Redrawing the Tree of Life


In 1837, Charles Darwin scribbled a simple tree in a notebook and scrawled above it, “I think.”

That little doodle represented a big idea: that species were descended from common ancestors. They looked different from each other today thanks to the differences that evolved after their lineages split.

It wasn’t until 1859 that Darwin presented this idea–buttressed by hundreds of pages of argument and evidence–to the public, in his book On the Origin of Species. He included a tree-like diagram in the book to illustrate his concept of how species evolved over time.

In neither of these two pictures did Darwin actually use the names of real species. But as biologist Theodore Pietsch explains in his wonderful new book, Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution, Darwin did try to map the kinship of some real species. In 1868, for example, he sketched a tree with humans on one branch and other primates on the others.

Generations of evolutionary biologists have continued to draw more extensive ones–trees that encompass not just primates, not just mammals, not just animals, but all living things.

A tree of life is a visual hypothesis. It’s a statement about how a scientist thinks species are related to one another, an arrangement that best explains the data the scientist can analyze. Those data grow over the years, as scientists find new species, as they find new methods for comparing more species at once, and as they find new things in those species to compare. And along the way, new hypotheses replace old ones.

Darwin could only compare humans to other primates based on their anatomy. In the mid-1900s, scientists began opening up a new lode of information to mine: DNA. There’s not much anatomy you can use to compare E. coli to a mountain lion, but both species share a number of genes, each with its own modified version.

Written By: Carl Zimmer
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  1. “And along the way, new hypotheses replace old ones”.

    The same going on in the world of religion. One type of religion is replaced by another over time. First, it was Egyptians, then Roman and Greek gods, then Judaism, Christianity then Islam…I guess the difference between religion and science is that science genuinely tries to explain what’s going on, whereas religious people force themselves intentionally to believe in anything people tell them to believe.

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