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At New York Times: Darwin skeptic Carl Woese “effectively founded a new branch of science”


The Tangled Tree David Quammen, author of The Tangled Tree:A Radical New History of Life, a biography of Darwin skeptic Carl Woese, who discovered the Archaea, offers a long reflection at the New York Times on how biology is moving away from Darwinism:

Woese was a rebel researcher, obscure but ingenious, crotchety, driven. He had his Warholian 15 minutes of fame on the front page of The Times, and then disappeared back into his lab in Urbana, scarcely touched by popular limelight throughout the remaining 35 years of his career. But he is the most important biologist of the 20th century that you’ve never heard of. He asked profound questions that few other scientists had asked. He created a method — clumsy and dangerous, but effective — for answering those questions. And in the process, he effectively founded a new branch of science.

Woese vanished into his lab, but his insights and methods, and his successors in applying them, have produced in particular one cardinal revelation: The tree of life is not a tree. That old metaphor is obsolete. Life’s history has been far more tangled.

We are not precisely who we thought we were. We are composite creatures, and our ancestry seems to arise from a dark zone of the living world, a group of creatures about which science, until recent decades, was ignorant. Evolution is trickier, far more complicated, than we realized. The tree of life is more tangled. Genes don’t just move vertically. They can also pass laterally across species boundaries, across wider gaps, even between different kingdoms of life, and some have come sideways into our own lineage — the primate lineage — from unsuspected, nonprimate sources. It’s the genetic equivalent of a blood transfusion or (to use a different metaphor preferred by some scientists) an infection that transforms identity. They called it “infective heredity.”

Such revelations, beginning in 1977 and continuing to break in the world’s leading scientific journals — but seldom explained to the general public — challenge us to adjust our basic understanding of who we humans are. David Quammen, “The Scientist Who Scrambled Darwin’s Tree of Life” at The New York Times Magazine

In fairness, David, many of us did sense that the people splintering lecterns in favor of Darwin’s Tree of Life were more certain than the facts would turn out to warrant. Every so often, a new poll would announce, to general hand-wringing, that much of the public doesn’t “believe in” evolution.

Most of us didn’t fight with anybody about it, we just waited… A world where horizontal gene transfer is a “thing,” (and epigenetics as well) actually makes a lot more sense from experience than the “selfish gene” world.

See also: At Nature: New evolution book represents a “radical” new perspective

Carl Woese on the “conceptual failings of the modern evolutionary synthesis”

Carl Woese, discoverer of a whole domain of life, regretted not overthrowing Darwin (Link to Suzan Mazur’s interview with Woese in her book  The Origin of Life Circus)


Horizontal gene transfer: Sorry, Darwin, it’s not your evolution any more


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