September 8, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Is the Fruit from Darwin’s Tree Edible?

Darwin’s “Tree of Life” fruit stand found an upbeat salesman in John Roach at National Geographic this week.  In his update on the “Assembling the Tree of Life” (AToL) project, he reported cheerfully that “New cures, supercrops, and secrets of evolution may emerge from the fast-growing branches of the ‘Tree of Life,’ scientists say.”
    As more animal genomes get sequenced, the task of organizing them into ancestral trees becomes more complex.  There is more hope than accomplishment at this stage: “In trying to figure out how species are related to one another, it immediately becomes clear this is a very large problem that doesn’t have an end in sight any time very soon,” said one researcher.  The enormous task of determining who is related to whom is not a trivial undertaking, nowhere near to completion.
    This means the fruit is not yet ripe for the picking, either.  Researchers hope that predictions can be made once the structure of the tree takes root in scientific consensus.  “

For example, [James] Collins [NSF] says, if scientists want to find an organism that has properties useful in the cleanup of oil spills, they would first turn to microbes that have known beneficial properties and then examine the microbes’ nearest relatives for good matches.
    To help engineer new crops, agricultural researchers might study genetic traits that make crops drought resistant.
    [Michael] Donoghue, the Yale biologist, says scientists can use the tree to understand where emerging infectious diseases originate and to search for organisms that have evolved resistance to the diseases in question.  Such clues can lead to the development of new drugs, he says.
    “Applications are everywhere,” he said.

Yet these promises beg the question whether they depend on the Tree of Life project for fulfillment.  Scientists were making headway on these questions long before the AToL program started.

  The article also begs another question: whether Darwin’s tree is the only paradigm fitting the data and providing the benefits.  Artificial selection has a long history preceding Darwin himself, let alone his tree analogy or this new AToL project.  Also, since creationists acknowledge a nested hierarchy picture of classification without the necessity for common ancestry, why wouldn’t that structure provide the same heuristic for scientific research, and the same benefits, without the Darwinian baggage?  Don’t count your fruit before it ripens.  Darwin’s tree has already dropped so many bad apples (08/23/2006),* some of us would rather look in a different orchard.

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