Another Day, Another Evolution Article that Misses the Point Entirely

As I am want to do, I was browsing io9, when I came across this article.

First off, super cool research.  If you are the kind of person who doesn’t click through links, here is the general statement.

There are three basic forms of life that we know today (keeping in mind that nobody agrees with each other ever on how to classify things, and whether life is in this or in that is an incredibly difficult question to even begin to answer.)

Bacteria, which is a small group of 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 organisms.  That is a five, followed by 30 zeros.  We don’t talk so much about bacteria on the podcast, because, as single celled organisms, they are a bit outside our purview   However, since they live inside of us, make us sick, and digest our food for us, animal life and bacterial life are intertwined.  As Wikipedia says, inside of you and on your skin, there are 10 times as many bacterial cells as human cells in your body.  Have fun sleeping after finding that out!

Archaea, which is the young upstart domain of life.  Actually, that isn’t true.  It was classified as bacteria for a while, but these cells seem to have a different history of evolution than bacteria.  They do not share all the same traits, and live in a different way than bacteria do.

Eukaryota, which is us.  And anything else that has membranes inside membranes in cells.  This is all animals.  We’re the big things that we see, but we only equal the Bacteria and Archaea in biomass. This is where Animal News: The Podcast usually deals.

However, these three “Domains” as they are called don’t seem to result from one another.  Sure, membranes are shared by all of them.  They all attempt to reproduce and out produce others.  They are all alive, for a lack of a more precise term.  They are all different though, and this seems to point to a weird conclusion.  That if we really want to find out what the first life on Earth was, there must be a common ancestor to all of these.  This is called LUCA (or Last Universal Common Ancestor) in the article.

The article says that researchers have theorized that the LUCA may have been an amorphous, huge blob, of independent cells that passed proteins from one cell to another, to the benefit of the colony.  This blob could have been planet sized, and would have been a gigantic communal organism.  Since this gigantic communal organism would have had the potential to evolve within itself, it would be a good candidate for LUCA, and the three domains would result from it.  It would have eventually been out-competed by it’s evolutionary offspring, dividing into the three domains we know today, and life on Earth would result in the diversity that we have today.

I like the theory.  I really do.  It’s interesting, it does the razor thing well, and it makes a case for a simple thing being the cause of enormous complexity, based on shared traits of the complexity.  Fascinating, probably completely impossible to prove, and it gives a good account of things.  However, shit gets wonky for me when one starts stating things like this.

All life on Earth is related, which means we all must share a single common evolutionary ancestor. And now it appears that this ancestor might have been a single, planet-spanning organism that lived in a time that predates the development of survival of the fittest.

That is bullshit.  First off, the assumption that this organism predates the development of survival of the fittest is an insane claim to make.  Each cell, as stated in the theory, would make proteins, and if they were successful proteins, they would spread far and wide.  That is essentially survival of the fittest, right there.  It’s not like the cells were electing to make some successful and some not.  If a protein that wasn’t successful was created, vast swaths of life would die there, and the protein would not be made any more, because it wouldn’t have been passed to the next group.  This is competition. This is survival of the fittest, within it’s own species.

Second, and this is what you’re tiptoeing around with the LUCA, is that we don’t know if it had actual competitors.  Perhaps it just out competed the other life that was around it, drove them to extinction, and other various forms of life were beaten by LUCA.  This theory doesn’t require that there is no other life around, just that LUCA’s descendants survived, and other life’s descendants didn’t.  This too is survival of the fittest.

Third, I don’t think that this was a “single” organism.  In fact, it sounds a lot like a “single” organism in the way that human beings are a “single” organism.  I don’t mean to imply that this things parts had sentience, or consciousness, but it seems a lot like it was competing with other things to destroy them, much the same way human beings do.  Out produce and out last, spread yourselves far and wide, have lots of babies, and murder the shit out of anything that gets in your way, including other groups of your own species.

Look, I don’t think I am smarter than the writer.  I don’t think I understand the science better than anyone else.  When I read the paper that was posted, I get confused, and I look up everything that I get confused about, but the statements made in this article are somewhat baseless, and moreover, are impossible to prove or disprove.

Evolution is one of the most powerful forces on Earth.  It’s simple, easy to understand, and directly shows the power of the world.  As we talked about in the last podcast, the case for it was made simply a hundred and fifty years ago, and everything that we find out strengthens the argument for it.  That strength is clear and easy, and we don’t need to inflate it.

Matt

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4 comments on “Another Day, Another Evolution Article that Misses the Point Entirely

  1. Having scanned “The proteomic complexity and rise of the primordial ancestor of diversified life” I am not certain where Wilkins gets much of his information on this global organism. Particularly with reference to the Global Oxygen Level, it does not seem possible to have such a large system of metabolic reactions. Further the authors of “proteomic complexity…” suggest that the cells had almost no means of communicating with each other and leave much to random happenstance.

  2. Looks like the theory is developing principally out of studying genomes, and looking at how genomes have changed over time. Apparently, there’s a certain point prior to which we have evidence of life minus certain critical functions, but then comes the appearance of ribosomes, and then follows the existence of something like biodiversity. I think life without biodiversity is what they mean by life before “survival of the fittest” — the definition they’re using of that term is a little more narrow, I think, than yours.

    Quoting from “Conclusions” in the document (a bit chopped up for clarity’s sake)…

    “The urancestor had an advanced metabolic network, especially rich in nucleotide metabolism enzymes…. [i]It lacked however transcription and in advanced evolutionary stages stored genetic information in RNA (not DNA) molecules.[/i]

    As this ancient organism expanded its protein biosynthetic functions ~3 Ga ago, it added crucial ribosomal proteins that enhanced the reliability and processivity of the ribosome…

    [i]We here propose that the enhancement of the primordial ribosomal machinery… which coincided with the rise of planetary oxygen… enabled the rise of lineages and a truly diversified world of organisms.[/i]”

    It’s definitely speculative, but I think it’s not entirely baseless; rather, it’s a theory which explains data found in the study of genomes.

  3. Pingback: Do your part: Categorize A Whale’s iTunes Library! | Animal News, The Podcast

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