Congratulations to Sean Nee for writing a most readable and informative review of Tim Friend's book on the untold story of the archaea. This features in large measure the research of Carl Woese, who has identified the archaea as the third domain of life (alongside bacteria and eukaryotes). "Woese pulled all the evidence together and made the intellectual leap that is now accepted: there is a third domain of life - the archaea. All of this is told, and much more."
For some of us, it is the "much more" that gives this story a special fascination. Not mentioned in the review, but essential to understanding Woese's contribution, is the claim that horizontal gene transfer was extensive in life's early history. Freeman Dyson draws attention to this in a recent essay: "Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. Evolution could be rapid, as new chemical devices could be evolved simultaneously by cells of different kinds working in parallel and then reassembled in a single cell by horizontal gene transfer."
Consequently, Woese is known as someone who questions the role of Darwinism in the early earth. Here is Dyson again: "He presents evidence that Darwinian evolution does not go back to the beginning of life. When we compare genomes of ancient lineages of living creatures, we find evidence of numerous transfers of genetic information from one lineage to another. In early times, horizontal gene transfer, the sharing of genes between unrelated species, was prevalent. It becomes more prevalent the further back you go in time." Darwinism is perceived as a reductionistic approach which fails to do justice to appreciating and understanding complexity. Dyson writes: "Woese's main theme is the obsolescence of reductionist biology as it has been practiced for the last hundred years, with its assumption that biological processes can be understood by studying genes and molecules. What is needed instead is a new synthetic biology based on emergent patterns of organization."
Perhaps these issues were too controversial to go into a review in Nature. Nevertheless, Nee does slip in this comment: "It is probably no coincidence that Oxford's most famous popular writer on biology, Richard Dawkins, notoriously gave only a single page to the third domain of life in his take on biodiversity, The Ancestor's Tale, apparently more interested in things like cabbages." With his strong stance on the logical imperative of neodarwinism, it is understandable that Dawkins is not aligning himself with Woese's opposition to reductionism in biology, nor his rejection of Darwinism prior to the appearance of bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes.
With the proviso that "new ways of thinking" should include ID, we can let Dyson have the last word: "The reductionist physics and the reductionist molecular biology of the twentieth century will continue to be important in the twenty-first century, but they will not be dominant. The big problems, the evolution of the universe as a whole, the origin of life, the nature of human consciousness, and the evolution of the earth's climate, cannot be understood by reducing them to elementary particles and molecules. New ways of thinking and new ways of organizing large databases will be needed."
Introducing the extremophiles
Nature, 448, 413-414 (26 July 2007) | doi:10.1038/448413a
BOOK REVIEWED-The Third Domain: The Untold Story of Archaea and the Future of Biotechnology, by Tim Friend, Joseph Henry Press: 2007.
First para: Envy the achievement of Carl Woese, who announced his discovery of the third domain of life on Earth a mere 30 years ago. Marvel at the fact that most people are unaware of this three-domain understanding of biodiversity. Admire the journalist Tim Friend who resigned from the newspaper USA Today to write this superb book introducing the public to the third domain. Buy it and enjoy the personalities, the adventures, the drama and the science too, all presented in an admirable mix that is a terrific read.
Dyson, F., Our Biotech Future, The New York Review of Books, Volume 54, Number 12, July 19, 2007.
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