The “Brothers” Shapiro

Well, they aren’t brothers – they just share the same last name. I don’t think they knew each other. I don’t even know if they even knew the other existed. One of them, James is alive and well; sadly the other, Robert, died a few years ago. But in addition to their last name, they have something else in common. Both were scientists who changed my mind about evolution.

Bob Shapiro was a friend and a colleague of mine at NYU, where he was a Professor of Chemistry. For two semesters we co-taught a course in the School of Journalism on science for journalists. Bob was older than me, and senior in rank and reputation. We worked in similar areas related to the interactions of chemical carcinogens with cells and biomolecules. But Bob had started to become famous for something quite different -the science of the origin of life.

After teaching (we each lectured for about a half hour), we would go to a coffee shop in the Village near the campus and talk about science and life. At that time, I had no interest in Bob’s passion for the origin of life, but I was willing to listen to anything he had to say. With his quiet insistence he told me about his ideas and the state of the controversy that has always been at the heart of all scientific theories about the origin of life.

Life as we know it depends on two overarching characteristics: metabolism, which is the sum of all the chemical reactions that go on in cells, and genetic replication and expression, wherein the information that controls all of those reactions is copied and translated. Not surprisingly, the central controversy in the origin of life is about which of these two systems arose first. The replicator-first crowd will tell you (Richard Dawkins is the leading proponent) that replicating genes made of nucleic acids are the key and original components of living cells, and metabolism is a later invention, developed mostly to aid in the preservation and maintenance of the genes. The metabolism-first faction counters that nucleic acids need enzymes and other metabolic reactions in order to replicate, and life began as more or less automatic hypercycles of chemicals.

Bob Shapiro was one of the most convincing and outspoken advocates of the metabolism-first scenario. He published articles and spoke against the possibility that either DNA or RNA could have possibly been formed before life existed. I did not agree. I loved genes and DNA and was working on many aspects of genetics at that time (and later). I strongly admired Dawkins, and I was firmly in the replicator-first camp. But I didn’t argue with Bob; I cherished my time with him, and tried to learn as much as I could. Once the course ended, we saw each other rarely, working on different campuses and in different fields as he devoted more and more time and effort to his “hobby” of the origin of life.

I have not met James Shapiro, and had never heard his name until a few years back, when a friend suggested I look at some of his papers to gain an understanding of some new and interesting trends in evolutionary biology that is called the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES). (That friend, btw, is an occasional commenter on this blog). Reading James Shapiro’s papers was an eye-opener for me. Like Bob, James is not a passionate fan of genes as the masters of all creation. In fact, James Shapiro is one of the leading architects of the EES, which is trying to replace neo-Darwinism as the standard model for evolutionary theory. According to James Shapiro, genes and their cellular and extracellular environments are engaged in a two-way interaction, with each having strong effects on the other. James calls this natural genetic engineering, and believes that a great deal of evolution that could not be easily explained by the traditional neo-Darwinian paradigm of gradual change from random mutations can in fact be due to rapid and dramatic changes brought on by the re-engineering of the genome by things like transposons, horizontal gene transfers, and large-scale amplifications.

I agree with James Shapiro. I have written about the EES in this blog and elsewhere (see “New Ideas in Evolutionary Biology, Parts 1 to 3, from August 2015), and am now working on some aspects of it. And I have recently decided that I also agree with my departed, dear friend, Robert Shapiro, that genes are not the be-all and end-all of life (although I still think genes are fantastic!). I have even come to the understanding that genes are not even essential for life (although they probably are for evolution. More on this later).

So thank you, Dr. Shapiro and Dr. Shapiro for your wise instruction, and may one of you continue to prosper and teach us, and may the other rest in well-deserved peace.

More on the subject of genes and their importance is coming. Watch this space.


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8 Responses to The “Brothers” Shapiro

  1. Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Sy

    Both great names, and as far as I can judge both open-minded to doubt as well as new ideas.
    RS doubted the gene-first ideas, but of course his own metabolism-first preference has huge difficulties which others have pointed out. But he of course took an interest in how DNA/RNA came to exist after his metabolism was doing its stuff, and I understand that he couldn’t conceive how either chance, or even chance and natural selection, could produce self-replicating molecules.

    On the face of it, the problem seems to be that you need metabolism and a semantic nucleotide code to get life going, and certainly for it to evolve.

    I’ve just been reading Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and the problem of life’s origin was so much easier for him, in the milieu of Enlightenment Science, because not only did life seem easily explicable by common materials and known laws, but it was regularly observed in nature in spontaneous generation… until Pasteur disproved it in 1859, and suddenly OoL passed out of established science and the principle of uniformity and into sheer faith in Nature’s mysterious powers in some distant past age.

    My own feeling (which strays outside the usual paradigm, I’m afraid) is that our problem is in holding to the simplistic Enlightenment view of Nature as an autonomous goddess (Lamarck often speaks of Her in such terms crunching laws and atoms together), rather than as an instrument played by God – or perhaps as the household under his government, which was the older, non-Deistic, view. If that’s true, there’s a way to do science with it – but not as we know it, Jim.

    Anyway, if anyone’s interested in all that I’ll be doing a post on Lamarck and the OoL on my own blog in a day or two. It will lack the contemporary scientific clout of your post, though!

  2. Thanks Jon, and if I havent done so already, thanks for the introduction to James Shapiro’s work. I look forward to reading your post on Lamarck, who has returned to favor to some extent. His name is even presented on the Third Way web site. When I was studying biochemistry and later working, Lamarck was usually uttered in the same breath and with the same contempt as Lysenko, so that tells us something about how science and history do seem to move in mysterious ways. I like the instrument played by God image.

  3. Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks in turn for your thanks! Who’s going to be the first to rehabilitate Lysenko, then?

  4. Ha! Good question. Not me.

  5. Jon, I will some day write a post about the details of my Stalinist upbringing, and the (not quite so funny) specifics of that fascinating religion. It might be entertaining or at least interesting as an illustration of how “disbelief” can be a fanatical form of dogmatic certainty (I wouldnt dare say belief).

  6. jarleko says:

    RNA world must have existed before there were much metabolism. There is no other possibility.

    • A lot of folks dont agree, as Im sure you know. Nick Lane, Eric Smith, and most of the metabolism first people. I am agnostic, in that I keep going back and forth, and cant make up my mind. But, thanks for the comment, and welcome.

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