The Unity of The Tree: Part IV, All is One Life



In The Tree of Life all distinctions are fuzzy. There are no sharp lines between Nature’s products. All is continuous and without rupture. Natura non facit saltum,” (Nature makes no leaps) is a biological principle embraced by Darwin whole-heartedly; it goes back to the Middle Ages but was more recently advocated in Darwin’s era by taxonomist Carl Linnaeus (1758) in his first major classification (since Aristotle) of all living things.

But what is important Philosophically and Ethically is that Distinct and Valuable Individuals only exist within The Vaguely Differentiated Whole of Life, a Whole that is itself the only True Unit.

(The System of Nature, its tenth edition was considered definitive. Hey, it took a while, Linnaeus had a lot of sh!# to get together! He was the first to use the binomial nomenclature comprehensively—canus familiaris, for example: kinds within kinds within kinds in a progressive development!)
(DENDOCRAM 8, The Kingdom of Plants: Its first major Division [Phylum] is between having seeds or not. But even this major distinction is softened by spores, for example. Its secondary distinctions [classes] has to do with the many different ways to have or not have roots and stems, and then the many kinds of flowers—from simple to complex, or no flowers at all. Further research into this kingdom would be interesting to grasp its complexities in reference to all the above distinctions.)

These are the points that have been made in the preceding “Wonders in The Tree of Life” in support of the conclusion that Living Nature Is Continuous and Without Rupture. “Life” is a massive Unity of productive Processes and Products. A brief review follows.

WONDER ONE: The bloodline of each currently living thing (and every living thing at any time) runs unbroken into the past to the original living things some 3,500 millions of years ago. And let us not forget that a million is 1,000 thousands, and that you or I will be lucky to live to 100 years, which really does not come to that much. So really, we each go a long way back in a chain of ancestry. (Why is it these days that we talk about millions and even billions in such a cavalier fashion?)

Individual living things are individual, but their connection to the recent past, the far distant past and even to the future (a next generation) is essential to them. The Tree of Life is continuous from its root to the tip of its furthest branches.

(The Royal Family of England: a Tree of Descent. The bloodline from Queen Victoria [1819] and Prince Albert [1819] growing downward to today through eight generations. Note that in the sixth generation, Prince Charles is now King Charles with the recent death of Queen Elizabeth. Note also the bottom row, the current generation of babies. Note further that at about the 85th million generation ago, you, me, and the Royal Family had an ancestor in common, that was something like our modern African Lungfish.)
(Three modern Lungfish and one Ancient Lungfish. Biologist Richard Dawkins estimates that sone of these Ancient Lungfish were our Great…Great 85 millionth or so Grandmothers, and then all our line of descent flowed back through their [our] family line to about the origin of life!)

WONDER TWO: Life is a competition that is “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson), but it is organized to ensure its longevity; there are always “winners” to participate in the next round of the ‘tournament.’ Similar to an elimination tournament with brackets, The Tree of Life is also different in that many “forms” (as Darwin called them) do not always participate in the competition; they are ‘happy’ to remain (largely) as they are and many continue in that form indefinitely.

(DENDROGRAM 9: Many participants in The Tree of Life did not and do not undergo Evolutionary Pressures to Evolve into obviously different forms. Look to the outer extension of each branch; all these creatures exist today, many in forms much like they did near their origination. This Tree utilizes a classification more general than even “Kingdom.” The Three “Domains” of Life are the three distinctions in basic Cell Types. Is there fuzziness at this most general level too?)

Yet some lineages of living things did ‘stumble into’ Adaptations of their structure and abilities and now obviously display An Evolved and Progressive set of characteristics. For these creatures, Nature Selected ‘winning’ Adaptations that accumulated into creatures more able to survive and reproduce in greater and greater varieties of ways.

(Competitions possessing the above logical form and involving innumerable situations and innumerable organisms have occurred over billions of years, and have been the occasion for a vast number of Adaptations in structure and ability. This logical form is a characteristic of many, of what we can now call, “Algorithms.” )

WONDER THREE: The Tree of Life continues to display its Unity through various Values and Qualities among its many products. It is a Whole of Contrastive Structures and Abilities, each only with significance in relation to the others! Our “Values” and “Qualities” are most meaningful only within this Unit, this Tree of Life on Our Planet. Quantitatively, or more ‘objectively,’ these ideas of Quality and Value can be somewhat understood in terms of numbers of chromosomes and lengths of DNA and sequential variation in DNA seen within the many varieties of living creatures. Dennett spends much effort in his book arguing that Our Tree of Life is An Array of Possibility that has been Actualized and Naturalized. And what is possible for “Life,” now, has its limits set by the forms so far in existence!

It is The Tree of Life that is the true individual thing; all its individual creatures are its component parts. It is the Whole of which we are a part.

(DENDROGRAM 10: More Ernst Haeckel and his almost 200 year old notions of the relations of Mammals. Note chimpanzee, gorilla and others as evolved forms of “Ape-Man.” Imagine what the discovery of a planet with Other Life Forms would do to our sense of the possibilities in “A Tree of Life!” Dennett argues that there would have to be significant similarities between them and us—metabolism, growth, reproduction, etc.—for them to be considered “alive.”)

WONDER FOUR: At the core of the broad processes of “Evolution by Natural Selection” is a more abstract form of process that is now called “Algorithmic.” These processes build up more complex wholes from smaller and simpler parts—as in one, two, and three digit multiplication; or break down more complex wholes into a simpler unit—as in long division; or guide a process through a series of simple steps—as in a recipe or a computer program. Algorithmic processes often “run” over and over again with the same similar and simple process to achieve outcomes, and often these outcomes can have surprising characteristics. They can build up a simple unit into complex and surprising variations, or they can break down a seemingly unitary thing into surprisingly simple components.

In this way, Our Tree of Life is a massive network of cells built into more and more complex organisms or organic “forms,” or even into biological “machines,” as Dennett and some biologist (like Richard Dawkins) contend. Also, and very importantly, Our Tree of Life is a “River of Genetic Material” (Dawkins) flowing out of the past and into the present. It is a network of strands of genetic units (information stored in a chemical structure) of often growing lengths and sophistications.

(Algorithmic Processes do start simple! Arctic Stone Circles are surprising formations of stones pushed up by the undisturbed and continuous cycle of freezing and thawing of the soil. The same process led to the problem for New England farmers that they solved arduously by picking up the newly surfaced stones each spring at plowing and moving them to the edge of the field forming New England’s now famous system of stone walls. Photo from BBC News)

WONDER FIVE: The Tree of Life displays an amazing Fullness! There are vast quantities of Individual living creatures arrayed in a vast quantity of Kinds of creatures. To add to this Darwin asks us, in his Origin of Species, to imagine all the kinds of creatures (species) that have ever existed returning and added to all those that now exist. He contends that all of life’s kinds would then form an array as finely distinguished as that of the most luxuriant of varieties that exist today. These kinds would be so finely meshed that no formal definitions would be possible to distinguish them! A Tree without gaps!

To acknowledge the fullness of The Tree allows us to understand Gradualism as the core of Evolution. Darwin realized—and Dennett emphasizes—that the great complexity, diversity, and intricate organization of living things was not possible without a God-like Designer, unless it developed slowly and gradually through minute incremental additions and improvements. Something as complex as an elephant or daffodil could not naturally come into existence in one fell swoop, that would be Vastly Improbable.

As stated in Post III (see it for additional detail), Darwin realized that the world of living things and the fossil record suggested (was evidence of) a tree-like relationship of kinds and its gradual historical development. Large improbable leaps were replaced in his thinking by very small developments! And each of these tested in the Competition of Life and built up through eons of time.

The Tree of Life has Gradually built upon itself and displays a marvelous fullness among its different forms!

WONDER SIX: There are not “Firsts!”

Talk about continuity; talk about counter-intuitive notions! With all the different kinds of creatures in The Tree, it is mistaken to think that at some exact point the original mammal appeared, or fish, or even the original living thing. “There are no firsts” is a corollary of the reality of Gradualism.

Dennett phrases it: new kinds of living things “must grow out of something less, something quasi-, something merely as if.” The ‘first’ mammals, for example, were merely a quasi-mammal and a quasi-reptile. Mammals became less and less reptilian and more and more mammalian, but there is No Place To Truly Draw “A Line,” as the title of this post series contends.

(Fossil of a Cynodont, a mammal-like reptile about “the size of a loaf of bread and resembling a scaly rat,” 235 mya and found in South America. A mammal-ish reptile and a reptile-ish mammal. Photo and quote from National Geographic.)

Biologist Richard Dawkins puts it: In our line of human descent, if we go back into our past in “the range of 185 million generations of parents and grandparents and great grandparents…we come face to face with a fish.…[then] your fish ancestor had a fishy child, who had a fishy child, who had a child…who 185 million (gradually less fishy) generations later, turned out to be you” (my emphasis). Dawkins resists drawing any firm line; some fish became more amphibian-like, then less amphibian and more reptilian, and so forth to mammals and humans. Mother Nature draws no lines nor makes no leaps: Natura non facit saltum.

An interesting case of “no firsts” that was not mentioned in the initial presentation of Wonder Six involves Prokaryotic Creatures (no nucleus, just a small strand of free floating DNA) and a variety of single-celled nucleated organisms. But this case might be called, “No Seconds!”

All these creatures reproduce Asexually through “binary fission.” They double their size by duplicating the relatively little internal machinery they have, including their DNA, and then splitting in two. Biologists call the two new cells “daughter cells,” but what happened to the “parent,” so to speak?

Dawkins rightly points out an issue here. The ‘daughter’ organisms are identical to each other but also identical to ‘the parent’ and that includes its genetic material! Further, the parent’s doubling occurs through mitosis, the normal means for cell Growth in sexually reproducing organisms. Dawkins contends we could say that an Amoeba, for example, grows from one to two to four to eight Amoebas, and all copies of itself. Its Reproduction is not much different from what is often called Growth! It grows more copies of itself.

Biologist Ralph Buchsbaum, in his 1948 text on invertebrate animals (that I picked up at a garage sale decades ago), contends, “since an ameba (old spelling) continues to exist in its offspring, it may be said to be “immortal”; and every ameba which now exists is directly continuous through the ages with the first ameba” (my emphasis). Now there is Continuity! Is it One or is it Many?

(Hail, the Immortal Amoeba! They inhabit all freshwater ponds and streams.)
(Amoeba: It eats by surrounding a food particle with its pseudopod and enclosing it to become a food vacuole. But only one of the parasitic species will feed on a human’s brain! What a vicious way to make a living.)

(The World’s Largest Organism, The Pando Aspen Grove in Utah. These are not individual trees, we can reasonably say. They are connected by a single under ground root system. Each tree grows up as a “sucker” from the outgoing root system of a tree near it. Each is genetically identical. But, an individual tree will survive alone if cut from the system. Are they One or are they Many?)

So here in WONDER SEVEN, I hope we can convincingly conclude, that THE TREE OF LIFE IS AS MUCH ONE AS IT IS MANY. The DISTINCTIONS it contains are GRADUAL AND CONSEQUTIVE and are based upon Each Other TO FORM A SINGLE ARRAY OF LIFE.

More kinds of kinds:

Next Part, The Conclusion concludes with the recognition that Distinctions—gaps—do appear in The Tree, and the sources of those differences will be outlined. After all, a Daylily is not an Elephant (see Part I), and it would be very hard to mistake the two.

Art Forms in Nature (Kunstformen der Natur) by Ernst Haekel, 1904——-Thanks for Reading!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s