Carl Woese on biology as a fundamental science

James Shapiro’s Huffington Post blog carries a eulogy to evolutionary biologist Carl Woese, who died in December. Chasing through links about him, I find that Woese spoke to the argument I made here, and quite likely originated it, in 2004. His overview of evolutionary theory for the twenty first century is well worth reading here.

To Woese, the interconnectedness of life from its earliest stages, through massive horizontal gene transfer, symbiotic events and so on, is axiomatic. The tree of life, in his eyes, is an entirely outdated concept. And yet he does not gloss over the problems that such saltational events (his own, deliberately non-Darwinian word) imply: you can’t simply weld two diffent kinds of cell together and expect them to function as a coherent whole – as in the supposed formation of mitochindria from bacteria in eukaryotes. Yet that is clearly what has happened, rather than each species developing independently in the same biological space. Something rather special must have controlled it all.

Perhaps the “big picture” message from his paper is the exposure of the fundamental divide between reductionist views of life, following the path of molecular biology since the middle of last century, and what he calls a more “biological” view, which considers that life can only be explained as a whole, and not by the aggregate of simple processes of chemistry or physics. Given the discussion in the nine years since, there is still much denial that such a divide exists, not only amongst evolutionists but even (in my experience) amongst many ID people:

 Not seeing the forest for the trees (and not caring what a tree was in any case), molecular biology took the only approach open to it: it clear-cut the forest. In other words, it dispensed with all those aspects of biology that it could not comprehend or effectively deal with. Molecular biology’s success over the last century has come solely from looking at certain ones of the problems biology poses (the gene and the nature of the cell) and looking at them from a purely reductionist point of view.

I suppose the discoveries of the Human Genome project and so on have focused all eyes back on those individual cell processes, the precise variations in alleles and so on, so it has been possible to ignore his insights in the rush of discoveries that raise more questions about life than they answer.

In this holism, he seems to favour emergence theories like those of Denis Noble, or perhaps Stephen Talbott, in which at a certain point of complexity chemical reactions begin to organise themselves, a process which escalating over the aeons leads to the whole panoply of life we see. For this reason, evolution to Woese is the central feature of life, because it is the interplay of these hugely complex forces that explains not only how life happened, but how it works.

The problem is, of course, that attractive as emergence theories are – and even conceivably true – there is scant evidence for them. Tantalising lines of research they may be, but as explanations they have no real advantage over the Magic Fairy apart from sounding more scientific. The same is true of the RNA-world hypothesis, which Woese in his article embraces more or less as fact (having poured scorn on evolutionary Just So Stories), despite the extensive critique of origin of life scientist Robert Shapiro (no relation to James, as far as I know). Shapiro, who died the year before Woese, developed his own “metabolism-first” theory simply because of the untenability of other theories like RNA-world.

Yet Woese was, it seems to me, right to insist on seeing life – extending to the whole biosphere and its intricate relationships – as a big picture rather than as a set of individual reactions as the reductionists do. Maybe that’s partly because it is the kind of view that attracted me to biology at school, and made it such a wonderful world to explore for me until I changed to medical science (and found that to be thoroughly reductionist in ethos and, to that extent, an alien world until I was able to get into General Practice). Life is something fundamental, and not merely an epiphenomenon of physics – just as mind is something crucial to the Universe, and not a mere spandrel of life.

I’m not sure how close Woese came to justifying his convictions about biology and evolution. But he was interviewed  by Suzan Mazur towards the end of last year – his final interview, perhaps? The last question of that interview was this:

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.

I know nothing of his religious convictions. But to me, however one explains the Big Picture of life,  there’s some very fine tuning going on throughout.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Carl Woese on biology as a fundamental science

  1. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    There’s an interesting piece on the relationship between “science” and “blind faith” in origins of life studies on Best Schools, which seems relevant to this post: http://www.thebestschools.org/bestschoolsblog/2013/02/04/rabbi-complexity-life-sinking-atheistic-science-quicksand/.

    Note the clear indication that without a designer, one absolutely needs an “emergent” kind of science to make the issue scientific at all, but that there is absolutely no evidence for such science, not any real program to uncover it. I particularly liked the quotation from Urey – which, of course, would never get any kind of mention in a Brian Cox documentary!

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