(S)poofing the Tree of Life


The New Scientist cover story (from 2009) on why Darwin was wrong about the Tree of Life produced a firestorm of controversy, with arguments on both sides. I’m not a scientist so I have only one criteria to evaluate such scientific theories: Does it pass the smell test? So, let’s try and break it down.

According to a BBC website, Charles Darwin showed how all life is connected with his publication of Origin of the Species. That connection is generally referred to as the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life (from that same website) shows that early animal life started with insects and worms and evolved to sea life, with the earliest forms being jellyfish and starfish. Then the fishes crawled out of the sea and became amphibians (i.e. frogs and toads). The amphibians gave birth to mammals, everything from the hippo to the giraffe to lions…and eventually humans who for the most part came near the end of the evolutionary chain.

So, humans, as well as nearly every other animal life form, evolved indirectly from worms and insects. Well, for me, that doesn’t pass the smell test right there. Besides, how did this all happen? That is, how did the worms and insects become fish and how did the amphibians give rise to mammals?

There is nothing on the Tree of Life to explain the transition from one species to another seemingly unrelated species (e.g. going from a frog to a giraffe and/or a lion). The Tree of Life just assumes that it happened. It’s what I call a “poof” moment (see my last post). That is, the frog just goes poof, and becomes a lion. I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand those poof moments. Creationists will no doubt say that it was God and evolutionists will no doubt say that it was just some random cosmic accident (mutation).

As you may know, I’m quite happy being a consensus of one. Interestingly enough, though, I seem to have a lot of company with my take on this one. The real surprise is that one of the criticisms of the Tree of Life comes from someone who was an evolutionist himself. I’m talking about Stephen Jay Gould, the world-renown paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science. Gould said that, “The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils.”

Therein, lies the problem – fossils, or transitional fossils to be more precise. If evolutionary theory is correct, there had to have been a whole series of species which existed that got us all the way from the frog to the lion, especially since evolution is supposed to have happened gradually over a long period of time. However, after 150 years of intensive searching, there’s hardly any transitional fossils that have been found, as Gould has admitted.

In the end, all I can do is scratch my head at the Tree of Life drawing. It sort of reminds me of the food pyramid chart and how “milk does a body good.” I’d be a monkey’s uncle if I knew why milk should have gotten such great press. However, according to the Tree of Life, I have it backwards, as the monkey should (poof) be my uncle instead. Just poof.



Darwin’s drawing of the Tree of Life (from Origin of the Species) says very clearly at the top “I think”. So, Darwin merely hypothesized that his Tree of Life was possible… but only if his theory of evolution was correct.


“For a long time the holy grail was to build a tree of life. We have no evidence at all that the tree of life is a reality.”

– Dr Eric Bapteste, evolutionary biologist at the Pierre and Marie Curie University


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