Suzan Mazur interviews James Shapiro, author of Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, for Counterpunch:
Suzan Mazur: I went through the book over the weekend. It’s very thoughtful the way you’ve put it together. Would you describe your theory, which involves cells speaking to one another — cognitively, informationally. You say in reality the “gene” is “not a definite entity” — it’s “hypothetical in nature.”
James Shapiro: There are three components there.
(1) As I say in the book, cells do not act blindly. We know from physiology and biochemistry and molecular biology that cells are full of receptors. They monitor what goes on outside. They monitor what goes on inside. And they’re continually taking in that information and using it to adjust their actions, their biochemistry, their metabolism, the cell cycle, etc. so that things come out right. That’s why I use the word cognitive to apply to cells, meaning they do things based on knowledge of what’s happening around them and inside of them. Without that knowledge and the systems to use that knowledge they couldn’t proliferate and survive as efficiently as they do.
(2) We’ve learned a great deal about hereditary variation through molecular genetics studies. I was personally involved in this back in the late 60s and 70s and since then we’ve learned about a wide variety of biochemical systems that cells use to restructure their genomes as an active process. Genome change is not the result of accidents. If you have accidents and they’re not fixed, the cells die. It’s in the course of fixing damage or responding to damage or responding to other inputs — in the case I studied, it was starvation — that cells turn on the systems they have for restructuring their genomes. So what we have is something different from accidents and mistakes as a source of genetic change. We have what I call “natural genetic engineering.” Cells are acting on their own genomes in a large variety of well-defined non-random ways to bring about change…
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