Jan 22, 2009 — The “tree of life” is the central icon of Darwinism.  Charles Darwin’s only illustration in the Origin of Species was a drawing of organisms descending from a common ancestor in a branching tree pattern.  It has been reproduced, expanded, embellished and decorated into a primal symbol of what science believes about biology.  Why, then, are The Telegraph and New Scientist cutting it down?  “Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life” is the title of the latter, and the former says, “Charles Darwin’s tree of life is ‘wrong and misleading’, claim scientists.”

These articles are notable not just for their timing (just three weeks before the international celebrations of Darwin’s 200th birthday), but for undermining three claims about evolutionary biology: one, that Darwin is just a small part of an evolutionary theory that has progressed far beyond Darwin’s own beliefs, and two, that evolutionary theory has no weaknesses that deserve to be taught to students.  Right now in Texas, evolutionists are seeking to strike down the “strengths and weaknesses” line in the state’s science framework on the basis that evolution is a fact (see Texans for Better Science Education and “All Eyes on Texas” in Evolution News).  A third idea undermined by these articles is that only creationists think there are weaknesses with Darwin’s theory.

The scientists complaining about the tree of life are not creationists.  We’ve heard from them before: Bapteste and Doolittle wrote two years ago in PNAS that the tree of life is a myth (02/01/2007).  In addition, The Telegraph quoted Dr. John Dupre, philosopher of biology at Exeter University, saying “If there is a tree of life it’s a small irregular structure growing out of the web of life.”  The article claims that other scientists have axe in hand: “Having uprooted the tree of unicellular life biologists are now taking their axes to the remaining branches.”  Bapteste acknowledges it sounds scary at first, but sees the conceptual revolution as a chance for biologists to free their minds.

Doolittle downplayed the revolution a little: “We should relax a bit on this,” he said.  “We understand evolution pretty well it’s just it is more complex than Darwin imagined.  The tree isn’t the only pattern.”  Maybe he is not wanting to play the role of revolutionary.  Dupre, however, is wielding his axe with gusto: “It’s part of a revolutionary change in biology.  Our standard model of evolution is under enormous pressure.”  He envisions an evolutionary model full of mergers and collaborations, not a branching tree.  The article then quotes Michael Rose, an evolutionary biologist at UC Irvine, saying, “The tree of life is being politely buried – we all know that.”  The public apparently doesn’t know that.  He went on with a more dramatic statement: “What’s less accepted is our whole fundamental view of biology needs to change.

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