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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Fall 2002 > Darwin's Disciple
Carl Woese. Microbiologist Carl R. Woese '50 in 1977 discovered an entirely new domain of one-celled organisms—the “archaea”—and thus rewrote the basic “phylogenetic tree of life” that had remained essentially unchanged since Darwin. His astonishing discovery shook the science of biology to its roots . . . and triggered some powerful resistance among mainstream biologists who continue to challenge his findings (see "When Theories Collide").

Darwin's Disciple

By Tom Nugent

He's a legend in American biology, a research giant who has changed the way science thinks about evolution.

You'd never know it by looking at his lab. Tucked away on the third floor of an ordinary red-brick classroom building, Dr. Carl Woese's research facility at the University of Illinois hardly seems impressive at first glance: there are a couple of computers, a couple of battered filing cabinets, and a dog-eared paperback copy of Darwin's Origin of Species lying on a cluttered table.

Did this drab workspace really provide the setting for Woese's paradigm-busting discovery of a new form of life?

As the headquarters for one of the world's most complex and challenging scientific investigations, the lab strikes a visitor as surprisingly low-tech. Nor does the scientist himself seem especially imposing. Small-boned and slender at age 74, he wears a dull green work shirt, wrinkle-free polyester slacks that look as if they just came off the rack at Wal-Mart, and a pair of frayed Nike running shoes with their tongues hanging out.

At first glance it's hard to believe you're in the presence of a molecular biologist whose theories about the origins of life have stood contemporary evolution on its head.

Quiet and self-effacing—one colleague even describes him as “shy”—the soft-spoken Dr. Woese doesn't give many interviews. But if you can find a way to get him talking about how modern biology has “completely dropped the ball” by mostly ignoring the microorganisms that make up 95 percent of life on Earth, he'll startle you with the passionate intensity of his blunt declarations.

“I'm going to be scandalous about this,” he exclaims, when asked to describe his “most important contribution” to biology. “I've been put here to pick up where Darwin left off! All of his descendants dropped the ball—and you had to turn to some people who knew about molecular biology in order to get the ball rolling again. But now it's happening, and I'm feeling more hopeful than ever.”

He pauses, gazes around the dusty lab, then waves toward the flickering computer screens where vast arrays of RNA-sequencing data await his next operation. “I'll tell you this much: If Darwin were alive today, he'd be sitting in my lab—not in the lab of some 'classical evolutionist.' Because he would know where the forefront of evolution was. He knew it then, and he would know it now.

“The forefront is the molecular world. It's the microbial world as well—and that's 95 percent of the diversity of life on this planet!”

As many of his friends and colleagues have noted, the outspoken Woese (rhymes with “knows”) doesn't mince words while describing the “wrong turn” that mainstream evolutionary science took soon after Darwin. In the unvarnished opinion of this venerable microbiologist, who's been conducting research and teaching students at the University of Illinois since 1964, the “ball was dropped” when the evolutionists of the modern era began using their high-tech tools to analyze the dynamics of cellular physiology from moment to moment while losing sight, for the most part, of the key role played by evolution in the development of those very processes over eons.

According to Woese (whose early training at Amherst was in physics, not biology), the key flaw in contemporary evolutionary science has been its failure to confront the problem of how microorganisms evolved during the 3.5 billion or so years that preceded the emergence of larger life forms.

“Look, the study of life just doesn't make any sense unless you talk about evolution throughout its entire history,” he told Amherst. “Life is a historical unfolding, an ongoing process, and to understand that process you have to do more than just study it at any given point in time.

Continued >>

Photo: Bill Wiegand


Online Extra


Carl Woese ’50 has received this year’s Crafoord Prize in Biosciences, given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Woese named winner of National Medal of Science

Woese's paper, "Towards a natural system of organisms: proposal for the domains Archaea, Bacteria, and Eucarya," is available as a PDF from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science Website

"New theory fills in the gap before Darwin," USA Today


Carl Woese's Homepage at U. Illinois

UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology's "Introduction to the Archaea"

IUPUI Dept. of Biology, class notes for "Biodiversity: The Three Domains of Life"

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