W. Ford Doolittle

Nova Scotia biologist W. Ford Doolittle has won this year's Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal. (NSERC)

W. Ford Doolittle, a Nova Scotia biologist whose ideas about evolution sparked controversy among scientists and garnered attention of creationists, has won Canada's top science prize.

Among Doolittle's more controversial ideas was the proposal that Charles Darwin's view of evolution as a "tree of life" isn't enough to explain two-thirds of life's history on Earth, thanks to the ability of unrelated bacteria to trade genes.

When Doolittle first published the idea in the journal Science in 1999, he faced "heavy criticism," noted a news release from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, which is awarding the prize, the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering.

Doolittle's idea also attracted attention from intelligent design lobbyists.

But the concept "is now accepted as one of the major forces driving microbial genome evolution, including the spread of antibiotic resistance and the spread of new pathogens," NSERC noted.

Doolittle, a professor emeritus of biochemistry and microbiology at Dalhousie University, will receive NSERC's highest honour at a ceremony in Ottawa Monday.

The $1-million prize recognizes "sustained excellence and influence" in Canadian research that has "substantially advanced" science or engineering. In a news release, NSERC said Doolittle has "been at the forefront of fundamental research in evolutionary biology for over four decades."

'People don't actually spend as much time as they should trying to debunk scientific ideas.'- W. Ford Doolittle

"I think I've always tried to be somewhat a critic of other people's ideas," Doolittle said in a phone interview Monday.

"This award to me is quite gratifying because it means that it's recognized what I was trying to do."

He added that he's also pleased because the award shows that basic research is still valued by national funding agencies, despite their increasing focus on industrial research.

"What I've done has always been extremely basic research, without any obvious immediate application whatsoever," he said.

  • Doolittle will be interviewed on CBC's Quirks & Quarks this Saturday, Feb. 8, at noon on CBC Radio One 

A web, not a tree

When Doolittle first published his idea about the "tree of life," scientists already knew that some unrelated bacteria could simply trade genes — something called lateral gene transfer — which allows them to develop new traits such as antibiotic resistance very quickly, without having to inherit them.​

But it wasn't known how widespread that was, and there hadn't been much discussion about how that would affect Darwin's picture of evolution. In Darwin's "tree of life," traits are inherited from ancestors on larger branches and passed down through the generations to smaller and smaller twigs that branch off from them. Many biologists were trying to reconstruct that tree.

Doolittle predicted that bacterial gene trading could be very widespread and therefore tracing back the early history of life through single-celled organisms such as bacteria wouldn't produce a "tree of life."

"This would be like branches rejoining," he said. "So it makes the tree look much more like a web."

He said the idea, like many new ideas, was greeted with hostility by many people.

"And then the hostility will change to 'Oh, well, we knew that all along,' " he said. "I think that's sort of where we are now ... at 'We knew that all along,' but at the time many people didn't like it."

Some people that did take to the idea, in a way, were the U.S.-based intelligent design lobby group the Discovery Institute.

Creationists vs. evolutionary biology

At one point, the group had posted five papers from Doolittle — more than any scientist — that it claimed questioned Darwin's theory of evolution.

"I ranked No, 1," Doolittle said with a chuckle. "It's clever on their part, but creationists like to take any disagreement within the field of evolution as somehow discrediting the field of evolution as a whole, which it obviously does not do."

He added that rather than recognizing science as ever-changing as new research uncovers new evidence, creationists try to treat evolutionary biology "as if it were itself a religion with dogmas that need to be upheld at all costs — and it's not."

But he said creationists may be having some influence on scientists.

"Because of the creationist challenge, evolutionary biologists have become more rigid and narrow and more narrow in their [publicly stated] views … than they really needed to have been."

Doolittle added that in general, he thinks science has become very "positivistic."

"People don't actually spend as much time as they should trying to debunk scientific ideas," he said, quickly adding, "you know, not with non-scientific ideas, but with alternative scientific ideas. That's what I seem to like to do."

Doolittle plans to use the $1 million grant mainly to fund graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

His current interest is in trying to prove that DNA that doesn't code for genes — known as "junk DNA" — really doesn't have any function, despite the belief by many evolutionary biologists that it does and isn't "junk" at all.

He plans to look at new ways to systematically test that idea, but acknowledged it will be a challenge.

"How [do] you show that something has no function?" he mused. "It's quite difficult."

NSERC is also presenting seven more of its top awards to 36 recipients, including individuals and research teams, at its ceremony Monday.