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Carl Woese, Evolution's Golden Revolutionary

Carl Woese, Evolution's Golden Revolutionary

By Suzan Mazur
October 3, 2012


"Our task now is to resynthesize biology; put the organism back into its environment; connect it again to its evolutionary past; and let us feel that complex flow that is organism, evolution, and environment united. The time has come for biology to enter the nonlinear world." -- Carl Woese, "A New Biology for a New Century"

"It is time that the tremendous contribution made by Carl Woese to microbiology, medicine and biology as a whole is rewarded by the Nobel committee." -- Nature

With the 2012 Nobel Prize announcements coming up next week, I am reminded that there is probably no other scientist but Carl Woese who could write about having "no use for natural selection" and have Nature magazine respond with a Nobel endorsement. It is Carl Woese who first identified the Archaea and introduced us to horizontal gene transfer. He and his colleagues at the University of Illinois, Urbana - Champaign have just been awarded an $8 million NASA Astrobiology Institute grant to identify the principles of the origin and evolution of life.

Woese says his collaboration with physicist Nigel Goldenfeld, a principal investigator on the NAI-funded research, is the most productive one he's had in his science career. In a paper called "Biology's Next Revolution", the two confront the Darwin issue:

"Thus, we regard as rather regrettable the conventional concatenation of Darwin's name with evolution, because there are other modalities that must be entertained and which we regard as mandatory during the course of evolutionary time."

I recently asked Carl Woese how he defined life.

"That's the problem," he said. "We can't."

Woese also told me that the fossil records are unreliable.

"Whatever Carl Woese writes, even in a speculative vein, needs to be taken seriously," Freeman Dyson wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2007 describing Woese's thinking. Dyson termed the Woese hypothesis of a collective network of early life preceding the modern cell a "golden age" and commented that we are now moving forward into another communal stage as a culture.

University of Chicago microbiologist and HuffPost blogger James Shapiro, whose ideas Woese says represent the future, emailed me saying this about Carl Woese:

"Carl Woese was the most important evolution scientist of the 20th Century. He put our picture of living organisms on a solid empirical basis. He discovered a whole new kind of cell. He established the molecular methods for determining phylogenetic relationships. He made it possible to understand the relationships between prokaryotes (bacteria and archaea) and eukaryotes. Any one of these accomplishments would be extraordinary. Altogether they make Carl the most outstanding figure in understanding the diversity of life in well over a century."

Carl Woese describes himself as a "molecular biologist turned evolutionist." He is currently Stanley O. Ikenberry Chair and Professor of Microbiology at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he has taught since 1964.

Dr. Woese has a B.A. in Mathematics and Physics from Amherst College. His Ph.D. is in Biophysics from Yale University, where he also did postdoctoral research. For several years in the early 1960s, Woese was a biophysicist at General Electric Research Laboratory.

Honors include the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences (Royal Swedish Academy, 2003), National Medal of Science (2000), Selman A. Waksman Award in Microbiology (National Academy of Sciences, 1997), Leeuwenhoek Medal (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1992), MacArthur Fellow (1984), among others. He is a member of both the Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences and author of the book The Genetic Code: The Molecular Basis for Genetic Expression and numerous pivotal scientific papers.

My interview with Carl Woese follows.

Suzan Mazur: Congratulations on the recent NASA Astrobiology Institute grant awarded to you, Nigel Goldenfeld and your colleagues to research "the fundamental principles underlying the origin and evolution of life," based on your work over these many decades about life prior to the emergence of modern cells. Why do you think NAI chose to give you and your team $8 million, since you are known as a challenger of Darwinian dogma? Is NASA finally acknowledging the Darwin approach is wrong?

Carl Woese: I would hope so because that's very clear from our NASA Astrobiology Institute grant application. I have not seen the reviewers' comments but I've heard that they were quite positive.

It's important to mention others on the team, aside from Nigel Goldenfeld and myself: From UCIC: Elbert Branscomb, Isaac Cann, Lee DeVille, Bruce Fouke, Rod Mackie, Gary Olsen, Zan Luthey-Schulten, Charles Werth, Rachel Whitaker; from UC-Davis: Scott Dawson; and from Baylor College of Medicine: Philip Hastings and Susan Rosenberg.

Geologist Bruce Faulke's work is going to be a large part of the outreach component of this NAI grant. Bruce works at Yellowstone National Park and has a wonderful program going with those interested in the scientific side of Yellowstone. He takes small groups of people up there to observe geological formations, etc. They learn a lot from this.

Suzan Mazur: Patterns of organization.

Carl Woese: NASA is big on outreach, as you know. Both Bruce Faulke and Isaac Cann are very concerned with teaching the next generation of scientists. Isaac is an Archaeaologist. Archaeaologist in the sense of Archaea, one of the three domains of life.

Click to enlarge.

Three Domains of Life

Suzan Mazur: I was also excited to see that you're going to put together a free online course for students. Hopefully others will take that course as well, like media editors, etc.

Carl Woese: Yes, I was talking just yesterday with Isaac Cann, for example, one of the principal investigators of the project who's very keen on this sort of thing. There is an online course being put together by members of the astrobiology institute here and at other facilities on this campus. It's a genuine teaching effort.

Suzan Mazur: So with this grant you're going to be figuring out the general principles of life. How do you define life?

Carl Woese: That's the problem, we can't. We have yet to answer central questions about the origin of life. We have yet to get more direct evidence for what I call a pre-Darwinian condition, a progenote condition of life. That's one of the things we're working on, trying to get as much direct evidence as we can. Obviously, since this is a stage in evolutionary space of three or more billion years ago, we're not going to get much in the way of direct evidence. We can get fossil record, but that's not reliable. You have to infer everything you can from intelligent insightful analysis of genome sequence data.

Suzan Mazur: What do you consider evolution?

Carl Woese: Evolution is actually what biology should be. What is biology? Is it some under-the-microscope description of forms? It can't be that. Evolution is a process. It is the process which we now call biology which is very static. Evolution, however, is dynamic. And we have to understand what rules that dynamic follows.

Suzan Mazur: There's been recent controversy about whether astrobiology is a real science or a way for scientists to secure funding. Antonio Lazcano, former president of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life and Astrobiology Society (ISSOL) wrote in August in Nature that "astrobiology seems to include everything from the chemical composition of the interstellar medium to the origin and evolution of intelligence, society and technology -- as if the Universe is following an inevitable upward linear path leading from the Big Bang to the appearance of life and civilizations capable of communication." Would you comment on that?

Carl Woese: Yes. It's not a linear path. He's got no business saying that. And you don't use the word upward. The Universe is a process.

Alfred North Whitehead said with biology and other things, we are not dealing with a procession of forms (which summarizes the Lazcano view), we are dealing with the form or forms of process. In that distinction lies the essence of what this astrobiology institute here in Illinois is all about. We are going to really study the evolutionary origin of life. Anybody who looks at biology now, with a one percent exception, can feel -- anyone with biological intuition can feel -- that life is an evolutionary process. As I said, it's not just a procession of forms.

[Antonio Lazcano has emailed noting that his quote opens with the words: "Depending on who you speak to,".]

Suzan Mazur: Antonio Lazcano has also been quoted as saying regarding the investigation into early life, that we cannot jump the molecular hurdle prior to the appearance of proteins. What are some of the "principles of life" you and your colleagues are looking to confirm?

Carl Woese: We're certainly not looking for proteins to be there in the absence of nucleic acid, I'll tell you that. If I were to tell you what principles we were looking for, there would no longer be a question. We have to try to discover the dynamic of the process of evolution, of the evolutionary process. For this the biologist needs a lot of help, particularly from mathematicians and physicists who are used to dealing with complex systems. Systems so complex they iterate by themselves.

Suzan Mazur: How much are you relying on computer simulation for your work?

Carl Woese: I'm relying on my collaborators for the computer simulation work but I'm making inclusive judgment about what they do. So there are good, productive discussions among us.

Suzan Mazur: How much of NASA's interest in investigating origin of life would you say is based on creating synthetic life for commercial applications and how much knowledge-driven?

Carl Woese: There are many people who like it because they can patent things and make a lot of money.

Suzan Mazur: But do you think there is a genuine interest at NASA in getting to the bottom of the origin of life.

Carl Woese: There's always been. In the 1970s, NASA and NIH jointly sponsored my research for The Third Domain.

Suzan Mazur: Great. Not as upsetting to the Darwinists as the current investigation.

Carl Woese: No. There was something new in my work, and it was at a meeting in Paris that Dick Young, the first head of NASA's "Planetary Biology" section, stepped forward and offered help.

Suzan Mazur: Was it a large grant?

Carl Woese: By today's standards, it was miniscule.

Suzan Mazur: Do you have any concerns about the creation of a protocell?

Carl Woese: Oh yes. There are some, as you know, Craig Venter is beating the drum on this all the time, just to be at the forefront. Power.

Suzan Mazur: There are also the Harry Lonsdale researchers, who are approaching it from the bottom up. UC, Santa Cruz origin of life scientist David Deamer, for example, says he plans to make a protocell within roughly a decade.

Carl Woese: Good luck.

Suzan Mazur: You have concerns about the protocell.

Carl Woese: I have concerns about scientists thinking that they're God when it comes to biology. Scientists should be trying to study the experiments that nature has already done in the form of the evolutionary process.

Suzan Mazur: You've described the "disconnect between Darwinists, who had taken over evolution, and microbiologists, who had no use for Darwinian natural selection." Do you have anything to say about the recent decision of Huffington Post to block publication of microbiologist James Shapiro's response to Darwinist Jerry Coyne following Coyne's recent attack on Shapiro's thinking about a reduced role for natural selection in evolution?

Carl Woese: I think that's immoral. Science must be free to examine what it sees. If you're going to say everyone must follow the Darwinian line, that's not free science. Huffington Post has gone from right to left to right to left. I don't know where it is now. This doesn't belong in science.

I think Shapiro has got his finger on the future. He sees that we should be studying regulation. Epigenetics is very important.

Suzan Mazur: You've also noted that Darwin's thinking on common descent is "chiefly grounded on analogy" and that the evolution now emerging is not coming from Darwin, commenting further that:

"A future biology cannot be built within the conceptual superstructures of the past. The old superstructure has to be replaced by a new one before the holistic problems of biology can emerge as biology's new mainstream."

Do you expect Darwin to go the way of Freud as "biology enters the nonlinear world" and evolution is redefined?

Carl Woese: It could well do that. I've maintained for a long time up until the end of the 20th century that the problem of the evolutionary process is a problem before its time. Darwin was trying to get personal credit by barging in. Conceptual thought about evolution was laid down first by people like Buffon and Darwin's own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin -- whom Darwin never mentions in the Origin of Species, except in a footnote when he was forced in the third edition to add it to the footer of the preface.

He named him in a dismissive way. He basically said, oh yes, a lot of people thought of that and named people like Buffon and Lamarck. But he didn't name his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, except to say his grandfather had the same wrong ideas as Lamarck and Goethe. And he didn't say what they were or what his objection to them was. He wanted to distance himself from his grandfather as much as he could.

Suzan Mazur: I was intrigued by the interview you gave to Wired magazine a few years ago where you talked about "distributed interaction" playing out in diverse networked communities of early life prior to the modern cell. And then you said that pre-Darwinian dynamic plays out in society. I was wondering if you were saying that we sort of continue to reenact our ancient organismal past?

Carl Woese: No I don't think we go round in the same circles. In an ever-expanding helix, because that's how you can define a dynamic complex system.

Suzan Mazur: Nigel Goldenfeld has been lecturing about "three dynamical regimes." Is he referring to what you outlined in your 2006 paper -- weak communal evolution, strong communal evolution and individual evolution?

Carl Woese: Yes, I believe he is. I'm almost postive it is. And in something I wrote on Archaea, I speak of the evolution of individuality. There was a communal stage to begin with. This is what I usually call the progenote.

Three domains is what I use. I wrote something in 2004 for Microbiology and Molecular Biology Review. Freeman Dyson was taken with that and asked permission to use it in something he wrote for New York Review of Books.

Nigel's trying to define for physicists what these three domains are. This is one of the few points in which I differ from Nigel Goldenfeld. It's a friendly kind of discussional difference.

Suzan Mazur: It's wonderful that you're making these breakthroughs without encountering too much hostility from the classical biology community.

Carl Woese: But I have not overthrown the hegemony of the culture of Darwin.

Suzan Mazur: Do you have any closing thoughts?

Carl Woese: Yes, I do not like people saying that atheism is based on science, because it's not. It's an alien invasion of science.


Suzan Mazur is the author of The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry. Her interest in evolution began with a flight from Nairobi into Olduvai Gorge to interview the late paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey. Because of ideological struggles, the Kenyan-Tanzanian border was closed, and Leakey was the only reason authorities in Dar es Salaam agreed to give landing clearance. The meeting followed discovery by Leakey and her team of the 3.6 million-year-old hominid footprints at Laetoli. Suzan Mazur's reports have since appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. Email:

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