Including things you didn’t know about Archaea discoverer, Carl Woese.
In The Tangled Tree, celebrated science writer David Quammen tells perhaps the grandest tale in biology: how scientists used gene sequencing to elucidate the evolutionary relationships between living beings. Charles Darwin called it the ‘great Tree of Life’. But as Quammen reveals, at the molecular level, life’s history is more accurately depicted as a network, a tangled web through which organisms have been exchanging genes for more than 3 billion years. This perspective is indeed radical, and he presents the science — and the scientists involved — with patience, candour and flair.
Centre stage in Quammen’s narrative is Carl Woese (1928–2012), the US microbiologist best known as the discoverer of the Archaea (Archaebacteria) — the ‘third domain’ of life. Inspired by the visionary musings of Francis Crick, Linus Pauling and Emile Zuckerkandl, Woese committed himself to molecular phylogenetics at a time when this powerful approach to the study of evolution was in its infancy…
Woese’s last months and weeks with pancreatic cancer, as revealed by those closest to him, make for painful, albeit illuminating reading. I was surprised, for instance, to learn that Woese believed in a deity.
Around 2010, Woese and Canadian science historian Jan Sapp began to collaborate on a book tentatively entitled Beyond God and Darwin. The project never moved beyond Sapp’s draft introduction, on which Woese wrote: “Jan, you accord Darwin so much more substance than the bastard deserves.” John Archibald, “The band of biologists who redrew the tree of life” at Nature
Archibald also notes Quammen’s acknowledgement of the importance of horizontal gene transfer in splintering Darwin’s lecterns.
Note: Woese also believed in a “deity,” we are told. Imagine, the discoverer of one of the kingdoms of life believed in a “deity.”
Hat tip: David Coppedge
See also: Carl Woese on the “conceptual failings of the modern evolutionary synthesis”
Horizontal gene transfer: Sorry, Darwin, it’s not your evolution any more