Ideas about evolution were first formulated before biology and genetics developed into the sophisticated sciences they are today. Molecular biology has had a profound impact on our understanding of how organisms are related to each other and how they change over time. Genome sequencing reveals the evolutionary record as it remains in the DNA of living organisms and constitutes a test of theories about how evolution has occurred. Discoveries about the molecular and cellular nature of evolutionary changes show that this remains a vital and exciting area of science with many new theoretical and experimental possibilities. In particular, genome sequences teach us that many key events in evolution have been accompanied by major and rapid changes in the content and organization of cell DNA that affected numerous characters at the same time. These kinds of changes were unknowable to the pioneers of evolutionary thinking and have not yet been included in conventional statements about how the evolutionary process operates. Incorporating lessons from the DNA record, recent observations of evolution in action, and experiments about the biological processes of genome change make it possible to formulate a 21st Century view that is consistent with other developments in the molecular life sciences.
James Shapiro is a Chicago native who grew up in South Shore. He studied English Literature at Harvard College and won a Marshall Scholarship to Cambridge University in England. At Cambridge he completed a PhD in Genetics and then did postdoctoral fellowships at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, France, and Harvard Medical School. He has taught at the Universities of Chicago (he has been on the faculty for 36 years), Havana, Tel Aviv, and Edinburgh, where he was the Darwin Prize Professor in 1993. He has held fellowships from the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund, the American Cancer Society, the American Academy of Microbiology, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Linnean Society of London. His professional activities have included memberships in a number of scholarly societies and 16 years’ service as Chair of the Chicago Region Marshall Scholarship selection committee. In 2001 he received an honorary O.B.E. (Officer of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth for services to British-American relationships in higher education.
Prof. Shapiro’s scholarly work has centered on bacterial genetics. His major research accomplishments are the discovery
of transposable elements in bacteria, the first purification of a genetically defined DNA segment from a living
organism, formulating a realistic and detailed molecular mechanism for the transposition of DNA in bacteria, showing
that the action of transposable elements is triggered by nutritional stress, and demonstrating that bacterial colonies
represent an organized and differentiated form of multicellular life. His books (done with colleagues) include the
first volumes dedicated to mobile genetic elements and to bacterial multicellularity. For the past 17 years, he has
articulated the view that genomic change in evolution occurs by a complex but non-random process of “natural genetic
engineering.” His publications accessible to non-specialist readers include: