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The Lineage of Life Forms — Tree of Life or Not?


Short Answer:

Nature reflects a progression from simple to complex, from water to land, from quadruped to the bipedal. And along with this the bulk of the standing literature leads us to believe there is only one explanation for this progression. Constructing a tree of life is a routine illustration used to fit the progression to a widely-popularized conception. This seems logical. If there is only one explanation, then the tree diagram is enough. However, science yields data that go beyond the illustration to reveal there's more to the story.


The illustration at the right depicts a 'Tree of Life' for animals. (Click on figure for an enlarged view.)

The tree as shown is incomplete. Note the partial branch at the base. This is the offshoot for plants. And the conventional idea of evolution would also include basal branches and twigs for bacteria, fungi, and algae. Overall, the presumption is that ancestral forms at the base of the tree's main trunk lead to the shoots and branches as one ascends the tree. But is this illustration a good reflection or a mere conceptualization of something that in reality is unlike this tree?


Have we, generation upon generation, been seduced into accepting this image as solid evidence and thus fail to explore further—to the point of missing other perspectives revealing the finer nature to the lineage of life? Here is an example of seeing only that part of the illusion we expect to see and thus miss other information that sits directly in clear view.

There is more to consider and a tree illustration does not fit all the observations or data presently on hand. This leads to the conclusion that a tree diagram fails to describe life's hierarchy of forms. There is a hierarchy to life that apparently can be easily misconstrued as a tree, but on close examination these are sets of relatively separate groups of life forms. As noted below, other illustrations that capture a hierarchical classification fit current knowledge. This adds possibilities that proponents of the standard story wish to avoid by sustaining the use of the 'tree of life.'

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Consider This:

Dr. Lee Spetner notes that early thinkers—such as Anaximander and Empedocles—believed that higher life forms arose from water, some remained, others progressed to land. Greeks, other than Aristotle, also believed some selection process was at work. Life came from somewhere. But how? Creationists looked to the Bible as well as evidence from the natural order and their thinking persisted to the 18th and even into the 19th century.

The creationist view of the science of living things carried the authority of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778). Linnaeus was a prominent Swedish physician and botanist. ... He held the opinion that species do not change and that all living things were created as they are today. On this basis he classified living things into those fixed groups that he identified with the descendants of the original forms made by the Creator. Spetner (NBC) page 3

When Linnaeus comes to mind we often think of the classification of life forms. He initially defined species as organisms that were created and self-maintained by their ability to interbreed. This delineated a species as a unique unit. However, later his thinking emphasized genera as unique units resulting from creation.

Continuing in the footsteps of Linnaeus was a prominent French scientist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), who wrote extensively on zoology, comparative anatomy, and paleontology. In his studies Cuvier discovered that the fossil vertebrates could be put into a sequence from fish to mammal. Spetner (NBC) page 4

But Cuvier did not hold that this sequencing was a result of descendency, but rather a product of a sequence of creation events. He was both a biologist and a man with a biblical view. Might there be evidence of creation 'events?' Interestingly enough, the fossil record strongly suggests episodes of sudden appearances (see discussion on appearances in previous article and on Cambrian explosion). What then are these events? Why is this question so readily glossed over? Might the answer be as obvious as the events themselves?

So often we simply assume that evolutionary forces somehow coordinate the changes that must have taken place over time as one life form turns into an entirely different form. Or so we are left to assume. If there is any such change and if coordinated in any way, then that is admitting to characteristics better suited to design and intelligence— not chance; the production of something new simply by repeated trial and error. To picture how a massive number of changes are required for any organism even with the acquisition of one favorable change ... consider the following:

Take the case of a watch, where only very trivial changes in the structure and function of the cogwheel system can be achieved gradually through a succession of minor modifications. Any major functional innovation, such as the addition of a new cogwheel or an increase in the diameter of an existing cogwheel, necessarily involves simultaneous highly specific correlated changes throughout the entire cogwheel system. Denton (ETC) Page 90

This suggests that a matrix of relationships exists. A functional organism has little choice but to shift numerous parts of the matrix of relationships each time a single change is made. Thus, one mutation does not stand alone to make a change in an organism. Numerous adjustments are required simultaneously. That's much more coordination than what chance might arrange by a change in one part alone. Randomness cannot by definition be coordinated!

While certain forms of evolution do exist, the major morphological shape changes that macroevolution is supposed to have accomplished is never worked out for us. And outer form changes must also be accompanied by additional changes within. No scientific explanation can show a uniform mechanism that accomplishes this type of change in body plan leading to a different plan and thus a newly evolved unique organism. To be clear, we are not merely talking about species to species evolution. The true challenge here is on the macroscopic level from group to group—phylum to phylum. This is why saltations or 'rapid' or geologically sudden dramatic jumps suggest an 'information switch' is thrown. Something evolution cannot explain.

Systems can undergo gradual microevolution through a succession of minor changes in their component structures but macroevolution invariably involves a sudden "saltation" change. Clearly, in all such cases, the extrapolation from micro- to macroevolutionary change does not hold. Denton (ETC) Page 91

So, what does this do to the 'Tree of Evolution' which is so often used to illustrate how ancestral life gave rise to a branching network of increasingly complex and diverse life forms? Remember, earlier scientists like Cuvier observed the beauty and integration of form and function in organisms which he did not tie to a coordination of transformations. Sudden changes, like noted above as saltations seemed improbable and to Cuvier such events would "preclude any sort of evolutionary transmutation." Denton (ETC) Page 102

The idea of transmutation was rendered even less likely in the eyes of many nineteenth century typologists by the well-established fact that breeding experiments with domestic animals had for generations revealed a distinct limit beyond which further change became impossible. Denton (ETC) Page 103

Recent discoveries and those made in the 19th and early in the 20th century continually reveal wonderfully unique fossil finds. These include recent work in China and earlier finds in the Burgess Shale and the Ediacaran Hills (Denton (ETC) page 162). But what is troubling to some is that these discoveries seem to always lack something very necessary to Darwin's theory ...

... what they have never yielded is any of Darwin's myriads of transitional forms. Despite the tremendous increase in geological activity in every corner of the globe and despite the discovery of many strange and hitherto unknown forms, the infinitude of connecting links has still not been discovered and the fossil record is about as discontinuous as it was when Darwin was writing the Origin. The intermediates have remained as elusive as ever and their absence remains, a century later, one of the most striking characteristics of the fossil record. Denton (ETC) Page 162

So, there are problems in using a tree diagram to illustrate evolution's course leading to the biodiversity we see today. The following discussion highlights a sampling of points to further reveal some, but not all, specific problems. Use this as a spring board to further critical review when examining pronouncements made about illustrations depicting evolution's history. First a word about trees and later we'll quickly summarize a number of additional issues that present problems for the 'tree.'

Similarities Are Used to Construct Trees ... but There is More to This Story!

The degree of similarity between or among organisms is commonly used to construct trees of genetic relationship called phylogenies. But let's ask: what is it that is compared? Some trait or characteristic, for example, like what can be observed in fossil remains, including the construction of an appendage or size and shape of an organism. So here if a particular bone (e.g., leg, jaw, finger, or tooth structure, etc) looks similar, that characteristic becomes the basis for forming a scheme relating organisms through evolutionary time. An analogous structure or trait is something derived independently and not through a common ancestor. Homologous characteristics stem from genetic relationships based on a common ancestor. We can expect that structures that look alike or serve a similar function are the analogous characters that appear at apparently distant or unrelated positions of the evolutionary tree. Homologous characteristics would then be expected on and along close branches of the tree due to their derivation from a common ancestor.

Dr. Kurt Wise, a Harvard trained paleontologist, provides a discussion that adds unique perspectives on evolutionary 'tree building' (see Wise (CH) Page 213). For example, classification cannot merely depend on a select set of characteristics because organisms are composed of millions of features. If this is so, then the number of analogies must be high, yet Wise notes that evolution theory suggests otherwise. Remember, evolution implies an unfolding of traits along a series of gradual (genetic) changes over time. That should leave a trail of homologies. Yet, many analogous characteristics do occur.

In an evolutionary scenario, analogies are features formed independently into different organismal groups. The pathway that evolution takes is thought to be so fraught with unpredictable events that the likelihood that two separate evolutionary pathways will end up at the same place is thought to be very low. Wise (CH) Page 213

Evolution theory would best be served if research leading to developing these trees—especially for groups of similar organisms—would reveal a consistent result. But this is not the case! In reflection, there may be another explanation for these 'discordances in the evolutionary scenario.'

Identical methods of calculating similarity on different criteria of similarity produce similar but rarely identical trees of relationship. Since genetic relatedness might be expected to produce higher correspondence than would the actions of an intelligent Designer, the commonness of discordances seems to argue more in favor of a common Designer and than in favor of macroevolution. Wise (CH) Page 214

Another challenge to evolution comes in looking at the molecular evidence.

Although a number of molecules show similarity across groups, other molecules do not. There appears to be evidence of many molecular discontinuities within the life of the earth. Those discontinuities appear to coincide with between-group gaps. Wise (CH) Page 215

We recommend a reading of Dr. Denton's Chapter 12: A Biochemical Echo of Typology (in his book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis; ETC). While there may be a more current assessment of Denton's observations, it is clear that a bit of critical thinking about the molecular data leads to something far from the common conclusions. In fact, if molecules reveal anything, it appears that groups of organisms appear relatively equally separated and thus not developing along unfolding genetic sequences along time. The reference to typology is to suggest that we can characterize and classify organisms, but only to the point of showing the uniqueness of groups without the branching connections of a tree. In this regard, the tree is reduced to dots or circles of groups of organisms separated from one another but not linked by implied ancestral lineages. That's a very different picture from the tree, and these types of typological relationships are not being erased by new research! And there is an appearance of hierarchy ...

When we study organisms, we measure many characteristics. We can then plot our organisms in n-dimensional character space (sometimes called morphospace) and see how organisms are distributed. When we do, we find that they are distributed ... in a nested hierarchy of form. This has permitted the hierarchical classification of organisms—of species within genera, general within families the families within orders, orders within classes, classes within phyla, and phyla within kingdoms. It also begs for an explanation. Why are organisms in a nested hierarchy of form? Wise (CH) Page 218

Evolutionists would simply say the hierarchies are due to macroevolution. This explains how trees reflect a hierarchy, too, with:

... a trunk that branched into large limbs, which in turn branched into smaller limbs, which branched into smaller branches, which branched into even smaller branches, which finely branched into twigs. The twigs are species that can be grouped together into genera (small branches) and then in to families (larger branches) and so on. Wise (CH) Page 218


But the story doesn't end here, because the tree concept if applied to the nested hierarchy of biological form encounters problems.

Dr. Wise notes the branching patterns of real trees in nature differ from the way an evolutionary tree depicts relations between species. Twigs on a real tree tend to branch out and fill in the space around the subtending branches.

The diagram above is a representation of the difference in concepts described here. At the left we see only a portion of a larger three dimensional tree of evolution. The tree is viewed in two dimensions (i.e., lower part of diagram is a drawing of a tree on a flat piece of paper). Above is a projection of the end points of the twigs but now showing the spread of the twigs as they fill space (i.e., viewing the tree by looking down from the top). At the right we see a portion of life's polyphyletic relationships. Many separate and fully formed lines arise at the same time, without branching from a common trunk. The appearance of small groups separated with space between these groups is a pattern based on unique types and there is no branching involved. Plotting the hierarchies of biological forms above in three-dimensional space reveals smaller groups bounded by traits uniquely setting that subgroup off from all other groups, yet the larger box around all organisms represented here indicates some common traits persist across these subgroups. This is NOT the more or less random array of twigs filling in gaps and space. (also see Wise (CH) Page 219)

Dr. Wise reviews a number of inconsistencies that arise when we assume that a tree diagram is a reliable depiction of how life's ascent brings us from an ancient ancestral form to present day life. We won't review every point he makes, but encourage your reading of his chapter (see references in this section). But here let's summarize a few of his points.

One point that we'd like to highlight concerns the spacing that organisms exhibit. Some space between branches might be due to extinctions. That is one factor. But we also have the problem of sudden appearances of a variety of body plans (i.e., different animal groups) all at one time. This leaves the question of how any macroevolutionary process could lead to the nested hierarchy that appears. But going a little further we can see yet another problem with using the tree ...

Second, in the tree analogy, as one travels from the tree's base to its twigs, one is going forward through time. As one does, the trunk gradually diverges into branches, the large branches diverge into smaller branches and so on. By this we see that trees grow by gradual divergence. If the analogy is to hold, organismal groups should have arisen by gradual divergence. Yet the gaps in form between living groups also exist in the fossil record. As one goes back in time, organismal groups tend not to converge in morphology, but remain distinct. Most major groups remain identifiable by modern characters and distinct from their supposed ancestors, all the way back to their oldest fossil representatives. This would seem to imply that the branching event of one major group from another never did occur. Wise (CH) Page 219

Other problems include connecting species. Branches of a tree provide the visual representation of connections from branches ultimately to twigs. These are lengths of implied transformations. But that is an illustrative form not founded on fossil evidence. Again, we need numerous intermediate forms to make the branches real and thus reveal how a transition occurs from time to time along the evolutionary tree. Some apparent transitional forms appear, but not enough to make the assumptions evolutionists declare. Not enough to construct a tree.

Interspecific transitional forms seem to be rare to absent in the fossil record, and transitional series between major groups are conspicuously rare to absent. Wise (CH) Page 220

Branching patterns in life's diversification should reveal what Dr. Wise cites as a "cone of increasing diversity" and yet this pattern is not observed. The evidence suggests diversity appears early on and for some groups diversity was greater in the past at their first appearance than at present. Wise notes, based on current evidence:

This would argue—as to the distribution of species, higher group stasis and the paucity of intermediates—that major groups do not arise due to a proliferation of species. Yet no evolutionary mechanism for how this transformation did occur has yet been found. Wise (CH) Page 220

Stasis means holding form and a lack of change over time. In fact, life forms retain a high level of 'unchange' or stasis. Without stasis the diversity of life would be an ever spreading continual array of form. Many organisms today that have a presence in the fossil record reveal this characteristic of stasis.

Wise also contributes points to consider how an Intelligent Designer can be attributed at work in producing the array of life forms that we do see.

If life is the results of an intelligence analogous to humankind's, than a nested hierarchy of life forms would be the expected result. ... It also allows for the possibility that no transitional forms were involved at all. ... And if the gaps between major groups were so large that speciation has had insufficient time to bridge them, the general stasis of major groups and the marked nested hierarchy of biological form through time would be an expected result. In this sense intelligent design is more successful at explaining the nested hierarchy of biological form than is modern evolutionary theory. Wise (CH) Page 220

As you will see as you read elsewhere in the Science Area, there are additional articles that touch on intelligent design, complexity, etc., that dovetail into the larger holistic window view. To say the least, the possibilities are most intriguing! But let's step back from the design issue to look at several points based on what is and is not in the fossil record.

Fossil Order: A Brief Summary of Other Interesting Points

What should fossils tell us? Dr. Wise notes three types of evidence in support of evolution stem from the order [of appearance in the geologic strata of time] of fossils.

First, for evolutionists, the data provide a 'play-by-play' descriptive sequence! The fossil record would not only reveal the time of appearances but also be evidence for extinctions of organisms through time. Species should revolve into and out of macroevolutionary view. And indeed there are fossil finds that allow for an ordering.

Second, fossils at any point in time should reveal recently formed species, and in relative fashion identify middle-aged and older species. Comparisons would then be possible for features, traits, or characteristics to reveal similarities or distinguish differences from those exhibited by the first fossil forms.

This is exactly what is seen in the fossil record. In the Cenozoic (the uppermost deposits), the for example, the frequency of species that are known as to be alive today gradually drops to zero as one travels lower—or further into the past. Wise (CH) Page 224

Third, if macroevolution is true, then the play-by-play noted above should reveal an unfolding of natural history where one can trace the phylogeny from first appearance to more developed organisms that follow.

In the phylogeny of humankind, for example, the following are the steps (with the radiometric time of first appearance of each step in parentheses, millions of years before the present): bacteria (3500); protists (1500-1800); invertebrate animals (590-570), jawless fish (517-510), jawed fish (424-409), bony lobe-finned fish (408), amphibians (377-363), reptiles (323-311), mammals (210-208), primates (70-65), apes (22), hominid (5.5), Homo (1.8?-1.6), H. sapiens (0.1), art (0.05), civilization (0.01). Within this list is recorded the general correspondence between the first appearance of vertebrate classes and their phylogeny. Similarly, arthropod classes tend to appear in phylogenetic order. Finally, in a most remarkable manner, the plant phyla appear in the order predicted by their phylogeny. Wise (CH) Page 224

Fossils do seem to provide the evidence required to support evolution's standard story. But the same evidence also poses problems. Wise notes that while macroevolution suggests changes will come in time, there is no way to project the future direction of such change. Some organisms like parasites, with limited internal complexity, provide no hint as to whether they have come from more complex organisms that became simplified or are going in yet another evolutionary direction (see Wise (CH) Page 225).

Second, the correspondence between phylogeny and the fossil record is not as strong as it might first seem. When the order of all kingdoms, phyla and classes is compared with the most reasonable phylogenies, over 95 percent of all the lines are not consistent with the order in the fossil record. Wise (CH) Page 225

Sorry to say we'll use the statement above as a tickler. There isn't space here to fairly detail what Dr. Wise is saying. But suffice it to say, there are objections to broad sweeping claims that the fossil record makes a seamless case for evolution's tree of descent. Yes, the patterns are tempting, but full conclusions would rest on more consistent evidence. And given the data as they currently present themselves we encounter the dilemma of a tree that has no trunk to which major branches can attach ... because ...

... the rarity or absence of evidence for transitions between major groups and the fact of the major groups do not converge on one another as one goes back in the fossil record seem to argue that major groups were introduced in the fossil record only after they were fully formed. Wise (CH) Page 226

There are a number of additional points that you might like to consider along side of the information presented here. A separate feature article on fossils essentially expands on this consideration of the lineage and trees used to plot evolution's course through time. This article covers several aspects of the sudden appearances that are commonly linked to what is called the Cambrian explosion. But this event is not the only such occurrence ... it's just the most commonly cited event of this type. So, take a moment to visit our other feature article on fossils, but before you do we recommend reading the remainder of this article because there is one additional very interesting viewpoint to add to our consideration.

What if we step back and ask if evolution theory and intelligent design theories share equally in the burden of providing evidence! Evolutionists will baulk at any notion that intelligent design deserves anything like an equal footing in discussions on origins ... but what if there are sufficient good points to level the playing field? This at the very least puts intelligent design on the table as a full partner in every discussion on origins. What might some of the points be that illustrate how to establish an equal footing? Take a look!

Can Evolution and Design be put on an Equal Footing?

Dr. Stephen Meyer makes several interesting arguments to demonstrate how evolution theory is at best neck-and-neck with arguments in favor of design. If this is so, then one might reasonably consider both side-by-side. For example:

Is one able to disqualify arguments favoring design when there appears to be unobservable factors at work. Actually, evolution theory also suffers from 'unobservables.' Macroevolution is suppose to work over such great lengths of time such that one cannot study its related process within human time spans—leaving this an unobservable process. Meyer (CH; Page 83) notes there is also a philosophical character to evolutionary theory that is similar to design theories.

But when it comes to the tree diagram, we encounter a classical unobservable ... the lack of transitional life forms are as acutely absent as is our understanding of the appearance—sudden or otherwise—of design [without evidence of any antecedent forms ... that is, no obvious ancestors].

Transitional life forms are theoretical postulations that make possible evolutionary accounts of present biological data. An unobservable designing agent is, similarly, postulated to explain features of life such as its information content and functional integration. Darwinian transitional, neo-Darwinian mutational events, punctuationalism's "rapid branching" events, the past action of a designing agent—none of these are directly observable. With respect to direct observability, each of these theoretical entities is equivalent. Meyer (CH) Page 83

And as considered above, the full and seamless description for evolution does not exist. Like Dr. Wise, Dr. Meyer is laying out a commentary that deserves further attention. The current inattention to these points is only the result of evolutionists preferring to turn a deaf ear. This behavior has nothing to do with the credible nature of points that Meyer is making here. And as long as behavior prevails one can claim anything about a theory.

The theory of common descent is generally regarded as a scientific theory even though scientists have not agreed on a completely adequate mechanism to explain how transmutation between lines of descent can be achieved. Meyer (CH) Page 86

The tree diagram, the only illustration in Darwin's Origin, reveals his effort to describe natural history as a continuous flowing branching tree starting with the simplest life forms at the base. As the tree illustration above, the diversity and complexity of organisms increases as one works to the top of the tree.

This picture of biological history contrasted markedly with that of his creationist opponents, who envisioned the history of life as an array of parallel (nonconvergent) lines of descent. Darwin's (perhaps primary) purpose in the Origin of Species was to argue for a discontinuous view of life's history as opposed to the discontinuous view favored by his creationist opponents. Meyer (CH) Page 91

If life's history had gaps, then in Darwin's mind the gaps would be closed with further exploration and new data. That's not a bad starting point for Darwin, but today we know further data bring gaps not close them. And if this persists, then the discontinuous view in the latter case stands over Darwin's former assumption. At best, this leaves both view points open for discussion! Yet Darwin admits to having a personal agenda:

He himself tells us what he had in mind: "I had two distinct objects in view; firstly to shew [show] that species had not been separately created [i.e., that they had evolved from common ancestors], and second, that natural selection had been the chief agent of change" (emphasis added).

Similarly, at the close of his Chapter 13 Darwin states the priorities of his argument by concluding: "The several classes of facts which have been considered ... proclaim so plainly that the innumerable species, genera, and families with which the world is peopled are all descended ... from common parents and have been modified in the course of descent, that I should without hesitation adopt this view, even if it were unsupported by other facts or arguments" (emphasis added). Meyer (CH) Page 91

So, this brings us back to philosophy and a personal view point, not science and not even well reasoned counterpoint to theological considerations.

As Gould has written, Darwin used a method of "inferring history from its results." ... By inferring descent as a past cause, Darwin constructed a historical explanation in which a pattern of past events did the primary explanatory work in relation to the facts of biogeography, fossil progression, homology and so on. As Gould has put it, the Origin Of Species makes "the claim that history stands as the coordinating reason for relationships among organisms." Meyer (CH) Page 92

But as noted above, Darwin himself indicates this history has problems. Building the window's view is an exercise in gathering perspectives, not building on assumptions. The point Dr. Meyer makes is simple. If there is no good reason to knock the design arguments out of the discussion, then leave them stand to be tested. And test evolution continually in the same way. Do this and suddenly many broad sweeping declarations fade. This leaves design arguments in a stronger position—which is something evolutionists have tried to avoid. But then what are we learning by assumption and a limited view—fact or fiction?

Added Perspective:

There is no doubt that the fossil record reveals a trend in the appearance of life. Simpler life forms do appear earlier. But this observation alone is not conclusive to simply confirm Darwinian descent from initial simple to later more complex organisms. It is just as true that if life were placed on the earth by an Intelligent agency, that by this putting the simpler forms on the young planet allowed biological activity to first work and prepare the water and land to then make way for other sophisticated forms to follow. This may be thinking outside the box! Yet, the idea that fully formed groups of organisms appear suddenly in nature's historical sequence is not new. The observed sequence also makes sense in other ways rarely considered.

For example, a foundational ecosystem comes by putting bacteria and fungi in place first, followed by simple animals and plants that further build on the initial biological base. There may be an reasonable purpose to order of appearance beyond evolution theory. The genesis of a hospitable environment in consort with biological interactivity of life (the network of life forms making a living ecosystem) itself opens the window to understanding how all this makes sense outside of evolution alone. Think about the lineage of life based on the fullness of the evidence. Let's not be limited to explaining this lineage as a process of evolution alone, but rather to see relationships revealed in life forms themselves that are otherwise compromised by a tree diagram.

Quotations from "The Creation Hypothesis" (CH) edited by J. P. Moreland are used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be used without permission from InterVarsity Press.

Quotations from "Not By Chance" (NBC) written by L. Spetner, are used by permission granted by Dr. Lee Spetner.

Quotations from Dr. Michael Denton's "Evolution: A Theory in Crisis" are used by permission of Adler and Adler Publishers Inc., 5530 Wisconsin Ave., Suite 1460, Chevy Chase, MD 20815

Writer / Editor: Dr. T. Peterson, Director,

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Pandas and People Edge of Evolution How Blind is the Watchmaker Case Against Accident Creation Hypothesis Mere Creation Science of God Evolution Theory Crisis What Darwin Didn't Know Doubts Design Darwin Strikes Back Design Darwins God Darwin on Trial
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