Tree of Life or of Evil Knowledge?
Evolutionary trees are now widely available in a web database. Scientists can upload and download huge amounts of information on evolutionary relationships of plants, animals and protists. But is this a case of scientific progress, or of mass deception?
You can go to TreeBase.org and find a treasure trove of phylogenetic information. The number of people involved, papers referenced, and information stored is impressive. PhysOrg quoted Bill Piel of Yale explaining why it was needed: “Phylogenies were being published at an explosive rate. What we needed was a database where we could compile them so people could use them later.” Digital trees can now be shared among scientists and provided to the public. “Since the first prototype was developed, researchers have contributed more than 6,500 trees from over 2400 articles, describing the relationships among well over 60,000 terminal taxa.” The press release describes the amount of work and effort that has gone into the project, making improvements and upgrades to the software, standardizing the formats and adding features. Visualization tools in particular have received a major upgrade. One user called it a “huge leap forward.”
One question no one seems to be asking is whether the information is valid. Last year, Bapteste and Doolittle announced that Darwin’s tree of life was dead and New Scientist proclaimed “Darwin Was Wrong: Cutting Down the Tree of Life” on its cover (01/22/2009; see also 02/01/2007 and 04/11/2008).
This is an important lesson on the danger of symbolism over substance. If you look at TreeBase.org, you could be swayed by the air of sophistication of the site. How could so many scientists be wrong? All that effort, all that technology, all that collective activity carries with it an implicit message that This Must Be True. It’s like a mighty bandwagon full of fanfare and glory proclaiming the Emperor in his new clothes.
Beware. The only thing that matters is whether Darwin’s tree of life concept is true. Notable scientists (who are not the despised creationists or advocates of intelligent design) have shown that Darwin’s phylogenetic tree is a fiction. It was a useful lie that, like a ladder, helped evolution gain acceptance, but now that evolution is widely accepted, the ladder is no longer needed (02/01/2007). That makes TreeBase and all the highfalutin software that supports it much ado about sound and fury signifying nothing, a tempestuous comedy of errors of labors lost that’s not all well even if, measure for measure, it ends well. Any society of sufficiently motivated fallible humans can come up with the trappings you see at TreeBase. Avoid the shaming of the true.