September 2004
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Day September 29, 2004

Carl Woese, Common Descent, and “Intelligent Design”

Efforts by Stephen Meyer (and the Discovery Institute) to prop up “Intelligent Design” as a scientific alternative to Darwinian evolution continue apace. This isn’t exactly news, but their twisting of Carl Woese’ views on common descent is particularly indicative of the unscientific nature of Intelligent Design, and its status as a political rather than scientific effort. I hadn’t posted much on “ID” on the Extended Phenotype to date, mostly because its arguments seemed to be slightly updated versions of Paley’s watchmaker informed with better math but little else.

In many ways, Meyer’s use of Woese to debunk Darwinian evolution by questioning common descent is far more interesting than Dembski’s overly simplistic probabilistic information theoretic arguments against undirected natural selection. Why is this the case? Because while Dembski’s arguments (most particularly in Reflections on Human Origins) rely upon probabilistic arguments and even older forms of argument by design, Meyer’s attack on common descent appears to draw upon the arguments of someone very much “inside” the evolutionary establishment — Carl Woese.

Woese is something of an icon within modern evolutionary biology, having spent his career probing the mysteries of the earliest phylogeny of life. His statements questioning “common descent” are not, as Meyer claims, aimed at questioning the Darwinian canon (1). Instead, Woese is saying something much more subtle: horizontal gene transfer in the early history of acellular and cellular life may account equally well for the ubiquity of a common biochemical basis for life and strong homology among coding and transcription mechanisms. Woese is making an empirical point: currently, we have no way to distinguish between one single origin for life, and multiple independent origins which promiscuously shared information via HGT. This empirical dilemma does not invalidate Darwinian evolution, as proponents of ID claim. It merely adds an intriguing question to the list of issues scientific analysis of evolution has yet to solve.

Meyer’s misuse of Woese isn’t caused by misreading, or the subtle nature of the argument. Reading Woese’s work, one is struck by the intense commitment to elucidating the deepest structures of our evolutionary history, and overcoming tired arguments which have structured the field for far too long. No, Meyer and proponents of Intelligent Design understand Woese just fine. They simply choose to misuse, misinterpret, and misrepresent his work in service to their argument.

And this is the insidious nature of the Intelligent Design phenomenon. Working scientists see through Dembski, Meyer, and Behe with little trouble, given background in the field. The public, however, has more trouble doing so, given that Intelligent Design arguments are written in the style of scientific arguments, attempt to cite evidence, and are dressed in the trappings of modern scholarship. Unless you have the substantive background to examine their arguments, it can be difficult to recognize that their arguments are all style, no substance.

I don’t really know how to combat this phenomenon. It does seem bound up in better general education on the nature of scientific inquiry and how scientific arguments are constructed. But ultimately we cannot expect people untrained in biology or evolutionary theory to distinguish two arguments which are formally similiar but substantively different. Perhaps we can combat it most effectively by electing leaders who respect science, and are less prone to giving ideologically driven pseudo-science the legitimacy of a place at the table.


(1) Woese, C. 2004 A New Biology for a New Century, Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews 68(2): 173-186.

Postscript: on a related but different note, I highly recommend the Woese article cited above. I can’t link to a freely available electronic version but a decent university library will have the journal. The article is a superb look at the state of molecular biology and its relation to phylogenetics and evolution as we leave the twentieth century, and how we might regenerate a deeper, more unified perspective on biology and evolution that isn’t so narrowly functional and reductionist.