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Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, by James A. Shapiro and: The Biologist’s Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature, and Nature by Victoria N. Alexander (review)
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Reviewed by
James A. Shapiro, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press, 2011, 272 pp. $34.99cloth.
Victoria N. Alexander, The Biologist’s Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature, and Nature. Litchfield Park, AZ: Emergent Publications, 2011, 246 pp. $39.95 paper.

In her brilliant Xenogenesis trilogy (1987–1989), science-fiction author Octavia Butler introduces a strain of alien beings, the Oankali. Some of them possess specialized organs capable of manipulating and recombining the Oankali’s genes with those of other species. The Oankali, we learn, are gene traders: “We trade the essence of ourselves. Our genetic material for yours”; when pressed by the human protagonist to explain what this means, her Oankali interlocutor continues: “We do what you would call genetic engineering. . . . We do it naturally” (p. 40). Researching Butler’s depiction of interspecific gene transfer among metazoan humanoids, I queried her about the source of the science, if any, she was adapting to this fiction. Butler had indeed not made it up. She graciously specified that her sources included Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan’s Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors, first published in 1986. Early in that popular text, after discussing the decoding of DNA and of the mechanisms of genetic transmission, Margulis and Sagan continued: “A second evolutionary dynamic is a sort of natural genetic engineering. . . . Prokaryotes routinely and rapidly transfer different bits of genetic material to other individuals. . . . These exchanges are a standard part of the prokaryotic repertoire” (p. 16).

University of Chicago professor of microbiology James Shapiro writes in his stunning book, Evolution: A View from the 21sttCentury: “Let us turn our attention to what we know about the processes of natural genetic engineering” (p. 43). In his marking of natural genetic engineering as “the phrase I use to denote the capabilities cells have to restructure their genomes,” the italics are Shapiro’s own. Reading this work, we realize how profoundly on target were both Butler’s hard science-fictional intuition to construct an alien race by endowing it with the actual capacities of prokaryotes, and Margulis and Sagan’s longstanding championing of evolution by genetic acquisition (rather than by the happenstance viability of mutations). What Shapiro has shown throughout a career now capped by this rich though economical compendium of researches is that natural genetic engineering is the evolutionary norm, for which lateral gene transfer is just one of a large repertoire of the capacities of cellular systems to retool their own genetics. He goes on: “Virtually all cells possess the basic biochemical tools for modifying DNA: proteins that cut, unwind, polymerize, anneal, and splice DNA strands. The generic operations that living cells have been shown to carry out on their genomic molecules indicate that any rearrangement is possible as long as the product is compatible with the basic rules of DNA structure” (ibid.). And what cells can do, they do all the time: they self-evolve along with the evolution of their niches. “Random mutations” occur here and there, but the threadbare trousers of this all-purpose nonexplanation covering the behind of biological ignorance about the actual mechanisms of genetic variation can now be donated to the thrift store at the Salvation Army.

In The Biologist’s Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature, and Nature, literature and science scholar Victoria Alexander makes a vigorous complementary argument for the purposiveness of complex adaptive systems. The form this work takes could have come about only from Alexander’s unique position [End Page 335] outside the regular academy. A novelist, independent scholar, and cofounder and director of the Dactyl Foundation for the Arts and Humanities in New York City, she has had the institutional leeway to pursue an iconoclastic message and the absence of departmental promotion pressure to allow it to develop until mature. In that process, she has refined a fresh and roundabout style of exposition building to a strong and coherent argument. With explicit self-awareness and seasoned conviction conveyed in a plainspoken and lively conversational tone, she has come out swinging at postmodernist idols of both the intellectual and the artistic marketplace. Her thesis is...