Carl R. Woese dies

Carl R. WoeseCarl R. Woese

The distinguished microbiologist Carl R. Woese died on December 30, 2012, at the age of 84, according to the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois. Born on July 15, 1928, he earned his B.A. in mathematics and physics at Amherst College in 1950 and his Ph.D. in biophysics from Yale University in 1953. After a postdoctoral appointment at Yale and a stint at the General Electric Research Laboratory, he spent the rest of his career at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a professor of microbiology. In 1977, Woese and his colleagues published work "that overturned a universally held assumption about the basic structure of the tree of life. They reported that the microbes now known as Archaea were as distinct from bacteria as plants and animals are. Prior to this finding, scientists had grouped Archaea together with bacteria, and asserted that the tree of life had two main branches — the bacteria (which they called prokarya), and everything else (the eukarya). The new discovery added Archaea as a third main branch of the evolutionary family tree." In recognition of his achievements, he received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "genius" award in 1984, the Leeuwenhoek Medal from the Dutch Royal Academy of Science in 1992, the National Medal of Science in 2000, and the Craaford Prize in Biosciences in 2003.

As is common with trailblazing biologists, Woese's scientific work was steadily misrepresented by creationists as showing that evolution is a theory in crisis. In 2004, for example, after the Discovery Institute's Stephen C. Meyer told a Wired reporter that a paper of Woese's showed (in the reporter's words) that "the Darwinian emperor has no clothes," Woese responded by scoffing, "To say that my criticism of Darwinists says that evolutionists have no clothes ... is like saying that Einstein is criticizing Newton, therefore Newtonian physics is wrong." "Intelligent design," he added, "is not science. It makes no predictions and doesn't offer any explanation whatsoever, except for 'God did it.'" Woese also was concerned about creationism's effect on the integrity of science education. In a 1998 interview with Science Spectra, for example, he observed, "Biology is poorly taught in general at the high school level ... Scientifically, the matter is simple. The essence of biology is evolution, and biology should be taught from an evolutionary perspective. Yet, although evolution is covered to some extent in high school biology courses, it bears the scarlet letter and is taught in a guarded fashion, embalmed in caveats. The reason for this is obvious, as are the pressures on textbook publishers." Woese was a member of NCSE.