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Further Thoughts on Natural Genetic Engineering and Vitalism: A Reply to James Shapiro

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In his occasional series on Huffington Post, James A. Shapiro — a distinguished bacterial geneticist at the University of Chicago — responded to a recent article of mine about his work. Shapiro’s reply was titled “Natural Genetic Engineering and Vitalism: What’s the Difference?
I have the impression that Professor Shapiro and I are in broad agreement and that the apparent difference of opinion between us is largely verbal. Moreover, I do not wish to appear to be gratuitously manufacturing controversy.
On the other hand, words do matter. They matter because verbal misunderstandings may lead to theoretical confusions. So, perhaps it is worthwhile for me to clarify the comments I made on Shapiro’s work, and especially my remarks on “vitalism” to which he mainly took exception.
I brought up the issue of vitalism in the context of offering Shapiro a helpful suggestion about how to handle his critics. If this came across as impertinent, I apologize. My suggestion was advanced in all sincerity.
As Professor Shapiro knows, his critics — including both Darwinists and intelligent-design theorists — have focused on the way he deploys the concept of “natural genetic engineering.”
On the one hand, he claims — quite correctly — that the empirical facts about bacterial genetic recombination undermine the claim fundamental to Darwinism that novel traits are generated at random.
On the other hand, he says little or nothing about how something as remarkable as natural genetic engineering can itself have come into existence, if not by means of natural selection. As a result of this tension in his position, Shapiro has come under fire as a “vitalist” or even — horror of horrors! — a “creationist.”
Given this dialectical situation, my idea was to make a careful distinction between two very different meanings of the term “vitalism.” Historically, the term has most often been associated with the idea that a supernatural “life force” impinges on living matter from the outside. If this were true, then science would be debarred in principle from investigating the nature of the difference between the living state of matter and inorganic matter. Today, no one, to my knowledge, is interested in reviving this idea.
But there is another, perfectly legitimate sense in which the term may be used — namely, to refer to the claim that living things have properties and causal powers arising from within that are more than the sum of the properties and powers of the inanimate parts of which they are composed. If this is true, then there is no reason to believe that natural science cannot eventually throw light upon the physical underpinnings of these properties and powers, which distinguish life from non-life. Since there is nothing unscientific about “vitalism” used in this sense, no opprobrium should be attached to the term.
Why use the term at all, though? Because we need to make crystal clear the difference between the “emergentist” view that a whole cell has global or collective properties that are greater than the sum of the properties of its parts and the reductionist view that a cell is “nothing but” an assemblage of local chemical reactions, each of which has originally arisen haphazardly and then been preserved and propagated by natural selection. It is crucially important that we keep this distinction firmly in mind, if we are ever to “see past Darwin” and gain a clearer view of the remarkable properties of living systems.
Nevertheless, I can understand why Shapiro balks at embracing the term “vitalism.” The problem, of course, is that historically the vitalist movement of the early 20th century became associated — rightly or wrongly — with the former, unscientific sense of the term.
As Shapiro explains:

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.

Certainly, it is essential that we seek the “cellular home” of natural genetic engineering, though in my view the smart money would bet on its turning out to reside in the collective physics of cytoplasm, rather than in some particular organelle.1
If it should turn out that cellular regulation derives in part from the emergent, global properties of whole cells — whatever they may be — then we are going to have to rehabilitate Hans Driesch.2 It wouldn’t be the first time in the history of science that such a rehabilitation occurred.
Still, I don’t wish to quarrel over words. If Shapiro feels the term “vitalism” to be irredeemably tainted, then we can call the claim that life is a distinctive state of matter “organicism,” or something else. What we call this idea is not so important.
What is important is that we get very clear about two things:
(a) If novel phenotypic traits are produced by means of natural genetic engineering, then the main creative force in evolution resides in this remarkable process, and not in natural selection.
(b) If natural selection cannot explain natural genetic engineering, then we must seek the explanation somewhere else.
Shapiro is admirably clear on the first point. Indeed, though many scientists are currently attempting to see past Darwin, he is one of the few who are willing to stand up to the bullying of the entrenched Darwinist establishment, and call a spade a spade.
However, Shapiro is strangely reluctant to affirm the second point. For example, he writes:

Natural genetic engineering, the biochemical capacities cells have for remodeling their genomes, does not need explanation.

Perhaps, this is a mere slip of the pen, and he only means that natural genetic engineering is a well-supported empirical fact, and needs no further empirical support. But if Shapiro really meant to say what he actually said — that natural genetic engineering requires no explanation — that is truly unaccountable.
There is very little in the natural world that does not require an explanation. That is, there is little that we are content merely to accept as a brute fact. And surely no phenomenon so very remarkable as natural genetic engineering could conceivably fall into that category.
At one point, Shapiro protests that I am implicitly requesting him to take a position on the origin of life, which he very properly says is beyond the ken of current science:

Barham has implicitly included an origin-of-life question: When in the history of the first cells did natural genetic engineering appear? . . . 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.

That is correct, but it is not entirely to the point. The point is that we must seek the source of the mysterious cognitive capabilities of the cell — where “source” means not just their historical origin, but also the principles underlying those capabilities here and now.
Of course, part of the answer to this question lies in the analogy between cellular organization and computers, although Shapiro himself acknowledges that cells are immensely more flexible and robust than computers — which does not bode well for the long-term utility of the computer analogy.
How, then, are we to explain the capacity for natural genetic engineering — and the ability of cells to act intelligently on their own behalf, generally — if not by means of the machine analogy and the theory of natural selection?
That is the question that both Darwinists and intelligent-design theorists would like an answer to, and while Shapiro is certainly under no obligation to have an answer of his own to put forward, he does at least owe it to his critics to acknowledge that the question is a perfectly legitimate one.
Of course, science advances step by step, setting aside currently impossible problems for the future, and concentrating on the ones that show some promise of yielding to present methods. It is understandable that a laboratory scientist like Shapiro should feel impatient with critics who pester him about gaps in our knowledge that he freely admits.
But Darwinism has never been just another scientific theory. It has always been dear to its proponents as a complete metaphysical system. All along, Darwinists have seen it as their task to “reduce” the manifest teleological and normative characteristics of life to mechanical interactions. That is what the theory of natural selection is all about.
Therefore, Shapiro is being a bit ingenuous if he thinks he can simply forswear the philosophical implications of his position as none of his responsibility. He is tangled up with them, whether he likes it or not.
Either cells are machines made of inherently inert parts cobbled together by natural selection, or they are . . . something else. No one who denies the first alternative should be surprised if he is asked what that “something else” could possibly be. After all, if we don’t at least ask that question, how will we ever make any progress towards answering it?
(1) See, e.g., Mae-wan Ho, The Rainbow and the Worm: The Physics of Organisms, 3rd ed. (World Scientific, 2008); Gerald H. Pollack, Cells, Gels, and the Engines of Life (Ebner & Sons, 2001); Giuseppe Vitiello, My Double Unveiled: The Dissipative Quantum Model of Brain (John Benjamins, 2001).?
(2) On Driesch’s science, philosophy, and career, see Horst H. Freyhofer, The Vitalism of Hans Driesch (Peter Lang, 1982).
Cross-posted at The Best Schools. Image credit: Tracey Holland/Flickr.