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.


25 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
  1. e-pill Medication Reminder’s MD.2, Receives an Award for Product Innovation for Consumer Safety

    System ( (PRWEB May 15, 2006)

  2. Bill May Help Small Business Health Plans

    Before Senate Committee Would Give Small Businesses More Leeway With Health Plans

  3. MozillaNews is on Hiatus

    with news, forums, weblogs, the FeedHouse, and the wiki-based Knowledge Base. Also,

  4. Chimney jam

    unlike Santa Claus – was coming to take rather than give spent a long night stuck in a narrow Hell’s Kitchen chimney, authorities

  5. Mike James Thinks He’s Right for Rockets

    Feigan of THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE writes, Mike James, whom the Rockets sent

  6. Kylie’s Homecoming

    elbourne’s the venue for her first post-cancer concerts

  7. Customer Service Center

    Searchable Directory of Online Sources “Source Locator” … To begin, supply search criteria for any field(s) in the search form below …

  8. Howard’s Status for Mavs a Gameday Decision

    has a bone bruise and coach Avery Johnson said he’s listed as day-to-day and is a

  9. International Law & Accounting Firm Network MSI Continues Strong Growth With Appointment of 11 New Member Firms

    marketplaces around the world. (PRWEB Jun 1, 2006)

    Trackback URI:

  10. Study: Minorities Pay Higher Rates for Mortgages

    for many mortgages than whites, even when qualifications and risks are similar.

  11. LeBron Loses, Learns in Game 7

    he’s as alone as a Republican in Hollywood, writes Mike Lopresti of USA TODAY.

  12. NYPHPCon 2006 Program Announced

    Solutions. Over 400 are expected to attend, including business and technical professionals from around the world.

  13. Pistons Keep Season Alive With Aggression

    At least not for two more days. The Detroit Pistons, NBA champions in 2004 and runners-up in 2005, staved off

  14. Lists of best-selling books (AP)

    P – 1. “At Risk” by Patricia Cornwell (Putnam)

  15. Dirk Does it All – Again

    Sacrifice the Mavericks’ dominance on the boards to get back in transition defense? It makes perfect

  16. Iraq’s Al Qaeda Leader Killed in Air Raid

    Was Killed in a U.S. Strike North of Baghdad in a Major Victory in War on Terrorism

  17. Bank of Ireland confirms plan for branches

    has confirmed that it will sell and leaseback up to 35 of its larger branch locations in September.

  18. Warner Classics Says the Show Will Go On

    to reports that Warner Classics is shutting down, the label has issued a statement saying it will

  19. Gary Glitter Could Face Firing Squad in Vietnam

    his hair and this CD cover , is worthy of the death penalty. Get on with it.
    Wikipedia – Gary Glitter

  20. PHP Quebec 2006

    year, the conference will be held at the Montreal Plaza Hotel from March 29th to 31st. It features 2 days of technical learning and an additional day of

  21. POLITICS: It Isn’t Suicide — It’s Viral Marketing!

    an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us.”
    Asymmetric warfare? That’s pretty impressive coming from people who have been locked in

  22. Mystics and Sting postgame quotes

    from our bench. Laurie Koehn, who is a very pure shooter, came in an… – WNBA

  23. MacMullan: Mavs Must Return From Vacation

    2-2, and seized the momentum with a fervor that belies their anemic showing in Games 1 and 2,

  24. Dennis,

    I came across your site in the course of Googling Woese’s article and both thank and commend (the site owner) for acting in the defense of rational enquiry. My remarks will seem ponderous, but they provide the shortest route to answewring the conundrum in the available space (and my cup-laden attention span).

    As clear as the degree to which current data, and its interpretation strain the conventional interpretaion of Charles Robert Darwin’s seminal ideas, that is, the committee assignation known as the Modern (evolutionary) Synthesis, the auspicious path is obscured by our historically entrenched paths of reward (and the predispositions which inexorably result). The answer, if not under our noses (though it is), is at least within the purview of anyone who’s taken the time to ponder a meta-view of the goings-on of the natural world (where it can be found, albeit decreasingly). That is, the business underlying that metatheory is all around, and within us: Nature, self-contained in its virtue, is neither ‘stupid’ (as in creationism/ID) nor wasteful (as in butt-random variation => “selfish gene”).

    See my book: Beginnings — creativity, belief, evolution and out interconnected universe. San Buenaventura, CA: Idler’s Cove Press; 2002.

    The outlines of