical animation even if it contains adult humour, the point remains opinions are like belly buttons every one has one but they don’t hold much water.

  16. Dawkins examples of “new features” needs clarification. 1) Fruit flies with four, instead of two wings, was his first example of evolution producing a new feature. However R. Dawkins didn’t mention that the wings had no muscles and the insect’s ability to fly was severely impaired. 2) New canine breeds, which if in the fossil record would be interpreted falsely, is hardly an example of a new feature! 3)Was this e-coli result, after 50,000 generations, significant? E. coli was ALREADY CAPABLE of using citrate for ANAEROBIC growth. The conclusion now is that “the key innovation was a shift in regulation of the citrate operon, caused by a rearrangement that brought it close to a new promoter.” This had been predicted by Michael Behe, and considered not really too surprising or innovative. http://www.biologicinstitute.org/post/32246480851/innovation-or-renovation
    What I do not understand is why the attack on Shapiro? Why not objectively look at other mechanisms besides natural selection? Why be threatened – let the evidence speak. I doubt anybody would be convinced that natural selection has the ability to create such new features as what we see in living things today – based on Dawkins’ three examples above. Why do I hear that old Peggy Lee song going through my mind – “Is That All There Is” Is that all evolution has to show for itself – and these are the best examples? Is that all there is….to evolution?

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