Our Sacred World: The Wonders in The Tree of Life!

(Marc Chagall, The Tree of Life, 1948)

It’s not The Christmas Tree; it’s The Tree of Life! Still celebrating Xmas here in The O-H-I-O, with the revision and republication as a group of this set of posts. I’ve shortened them and sweetened them for your Festival of Lights celebration. Some really good ideas here about that Mother Nature that surrounds us. I hope you enjoy them and may they enhance your Wonderment on these cold, cold and dark days here in the central latitudes of The Northern Hemisphere. Happy Solstice! I feel The Light coming on with the help of The Nature Religion Connection!

See Menu, naturereligionconnection.org, and click “Our Sacred World.”

(Another Tree of Life by Chagall. The Tree is full, see Wonder 5 in this series, Our Sacred World!)

Mother Nature Draws No Lines: Part I, The Wonders in The Tree of Life.

(Here at The NatureReligionConnection we are getting serious about a source for our awe. If religion is to have some reasonable foundation and some useful form in this modern age, this is it. The science of Evolution justifies our sense of participation in, indebtedness to, and responsibilities toward, Mother Nature and her magnificent work of living art. If we could now acknowledge that, and conduct ourselves in its light, her accomplishments would be greatly glorified. How about that for some old-timey religious talk? The following post series—“Our Sacred World”— I try to establish what might be truly worthy of awe.)

The Tree of Life, 1909, by Gustav Klimt.


“Distinctions” are those big and little differences that color the world in us and around us. One of our first deep thinkers on the topic was Plato, who sought to “carve nature at its joints,” as if it were some roast pig and he the chef making the cuts—drawing the lines—to create the pieces that would truly worked. Let us continue that effort, and, in the end, we will be able to distinguish some wonderous realities.

Let us, also, begin with living things, and ask what kinds of distinctions lie between them. If we do, we will be in for a big surprise, contends Dan Dennett, a philosopher who has written a brilliant account* of the character and implications of Darwin’s great discovery, Evolution by Natural Selection. Mother Nature, in this her great creative thrust, “draws no lines,” he contends. In amazing ways, boundaries are blurred, distinctions are mitigated, the the separateness and unity of living things becomes fluid.

How could this be? For example, we have daffodils and elephants. A clear “line,” so to speak, can be drawn between them. A huge difference exists; one is a modest sized, flowering plant, the other the largest of all land animals. Yet, they are connected in what Darwin called “a great tree” of relationship. He wrote: “The affinities of all the beings…have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth.” It is in the logic of the growth and structure of this “tree” that we shall find our wonders, according to Darwin and Dennett.

*Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) was a National Book Award Finalist. It was glowingly received by biologists such as Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith and E.O. Wilson; along with philosophers such as Richard Rorty—one of my favorites. The noted astrophysicist Carl Sagan called it , “A breath of fresh air.” Incidentally, Darwin’s “Idea” is “Dangerous” because it is so disruptive of our traditional ways of thinking, Dennett contends. Let us see if that is true.

Dendrogram 1 and 2

Two diagrams of the relations of living things; from the Greek dendron, meaning tree.

(This depiction of “The Tree of Life” focuses clearly of its unifying “trunk,” “branches” and singular origin, but also the variety of its “fruits.” A daffodil would lie to the top left in the line of flowering plants [angiosperm]; an elephant in the line of vertebrates represented by the poodle. This overall representation is, of course, a gross, gross, over-simplification, but at least it is pictorial and gives a visual sense of the vast differences of the living end-products.)
(This depiction of “The Tree of Life” is much more detailed. It accentuates the density of the “branching;” there are a vast—but not infinite—number of living creatures since the origin of life [bottom center in black], and a vast number of specific varieties [species] are represented in the lines. Note the “holes” at various points, the white, clear areas. They represent mass extinctions among some broad kind of living thing. For example, the big open spot to the right of this fan-out is the extinction of the dinosaurs [a subgroup of the class Reptile, the greenish lines to its left and below it] at about 60 million years ago. In a sense, we can see how that “hole” was “closed” by an expansion in kinds of other reptiles, birds [an earlier descendent of dinosaurs], and then a noticeable surge in kinds of mammals [far right in black].)


So what kinds of distinction has life cooked up in over 3,500 million years of existence? And, how clear-cut are they?

As we look at the outer point of extension of each branch in our tree, we see the prolific production of this natural process—many kinds of distinct creatures exist. All the major categories are present: plant is distinguished from animal, animal from bacteria, protist (single-celled organisms) from fungus, etc. But of course, each category in the end comes down to the Individuals of that kind and of all kinds.

In the understanding of Life, the uniqueness of each living thing plays a central role. There is a surprising and complex interplay between an individual creature and its kind, and this will turn out to be the idea of “distinction” at its greatest importance.

(In our understanding and classification of stars, each star can be broadly classified and its behavior understood without refer to their most individual characteristics. Each star, as an individual, is not that important or complex in contrast to a living thing in the process of evolution. We can abstract from the star many of its individual features and understand it “essentially,” not so for a living thing.)

So what are the wonders of the distinctions revealed in The Tree of Life?

“Nature Forms” (1932) by Georgia O’Keeffe



Your great-greatest of all ancestor was possibly among the very first living things (“possibly”—will be explained shortly). So was mine, so was your pet dog’s, so was the cottonwood tree that lives in my backyard or any plant that lives in your yard; in fact, all of us currently living things have the same original ancestor and many others that lie between. Dennett: “All the diversity of life that has ever existed on this planet is derived from this single fan-out; the controversies arise about how to discover and describe in general terms the various forces, principles, constraints, etc., that permit us to give a scientific explanation of the patterns in all this diversity.” What is uncontroversial is that “this single fan-out” is an unbroken chain with a single origin that leads to today.

Our line of ancestry is unbroken, that is uncontroversial, says Dennett. It is almost a logical necessity; by definition ‘living things come from living things’—with only one exception: The Origin. If my chain of ancestry were broken prior to myself, I would not be here. And there is no evidence and even less likelihood of multiple and distinct origins for the life we find about us today. The same unique genetic code runs through us all. We come from the same stalk!

But the possibility does arise that our first ancestor was not the only “first” living thing. Surely Mother Nature conducted various ‘experiments.’ It is probable that other creatures at the same general time, of a similar general character, and likely of the same general environment or situation, were also (what we now call) “alive;” but they or their progeny came to a quick end or relatively quick in geological terms. They left no descendants that are alive today or any trail of evidence that we have found. This topic of “firsts,” first of a kind, will be returned to later. When and how do we draw that line?

How long is this successful run of successors? In human generations (and “generation” is a surprisingly complex term) this means 4 to 5 generations every 100 years, and about 100 going back “to the time of Jesus,” as they say. That means you have about 100 great grandmothers on each side of your family for that span. Every great-grandmother successfully bearing at least one daughter that soon joined that line of your grandmothers, herself, by giving birth to a daughter who gave birth, and that is only the very tip of the chain.

Biologist Richard Dawkins estimates that our 50 thousandths great grandmothers were no longer of our species; they were homo erectus with which we, homo sapiens, would not have mated and probably could not have mated successfully (sterile off-spring).

(HELLO GREAT…GREAT GRANDMOTHER! She was about 4.5 feet tall and had no language. She and her homo erectus kin were the first fully upright hominids and had the use of fire and did hunt in parties.)

For fruit flies, there is a similar but more extreme story. A female fruit fly can give birth in about 10 days of its own birth and its total life cycle is only about two weeks; that makes for a lot of turnover! For it, there are about 30 generations in a year (!) and that makes around 60,000 generations in two thousand years! That is quite a family tree and quite a line of successful reproduction.

(Another depiction of Our Historical Ancestry. Thanks to medium.com)



Barring the destruction of the entire planet (and I mean like the shattering of the planet into pieces as if by The Death Star in Star Wars), evolution by natural selection is a relentless process; it goes on and on. In fact, overcoming challenges is one of its dominant characteristics. Challenges as significant as ice ages, strikes by large meteors, continental drift, climate change and plagues have already been received and responded to. Life continued on; evolution continued.

(Charles Darwin, he spent nearly 25 years carefully formulating his theory and organizing his evidence before he reluctantly published. He knew it would be earth-shaking.)

But “winners,” in what sense? Both Darwin and Dennett use this term and both have faced criticism for it, along with the term “natural selection,” which ‘selects’ the winners, as if nature were some kind of person choosing; like your “Mother Nature.”

In the minimal sense, “winners” are those who succeed in the competition of life, and biologically that means to reproduce. It is worth taking a moment to remind ourselves how powerful a force this is. Reproduction is a chemical chain of reactions. We, humans, with our ‘higher’ goals and wants can sometimes lose sight of this primal ‘urge’ to reproduce. Most species have their entire existence physically and chemically arranged to reproduce. In some animals and at some times, not even the need to eat rivals it. Evolution by natural selection guarantees successful reproducers.

In this minimal sense of a “winner” as reproducer, “there is something strange and trivial,” says Dennett. It is like asking, how proud should I be to have been born? You might want to think (and gloat): ‘I must be very special to be the outcome of such a long chain of success.’ And maybe that is true!

What if I told you that I could produce, on demand, a winner of ten consecutive coin flips. That a person could win in fair coin-flipping at that rate is surely improbable. You might think that this winner was a person of some special ability, or perhaps somehow you were being deceived. Let me up the ante, I can show you a person capable of winning about 28 consecutive coin tosses!

How? Let me organize the entire population of the United States into a giant coin-flipping tournament. I would set up the brackets, massive brackets, especially in the early rounds, but after the first round the population would be cut in half, and in every round thereafter, the remaining winners would also be halved. Finally, by the 26th round (the quarter finals) we would be down to 8 remaining citizens each with 25 straight wins so far! Then the semi-finals, 4 champion “callers” remain; then The National Finals—lights glare, trumpet blare—the remaining two citizens take the stage and the coin is flipped, the call is made, and the anointed one is now apparent; 28 straight victorious tosses! (The math is 2 to the 28th power equals approximately the population of the U.S.) For 10 consecutive correct calls, give me exactly 1024 people and I will arrange them into this coin-tossing tournament. (The math is 2 to the 10th power is 1024.) This is how Evolution by Natural Selection assures us there will be winners.

(The bracket for a 64 team [or person] tournament, the kind used each year in American college basketball. It is “a relentless culling,” an algorithmic process through which a National Champion is guaranteed each year and they will have won 5 consecutive tournament games against the best teams in the country. Also, along the way, the tournament assures other successful runs that fall short of the grand championship.)

Dennett is right, there is “something strange and trivial” about the winner of this coin-tossing tournament. First, we are assured a winner with a huge win-streak, that is guaranteed by the organization of the process. It’s is like a machine, and somebody has to win. Second, we do not know before hand who the winners or grand winner will be. In tournaments and contests that involve large amounts of Luck, we have absolutely no way to recognize a winner from a loser at the outset. We only find that out retrospectively, by hindsight, after the tournament is over. As Dennett says, “It is a retrospective coronation.” (We will return to this later.) Thirdly, what kind of champion will this be? In our coin-tossing tournament our grand winner will have exactly zero special abilities or pertinent distinctions by comparison to the other competitors. That is strange; line up that grand champion in a new tournament and their chance of losing in the first round is just as high as anyone’s, 50%.

Even in tournaments that involve skill, as in the basketball tournament (from above) in which we often say— “the best team won”, luck plays its part. In Evolution with its “survival of the fittest,” luck plays a huge role in who survives and luck does this in disregard for any special distinctions—that’s why we call it “luck.” Sometimes “the best die young,” to alter Billy Joel’s lyrics. But, the idea of “luck” is tricky, and we might justifiably argue that “to be skillful” is itself a product of good luck! (This topic of luck will be returned to.)

But, whether by luck or by skill—or a combination of the two—the game of Evolution produces winners.

(TRENCH WARFARE in WWI. An important qualification should be added to the above: not all competitive contests have a clear winner and loser. Sometimes there are stalemates, and that result is important. In sports, the result is often “an overtime” extension of the contest. In Evolution, the result is sometimes COOPERATION, a very important Adaptation. Aggressive animals have often established territories to mitigate continuous and mutually destructive competition.
In WWI, the competing soldiers on the Western Front became frustrated at the mutual carnage and deadlock. They began to refuse orders to attack, and carried out only ceremonial displays of aggression. Finally, on Christmas Eve 1914, rank and file soldiers wearily crept out of their trenches to meet their enemy in the middle of “No Man’s Land” where they shared food, wine and song. Morality can happen!)

Let me stop here for this post. So far we have encountered the wonderous reality that each of us has a history of blood descent back to near, or at, the origin of Life. That is a shocking realization: my blood-line goes back to the start—3,500 million years ago! A curious fact is then added, Evolution assures that some living things will always live and pass on ancestors within biological struggles, barring some hugely external interference. So, someone had to do it (survive ands evolve), and it turned out to be you and I!

The next post will offer several more Wonders within The Tree of Life! Stay tuned!

THANKS FOR READING, please comment. Logo by Marty.

Is Perfection Attainable in The Tree of Life? Part II

(Is Nature perfect? Today I continue the “Our Sacred World Series,” an exploration of THE TREE OF LIFE, as offered in Dan Dennett’s acclaimed book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Note that Darwin’s idea is “dangerous” because it is so disruptive of traditional ways of thinking. “The Wonders in The Tree” so far revealed are, first, All currently living things have an unbroken chain of ancestry that goes to the origins of Life. Second, that Evolution by Natural Selection “assures winners with huge win streaks!” But, underlying all the Wonders lurks the larger questions of ‘How do we Draw Distinctions?’ and ‘How does Nature itself distinguish its parts?’ What is the relationship of An Individual Living Thing to Its Kind (species…) and even to The Whole of Life, Itself? Wonders Three and Four, here we go!)



[The Value of Organization and the Quality of Beauty: Vast numbers of animals exhibit Bilateral Symmetry. “Animals that exhibit bilateral symmetry typically have head and tail (anterior and posterior) regions, a top and a bottom (dorsal and ventral) and left and right sides. Most have a complex brain that is located in the head, which is part of a well-developed nervous system…They also usually have eyes and a mouth located in this region.” It is no accident that Human Artistic Value with its symmetry and organization and Nature’s Beauty are much the same. Thanks to ThoughtCo.com for photo and quote.]

Often, we can think this world is without value. After all, it is just atoms spinning in the void, and that con man Donald Trump was elected President. We have also just endured a worldwide epidemic, and each day in the U.S. over 300 people die or are injured in gun violence (this includes suicide). I can often feel it, a sense of worthlessness in the world!

But beyond the minimal sense of “winning” as simple luck, in Mother Nature’s Natural Selection, winning can also involve skill and ability. These distinctions—to be skillful, to have abilities— simply comes to “variations useful to an organic being,” that give them “the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life,” wrote Darwin. He declares that this is what he means by “Natural Selection.”

Dennett says Natural Selection is “a relentless culling” and its result can be “an excellence of design.” We can objectively decide, “This is a better knife.” And designs can accumulate, as in “this wing is more aerodynamic.” “A bear is fast and strong,” is a statement true in relation to many other animals. These evaluations of the quality of things are judgements upon the “adaptations” that allow some species “to evolve,” to pass through an amazing sequence of changes (“victories”) through their history. Their lives acquire additional Qualities by comparison to that of their ancestors and in the light of our own qualities. To an Adaptation in the Tree of Life, better and best do exist naturally.

How far can it go, this natural process of improvement?

(Dendrogram 4: The Tree of Life as conceptualized and drawn by biologist Ernst Haeckel, 1879. An early supporter of Evolution but with biases not ascribable to Darwin. Note ‘Man’ at the top of the Tree; a bias, but not completely without justification.)

Dennett calls adaptations a “lifting” upwards in “the Tree of Design.” “Design” is a difficult concept, and Dennett spends considerable time in his book to clarify and justify its use. In some ways synonymous with “organization” and definitely related to “complexity,” Dennett points out its relation to what we often call “Research and Development.” The Tree of Life’s Relations are, in that sense, a massive “research and development program.” Like a literal tree, The Tree of Life rises upwards with time, but it is different in that with time new abilities, new creatures, greater complexity, and enhanced “design” has often also occurred. For living things, Adaptations are “good ways of solving the problems that arise,” says Dennett. These adaptations ,or “mutations,” are structural and behavioral (and ‘ultimately’ genetic) variations, that happen to work! In this way, The Tree of Life rises and expands, and contrary to Ecclesiastes, There are new things under the sun.

The Eye has often been cited as an example of the intricacy and excellence of Design in Nature. It is also the source of New Qualities in the world: the sensation of Light and Darkness; Color, and the perception of A World Beyond Immediate Contact.

From the spinning of a flagellum to the landing on the Moon, the history of human evolution is sometimes an example of great conquest. Biologist Richard Dawkins has charted 37 major developmental steps in the history of our biology that lead back to our kinship with the first living things, bacteria. Each of these “steps” is recorded in the recipe of our DNA and then—often—in the fossil record. For example, at 18 steps back from today, at about 400 mya (million years ago), our great-greatest grandmothers were like modern day lungfish. At about 100 mya, the 9th step back, our ancestors were like

modern tree shrew or opossum. An opossum, that is an unsavory ancestor!

Darwin contended that Natural Selection, by “acting through long ages and rigidly scrutinizing the whole constitution, structure, and habits of each creature,—favouring the good and rejecting the badslowly and beautifully adapts each form to the most complex relations of life;” quoted from The Origin of Species (1859), his monumental intellectual achievement. What an amazing process he had discovered and explained!

(The African Lungfish is not a very glamorous grandparent! It does possess primitive lungs; it is a transitional form in our evolution, but also a valuable creature in its own right (though not very cuddly!). Darwin speculated that the lungs of land vertebrates evolved from the swim bladder of fish.)

Of course, through much of history, the excellence of the design of living organisms and of their organs has been attributed to a Superhuman Designer. As a human artifact is created by an intelligent craftsperson, so are nature’s creatures; it is often thought. Traditionally, it has been contended that the value and quality of things are derived from “on high,” so to speak. Darwin gave us a different way to think of the emergence of excellence and variety; it accumulates piecemeal “from below” with great time and persistent effort.

How far can this discovery and accumulation of Adaptations proceed? “How good can living things get,” we might ask? “Very good,” “excellent,” and even,” “perfect,” some biologists have argued. “Adaptionist Thinking,” argues Dennett, presumes there are “good reasons that things are the way they are” in the biosphere. “Each part is for some particular purpose” and each organism has proven its “fitness,” argue most biologists, and Dennett concurs.

For example, biologist A.J. Cain has written a noted paper entitled “The Excellence in Animals” (1979), “excellent” because their entire structure and habits have undergone repeated modification and test for millions and billions of years.

An example from early in the history of living things (maybe 3.5 bya) is the ability to Photosynthesize. It occurred in several kinds (possibly) of bacteria and eventually ‘spread’ to other forms of simple creatures as a parasitic relationship, creatures now lived together—inside each other!—and to both their advantage: “symbiosis” we call it. Today, our most sophisticated chemists cannot duplicate this process of turning light and carbon dioxide into sugars. Also, the human Brain, and brain of other more complex animals, seems to surpass the most sophisticated computers in many ways, but not all. Of course, human artifacts should also be considered “natural,” as natural as a beaver’s dam and a spider’s web, contends Dennett, but this is a more controversial point.

(Dendrogram 5: The Tree of Life from the point of view of Domains—basic forms of celled creatures. LUCA is the Last Universal Common Ancestor: as suggested in Wonder One, the ‘first’ living things preceded the latest common ancestor for even these most basic forms of life. Photosynthesis started in cyanobacteria [to the left] and ‘spread’ to become a basic characteristic of plants [to the right].)

In The Tree of Relationships, adaptations are realized vertically, from bottom to top, but also horizontally (or laterally) in the divergence of the branches; its bushing out. It should be noted that in the traditional upright positioning of the tree, rising upward along the trunk or a branch necessarily means the passage of time, but it does not always mean great or obvious changes in design. Some creatures exhibit histories of great adaptations; some do not, some seem ‘happy as a clam’ to be where they are. Have these creatures attained a kind of Perfection for who they are and the situation they are in?

Quality does exist within Tree of Life, but Quality—in this way—exists in an almost totally self-contained context. Dennett uses the example of a great novel; its quality (or excellence of meaning) is not discernible through an analysis of the frequency of its use of the various letters of the alphabet. Only by its relation to other written products, at the time and even through history, does a novel’s greatness (and meaningfulness) appear.

Like a great novel is evident only by comparison to other written products, so does The Tree of Life display its various qualities. Much like language, Life initially struggled to put together its persistent and unitary code. DNA molecules, as strands of amino acids, are far too complex to have originated this process and so we have a simpler form, RNA, but this too exhibits too much Design, too much organized complexity, to have been an adequate intermediary—a way-station—between Meaning and Quality and their lack, a jumble of letters or molecules only organized randomly.

But with Time, many problems were solved. It took billions of years for life and thousands of years for language-use, but more complex working products eventually did appear and did so due to a significant advantage: “Every living thing is a descendent of a living thing, it has a tremendous leg up; all but the tiniest fraction of its recipe is guaranteed to have time-tested viability,” writes Dennett. The same holds for the products of language-use; something like War and Peace arose as naturally within the growing quality of language-use as did flowering plants in biologic evolution. Each rode upon the successes of their predecessors and each persists by comparison to and in competition with the pertinent Qualities and Values of their contemporaries.

Comparative Qualities and Values are natural in the biological world, just as in the world of human artifacts.

(“Darwin’s Finches” A small sampling of the 14 specimens Darwin returned to England from the Galapagos Islands for expert identification. They consisted of 12 new species and a variety of beak design each adapted to best manipulate each species’ specific form of food.)

Quality and Value—so important in our human life—have their ‘root’ in The Tree of Life and Evolution by Natural Selection. IT’S A GOOD THING TO HAVE OBJECTIVE VALUES! Maybe even AWESOME!



Evolution is like the waves rolling onto a beach. Over and over, day after day, for millions and billions of years, pushing the sand, rolling the rocks, distributing the materials. It is a churning and unrelenting process that continuously molds and remolds the beach—its rocks, its sand, the animals and plants, its drift wood and the other materials that compose it.

Evolution has “the power” of “an algorithm,” argues Dennett, though Darwin did not have this term available to him. Algorithmic processes have real powers, he argues. The wave- action working on a beach is this kind of process. Our computers work via algorithms. Long division is an algorithm (that sorts a number in terms of a given group, the divisor) and so is the method by which we alphabetize a list of words or names. “First, take all those that start with an “a,” if two words start with “a” look at the second letter…then go to the “b” words, if several start with “b”… over and over through the alphabet till the list is organized. A clock—and especially think of the old mechanical clocks with all the gears—they turn and turn and thereby arrange and tabulate the ongoing stream of time. The game “Musical Chairs” is an algorithm.

Algorithms are not easy to define, says Dennett, but first we can say they are “substrate neutral,” They are embodied in many different mediums because “their power” is in their organization, in their logic, not in the physical materials that compose them. This is why a human brain, a hand-cranked mechanical tabulator and an electronic calculator can all add and subtract. In this way, people, springs and gears, electrical circuits, food (organized in recipes), numbers, the alphabet, waves of water and a beach, can all be organized into, or thought of as, logical structures in pursuit of an objective.

Algorithms are also simple and repetitive processes. “Simple” in the sense that they always work with, or look for, a simple unit (a head or tail, an offspring or no offspring, a given number) and the steps to take with this unit are small and simply defined (as in a recipe, or in long division). Algorithms are also “simple” because the steps often run over and over again until the outcome is obtained (as in a tournament [as in Wonder Two], a number divided by a given unit, a list alphabetized). This kind of process is then, often, correctly described as “blind,” “mechanical,” “automatic,” and “impersonal.” Even the cycling of the seasons and the spinning of our planet play into the additionally developed algorithmic processes of life on our planet.

(God, these machines were fun! My aunt and uncle used to have one in the early 1960s to tabulate the receipts from their dry cleaning stores. They used to let us ‘play’ with it occasionally. I can still hear those gears turning—organized algorithmically–as the handle was pulled. Curious how able—how smart—these machines really were.)

Algorithms are intelligent processes or seem to be intelligent. This may already be evident considering the examples given. Algorithms sort, arrange, guide through a series of steps, and have a logic to each of them. Whether they are truly intelligent, or only seemingly so, is the source of much philosophic debate. Do computers really “think?” is a similar question. Dennett lines up with the “Yes, they do” and the “real intelligence” side of those issues.

Darwin glimpsed what Dennett wants to emphasize, that “the idea of intelligence could be broken into bits so tiny and stupid that they [seemingly] didn’t count as intelligence at all.” (my emphasis). Darwin saw how these bits could then be “distributed through space and time in a gigantic, connected network of algorithmic processes,” Dennett contends, a network of great power and consequence. “Nature is more clever than you,” researcher Stanley Orgel is reported to have frequently reminded himself and his students as they worked to synthesize amino acids for the first time in a laboratory.

Evolution by Natural Selection is “descent with modification,” says Darwin, and then the test of that modification, which is “natural selection.” If the modification to the organism is helpful to the organism’s reproduction, that modification will (often) be “selected” by nature. Evolution is an algorithmic process by being modification-test, modification-test, over and over again for billions of years and for billions of creatures, working away at each one of their traits, “favouring the good and rejecting the bad,” wrote Darwin. And all this is based upon life’s primal reproductive machinery, of course; the DNA molecule duplicates again and again, and occasionally with slight modification.

Dendrogram 6, a slightly fuller pictorial representation. Our Daffodil would be located on the green branch to the right, half way up. The Elephant is toward the upper left corner. Note the more detailed display of human evolutionary forms, top middle.

So, Evolution is a “selection,” a “Natural Selection;” nature making choices like a person. And better, nature is “a Guiding Hand” contended Darwin, and he capitalized the “G” and the “H” as if to suggest evolution’s overarching reality. He used the term “Mother Nature” which strongly suggests nature’s singular character as a proper noun, like a person or a country. All this unusual language, unusual for a scientific theory, is justified by Evolution’s affinity to intelligent activity! And lo and behold, Darwin was fully aware that humans with their language and intelligence where very much a product of this process—though he initially tread gingerly around this particular contention. From this intelligent process arose intelligent products.

Darwin asked, “What limit can be put to this power?” And then answered his own question, “I can see no limit to this power, in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of life.”

We sometimes feel and see—and imagine—great forces moving through The World around us. Not just physical and chemical mechanisms, but Qualities and Values working and working and working toward goals, and with many amazing outcomes as their product. These are the forces of Evolution by Natural Selection, of which we are part and product.

(“Tygre, Tygre, burning bright in the forest of the night, what immortal hand or eye dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” William Blake)


“What limit can be put to this power?” Logo by Marty!

The Tree of Life is Full and It’s Distinctions are Narrow: Part III

(In this series—“Our Sacred World”—we have been exploring Distinctions, and especially distinctions within The Tree of Life. In this edition we will find that The Tree is very Full and the space for radically different Kinds of things is limited by the plethora of Individuals that already exist or have existed. Where do we, or Mother Nature, draw the lines for any “kind” of living thing among this array of “individual” living things? Is a Flower really that much different than an Mammal?” Are the lines disappearing?—–see the previous two posts in this section for parts one and two.)



(Varieties of Spaniels Darwin asks us to imagine the different species in the Tree of Life as finely arrayed in their Distinctions as these varieties of Spaniels. About 21 breeds of Spaniel are generally recognized.)

In his Origin of Species, Darwin imagines, “If every form which has ever lived on this earth were suddenly to reappear…all would blend together by steps as fine as those between the finest existing varieties,” (my emphasis).

(Beetles, the most finely arrayed Order that we know. Some 380,000 species have so far been recorded and they are “the most species-rich group of insects—and insects are the most species-rich group of animals.” Above is a drawing of some species of Bark Beetle and Skin Beetle. Darwin askes us to imagine the entire Tree of life this Necessarily Detailed! One of the most famous quips in the Evolution/God debate involves these critters. Asked what he can conclude about God, from his knowledge of biology, famous British biologist JBS Haldane said, “He has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” Quote thanks to The Economist magazine.)

The Tree of Life is full! Just as we saw that it was an unbroken chain of reproduction from bottom to top (First Wonder), so now we must understand it as full laterally around and along each branching point. Intermediate forms must have existed (and then perished).

(A return to Dendrogram 2 from the First Wonder. Theoretically a tree could be drawn that included a line for each living thing that ever existed! Now that would be Full, even in comparison to the above tree where each line should be thought of as many multiples of closely related Kinds of creatures. The origin of life is bottom middle and spreading left to right. The outer arching fringe is modern times. )

Dennett insists that “Gradualism” is at the core of Evolution. Darwin realized 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.

Darwin realized that the world of living things and the fossil record suggested (was evidence of) its tree-like relationship of kinds (“forms,” as he so often called them) and its gradual historical development. Large improbable leaps were replaced in his thinking by very small developments! Any singular species or kind came into its own only by the narrowing of (the Selection from) a large array of similar forms. (This point will be returned to and developed.)

(Cichlid Fish, my do these little critters love to speciate! A favorite of aquarium hobbyists worldwide, in Lake Victoria alone there are over 500 species. Now imagine each species with more diversity—varieties—than the number of species themselves! Chart thanks to Seehausen, 2006.)

At any one time, every species contains a huge amount of diversity. At any point along the growth of The Tree, we can surmise “a luxuriant growth of short-lived alternatives,” says Dennett, that are too temporary and singular to be represented in our dendrograms that encompass billions of years and vast numbers of creatures and kinds of creatures. Any line in our dendrogram should be imagined fuzzy with variants that met with little reproductive success!

It is here that we come back to that original issue of individual and kind. Each individual must be (not its own species) but almost its own variety of a species, and Darwin emphasizes that every variety is “an incipient species” because it could be naturally selected to become the dominant “form” of its historically developing interbreeding and morphologically similar kind, i.e. a species. Varieties are “a less distinct and more fluctuating form,” he wrote, but “the term species…does not essentially differ from the term variety.” Nor is the term “variety” essentially different from the term individual, I think we should conclude.

(The species Domestic DogCanis familiaris–represents an extreme; there are huge anatomical differences among its varieties, yet still one species capable of interbreeding, in an extended kind of way.)

Both Darwin and Dennett strongly object to the traditional idea of “an essence,” especially for biological phenomena. In Darwin’s day, each species of living thing was thought to have its own essence to distinguish its absolute uniqueness. In this way, Essentialism is the opposite of Gradualism. An essence was considered timeless; it was a piece in the creator’s mind—God’s Eternal Plan. An essence was considered a kind of immaterial cause that was not a part of history, nor were living kinds considered to change in time.

Today, we still occasionally use that term (as above) by saying two things are “essentially” the same or different. Technically, in philosophy, an essence is the total uniqueness and singularity of a thing as its prime quality. These are “the cuts made at the joints in nature” that Plato wanted to make, as mentioned in the introduction to this series of posts. They are the lines that delineate nature’s true individuals and kinds.

But these “joints” do not exist in the world of living things, Darwin and Dennett argue. In The Tree of Life, only The Tree itself is a singular unit approaching an essential quality; all that is in it exists only by relation to all else in it, and all that has been in it. In Dennett’s heralded book, he concludes his chapter titled “The Tree of Life” by saying, “Any acceptable explanation of the patterns we observe in the Tree of Life must be contrastive,” must only be understood in relation to the rest of the Tree and its history. To be “alive,” is to be a part of this larger whole.

(Humans in contrast to some other primates, and now add to these, in your imagination, numerous additional intermediate cases. Comparatively” is how all living things exist and must be understood.)
(Comparative Brain Sizes of Mammals. Making sense of the creatures in the Tree of Life is by comparison to each other. Numerous small distinctions must be made. Plants are not nearly so complex or integrated to have a brain or nervous system. Insects have very tiny brains that do not do much for them. Most of their behaviors are controlled by various ganglia [small neural junctions] spread throughout their body.)

There are other examples of the tight blend of various kinds of living things.

Separate species do sometimes interbreed. Wolves, coyotes and dogs not only have great morphological similarity (“form”) but can and do occasionally interbreed and bare fertile offspring. Domesticated dogs are of one species (Canus familiaris) though many of their varieties are incapable of actually mating, but due to the large and varying degree of intermediate sizes and shapes of dogs, genes from the most different varieties can co-exist and form a vast array of “mutts.”

And at the other extreme, in some cases, a difference in species and a lack of interbreeding can arise from changes that are insignificant at many other points. The Herring Gull of England apparently interbreed with the Herring Gulls of Iceland and Greenland as their range stretches westward to eventually circle the North Pole. In North America this interbreeding continues but some slight coloration variations are evident. As this species’ range crosses over to northern Asia interbreeding continues and coloration differences increase. This trend continues across Siberia and back through northern and eastern Europe until this range of birds returns to England as two different species with some color differences and a refusal to interbreed! Maybe these birds see or hear or smell something more subtle and important in their slight differences than is apparent to humans! These Gulls represent the other extreme from domestic dogs: two separate species but little anatomical (and geographic) distinction between them.

(Two Species of Gull: Herring Gull of England will breed with its kin to the west. (photos thanks to allaboutbirds.org)
(Lesser Black-Backed Gull of England will breed with its kin to the east, but not with Herring Gulls.)

At any one time, The Diversity of Kinds of living things is Vast and it can also be subtle. Each individual living thing is not its own kind, but almost its own variety of a kind. The Tree of Life is lush with Kinds within Kinds and Varieties within Varieties. In this sense, it exhibits an amazing Fullness.

(Dendrogram 7 [an upside down Tree]: Animals as Kinds within Kinds, and Kinds composed of Individuals. Notice the Ant, in the middle of this Tree, it is an Insect. Scientists have identified 900 thousand different species of insect and estimate there are twice that still unidentified. Total individual insects in the world is estimated to be 10 quintillion—a 10 with 18 zeros behind it. Now there is an amazingly full branch in a very full tree of life!)

Especially if we consider the Tree of Life historically, its Distinctions between species and individual living things within each species (their varieties) are very fine-grained. The Principle of Gradualism is essential to this Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. The reality of Gradualism is supported by massive amounts of data along with the logic necessary for any Materialistic and Naturalistic theory of the character and origins of living things.

The following Wonder Six in THE TREE OF LIFE is an additional corollary of The Principle of Gradualism. AMAZING HOW SUBTLE ARE THE DISTINCTIONS IN THE WORLD OF LIVING THINGS!



(THE SPECTRUM OF VISIBLE LIGHT: Let’s talk about making Distinctions: where does the color Green start?)

A shocking contention. Our ordinary intuitions deeply mislead us when we think that there must have been “a first human,” “a first mammal” and even “the first living thing.” It is as if we believe, at some exact point, a fish gave birth to an amphibian, or a lizard gave birth to the first mammal, or life suddenly sprung from non-life. That did not happen and we must learn to give ourselves over to the spirit of Gradualism and the seamless character of The Tree of Life and we will see that the idea of a “first” is only a “supposedly important question,” says Dennett. The idea of “The First…” is misleading and means a radical change at some exact point, a break in continuity. But how else can we understand it?

Biologist Richard Dawkins makes the point in the following way. 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.” In this way, Dawkins resists radical jumps, his point is No Firsts,” just infinitesimal developments all the way up (and all the way across) The Tree of Life.

Primates, a line of successive adaptations. “Primates have many features in common. In general, they have large brains, eyes that face forward, and thumbs that can bend to meet the other fingers.But can we supply further ‘missing links?’

A more formal way to think of this is that complex things, like “human,” “mammal,” and “life,” have no essence. As discussed earlier, they are not primarily one overwhelming characteristic (an essence) but a collection of traits highly associated. And when living things change, it is not because they are finally displaying what was really already there ‘deep down’ and “intrinsic” to them, i.e. their essence. Dennett phrases the point made above by Dawkins in the following way: new kinds of living things “must grow out of something less, something quasi-, something merely as if rather than intrinsic” (his emphasis). It is not that ‘in the heart’ of the ancestor that was common to both ourselves and the gorilla lurked the goal of being human. Living things are not related that way; they are far more contingent.

Darwin recognized this when imagining the reappearance of all former living creatures and the tighter blending that would create among species today. No clean and simple “definition” of the different kinds would be possible, only “a natural arrangement” would be evident. “It would be quite impossible to give definitions by which each group could be distinguished from other groups, as all would blend together,…nevertheless a natural arrangement would be possible,” said Darwin. No tight definitions possible; no essences found to sharply distinguish each kind of creature, he is contending. The Tree of Life flows and grows slowly from part to part, branch to branch, time to time.

(A simple array of hominids. Yes, we can further fill the gap between other primates and humans. It is often only a human convention to declare “firsts” and think of all living things in clearly distinguished groups with starts and finishes.)

Even the “Origin of Life” falls to this qualification. Look it up, what are the main characteristics of life? Are there four—sensation, growth, reproduction, self-regulation—are there five, are there eight? “Life” seems to be a collection from many different directions. Regardless, says Dennett, “a good Darwinian” will know how to deal with this familiar problem of “origins”; for each trait “a still simpler form” of it will be sought: a simpler form of genetic code, a simpler form of metabolism, a simpler form of flight…

And what will we find when move back in time—as if in a time machine, suggests Dennett—to this new situation of the simpler form? Will we find that simpler form distinct and outstanding due to its abilities and unusual skills in comparison to its contemporaries? Was our “fishy” ancestor—for example—better, more distinguished, than its other fishy contemporaries? Was ‘The First Living Thing’ more obviously ‘alive’ than many of its contemporaries? No! Only with large amounts of time and many further developments did one such creature turn out to be what we sometimes want to call “The First Living Thing.”

Today, Life distinguishes itself from Non-Life in many important ways, several suggested previously. But in the time span of its origin, Life displayed a “near-invisibility,” to use Dennett’s words. It did not obviously distinguish itself from many of its contemporaries and Only Time Would Tell. In the early stages, ‘Life’ was only one chemical reaction among many.

The idea “Life,” like the idea “Speciation,” has “a curious property,” says Dennett, “You can’t tell it is happening at the time it occurs.” Only many years later, many generations later, is it clear that something important had to have started in the past—many important current distinctions must now be based in some antiquity—and we may begin to search for it. It is a “retrospective coronation,” as we talked about the winner of our coin-flipping tournament in Wonder Two. This ‘origin of life,’ or ‘the first mammal,’ are understood only with hindsight.

So, many of Life’s events are not immediately obvious; they draw no clear line at the time of their supposed origin; their significance is only eventually displayed. In this way, There are No “Firsts!”

Dennett goes so far as to say, “There is not and could not be anything internal or intrinsic to the individual…from which it followed that they were—as they later turned out to be—the founder of a new species” (or even the first living thing), Dennett’s emplhasis. I feel the urge to say, “Not even some trait that was ‘small’ and beneath our notice that was there and the basis of the origination?” But Dennett’s answer is No, it is not our inability to see some break-point; it is Nature’s real and continuously unbroken form! There are no break-points; no exact joints at which to make the cuts.

That is awesome.

(Light of Iris by Georgia O’Keeffe 192

When our ancestors “won” in the game of life, it was much like the coin-flipping tournament from Wonder Two. But unlike the coin-flipping, the winner not only moved on to the next round so did its off-spring that then composed the species, the kind, as it faced its next round of challenges. Its off-spring and those off-spring’s off-spring created an array of varieties or variations even closer than the Spaniels pictured previously. It is from that array that the new winner was naturally selected, but at that time it stood out in no obvious way from its kindred contemporaries.*

And Luck did play a large role in its “conquest.” Lucky that the didn’t get stepped on in its infancy and die, or been eaten. Lucky that all its grandchildren didn’t all freeze to death in a subsequent harsh winter. Lucky that it just happened to possess the mutation in its genome that gave it a slight difference from its very similar co-specifics. Lucky that it had more luck than those others whose lines of descent were extinguished with time. As Dennett said of the coin-toss tournament, and this still applies, the winner was only revealed in hindsight, as the other competitors were pared away: “it is a retrospective coronation,” and “an historical accident.”

Our common sense understanding of Evolution is distorted in this way. We tend to think of the winners as advancing due to their own skill and superiority, smiting their competition in a very clear and deliberate way: head-on, mano a mano. That is not the way Natural Selection works. “The winners” end up chosen through a vast array of circumstances that stretch through a vast sequence of time, but survivors they are. This process is massively contingent, but The Tree of Life continues to grow based on, and shaped by, all these historical accidents!

(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.)

Some fish slowly became more amphibian-like, and some amphibians became more reptile-like and then mammal-like and then more human-like. It is our desire for clarity that leads us to imagine sharp and once-and-for-all divergences in Evolution’s developments. It is our convention to think in terms of “firsts,” but it is not nature’s way. “So much the worse for our conventions,” says Dennett.

Dennett’s book is fulfilling its promise to challenge, and even threaten, Our Traditional Ways of Thinking. What are the implications of this extreme form of Gradualism? The Tree of Life is Full of Awe, we may come to believe; to some of us this may be threatening and even “awful” in its more modern sense.

(Awesome and Awful: Marc Chagall’s Moses and the Burning Bush (a work–like evolution itself–with prolonged history of production and revision). I have been unable to determine the meaning of the Hebrew script above the tree.. The two bursts of flame arising form Moses’ head suggest to me that This Tree is blowing his mind. I am working towards a similar response from Our Tree.)

*These are difficult concepts. I am still not sure I understand them or have them accurately stated. The issue may come down to a basic and vague issue of the unit of evolution. Is it the individual organism, the species of closely related organisms, or, as theorist Richard Dawkins has suggested, the genes that compose the individuals? If we are looking for something exact and continuous without change in the history of evolution, it may only be small bits of genetic code, not any of the fleeting phenotypic forms they acquire, i.e. organisms. I am still working on this question.



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!!!

The Distinctions in The Tree of Life

(Depiction of The Forests of the Permian Period, all lost in “The Great Dying” of 250 mya.)

Our thesis has been the Wholeness of The Tree; its Gradualness of growth and change; its Continuity from bottom to top and side to side; its Contrasting set of Qualities and Values; Its Unity of Process. In this sense, Darwin and Dennett have argued that The Distinctions within The Tree are secondary, interdependent, and vague by comparison to this massive swath of overall Creative Unity. A true source of Awe, say I: A massive piece of Organic Art.

And Darwin said at the end of his “Origin” : “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

The Distinctions in The Tree of Life have Increased with Time

Dendrogram Eleven: An unusual one, from page 87 of Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea [1995]; apparently specially formulated for this book. It clearly shows the explosion of diverse species with the discovery of the multicellular way of living at about 700 million years ago—that is 700 thousand of thousands of years in the past.)

In spite of its shocking Unity within a Massive Diversity, Lines of Distinction are evident. A Daylily is not an Elephant, as was initially suggested at the start of this series.

Darwin acknowledged this when suggesting we imagine all the “forms” that have ever existed returning to The Tree to create a most minutely grained array. When we look from one major branch to another, one side of the tree to another, “a natural arrangement” would be evident. Flowering Plants are not Mammals. And from bottom to top, the earliest creatures to the most evolved current forms, huge differences in size and complexity jump out at us. All the mitigating and intermediate living structures help to soften these largest differences, but these large differences do now exist in themselves as stark contrasts.

(The Species of Domestic Dog is a good example of the significance of Intermediate Forms. Its unity as a single gene pool and interbreeding population is only assured by its Variety of Varieties. The Tree of Life exists with this kind of extension of relations, only more so.)

Biologist Richard Dawkins suggests the following connection of relations within The Tree. At many points on a single branch and even between major branches of life, there can be a variety of Evolutionary Routes between any two distinct kinds of creatures. One route of development is assured, the one that actually exists through The Tree when two forms are traced back to their Nearest Common Ancestor and then their varied development understood from there. Dawkins then contends that other routes may be possible with different Evolutionary Pressures applied. Current forms are still evolving. The following example is a stretch, but it conveys the intended point, Maybe someday Pigs Will Fly!

Intermediate kinds of species are crucial to The Unity of The Tree of Life, but there are specific forces working against their survival. First, Competition will tend to hollow out The Tree. Darwin: “competition will generally be most severe between those forms which are most nearly related to each other in habits, constitution and structure…all the intermediate forms will tend to become extinct”(my emphasis).

(Hollowing out The Tree: Nine of our most prominent ancestors that are among the approximate 25 extinct species of Hominins–for which we have fossil evidence–that compose our evolution from our common ancestor with the chimpanzee over the past 7 million years: from Sahelanthropus tchadensis–oldest– upper left, to Homo floresiensis bottom left, to Homo neanderthalensis–most recent– bottom right. See the amazing six minute video by American Museum of Natural History: Seven Million Years of Human Evolution. Highly recommended!)


Second, Distinctions can be self-reinforcing. Once a living creature has begun to establish a “new way of making a living,” as it is often put, those initial developments set up (and foreclose) many secondary developments/adaptations. A very interesting discussion occurs in Dennett’s book concerning these “logical” developments in living bodily structure.

For example, it makes sense to have opposing thumbs and fingers, for grasping. A single finger at the end of an arm would not nearly be as useful. And the same for two arms as opposed to just one; or legs—two, four, six…make more sense in an engineering way than does just one leg, or three or five. And yet in fish, having one main central source of power or “push” in the rear—the tail—works quite well for locomotion in water. (These kinds of facts should also be taken into consideration for Wonders Three and Four from Part II of this series: Evolution by Natural Selection does discover Value and Efficiency, and in that way is (or is like) an intelligent process!) Once started down an evolutionary path, certain further adaptations become possible and more likely, while others less likely and less opportune.

(Bilateral Symmetry is smart! Mother Nature has well designed creatures.)

But as Dendrogram Eleven makes clear, several large Evolutionary Developments established a foundation from which a growing diversity and complexity of ways of life could occur. The revolution of the Nucleated Cell at about 1.4 billion years ago, and then the onset of Multicellular Creatures 700 million years ago. The first started the development of internal complexity, the “equipment” (says Dennett) to then diversify into many different relationships with the environment by which to survive and reproduce, as demonstrated in the multicellular stage. A diversity of Distinctions now started to become dramatic and self-reinforcing.

Third, Extinctions have hollowed out the array of forms in The Tree of Life. An elephant is very different from a day lily. Many different kinds of creatures have occurred in Life’s History, but in the Five Major Extinctions whole classes of significantly different creatures were lost. This set the creatures that survived (or were yet to evolve) into sharper contrast.

Crocodiles are an ancient life form—a “living Fossil”—that continues into today, as are horseshoe crabs; both are quite distinct in contrast to more modern creatures. It is estimated that for every one species alive today about 100 species have gone extinct. (Most specific extinction information from below from National Geographic 9/26/19)

(Dendrogram Twelve: an edited Tree of Exiting Life Forms. Notice in the middle of this tree ‘a bare spot.’ an open area below the three birds [Aves] and above the crocodilian and snake; that is where the synapsids and dinosaurs were before their extinction. Birds are now in sharper relief without the raptors that led to them. Thanks to FAIRHOPE GRAPHACS for the use of this tree.)

THE FIVE MAJOR EXTINCTIONS that helped to Distinguish the Life Forms in our current Tree of Life.

  • The Ordovician Extinction, 445 mya. Most life was in the sea, and up to 85% of species were lost at this time. Caused by plate tectonic movement, the most well know class of animal lost were massive varieties of trilobite, one of the most common animals of the time.
(Ya gotta love those Trilobites! So far over 20,000 fossil species described. With us no more!)
  • Late Devonian Extinction, 370 mya. Caused by volcanic activity and meteor strikes and resulted in a 75% extinction rate of living things mostly in the sea. Most noted victims were Conodonts, and Goniatites (which were similar to modern octopus and squid.) Also lost were the dominant fish of these times, the Placoderms; not a single species of them survived this and the next extinction.
(Not Nice! Conodonts: eel-like creatures with maximum size so far found to be about 1.5 ft. or 40 cm. 11 fossil imprints exist and plenty of fossilized teeth.)
(What a shame, we lost all the Armored Fish! Placoderms–“plate skinned” fish–dominated the waters in the Devonian Period and ranged from 15 cm. to 9 m. in length. An apex predator, there are over 400 fossil species identified.)
  • “The Great Dying” of the Permian-Triassic Extinction, 250 mya. 96% of sea species and 75% of land species perished. Caused by massive volcanic activity in Siberia which released huge amounts of carbon into the air and onto the land. Lost in the carnage were most varieties of synapsid, who ruled the land before this extinction and before the dinosaur.

(A synapsid, Lystrosaurus or “shovel-lizard, is one of the ancestral relatives of mammals. Once referred to as a “mammal-like lizard,” now referred to as a “stem mammal.” Six recognized fossil species with sixes from .5m to 2.5m long.)
(Another cute one? Also lost, the Placerias, an anomodont. Grew to one U.S. ton—2,000 lbs., just smaller than British tonne.)
  • The Triassic-Jurassic Extinction, 200 mya. Again it was volcanos, but this time from the middle of Pangaea that broke apart the ancient supercontinent and formed the Atlantic Ocean. It is estimated that 80% of all species went extinct. This extinction finished off the Conodonts. Many forms of Crocodile-like creatures also were extinguished but those that survived then diversified and flourished into the Jurassic period were they eventually met their almost complete end. It is this extinction that starts the age of the dinosaur.
(The array of extinct Crocodilians. Some lived completely in the sea. Others rose on their hind legs and ran for short distances! As small as 2 ft. (40 cm.) or as large as 40 ft. (12 m.), some had long legs and somewhat resembled a dog. Once a vast order, now only a few of its families and species currently survive.)
  • The Age of Reptiles comes, and then goes with The Late Cretaceous Extinction, 65 mya. The cause of this extinction is still debated but it is generally connected to the impact of a 7.5 mile (12 km.) rock from space crashing into the Earth at 45,000 mph. off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula of today’s Mexico. 76% of all species were extinguished including all dinosaurs except for one of its branches, birds! This is the last of the Great Extinctions, but of course many argue that we are currently in the midst of another extinction.
(Amazing to think that Dinosaurs came in an array, as they must, of course. Above are the Tyrannosauroids.)
(Sauropsods—All gone!— of which the Brontosaurus is our most commonly known example: four-legged, longnecked herbivorous dinosaurs.)
(Dendrogram Thirteen: partial Tree of Sauropod Dinosaurs. 300 described fossil species so far! From Wilson & Sareno, 1998)


How vast The Tree of Life! How full! How amazing the process of Evolution! This short review of major extinctions has made me aware of how many times The Great Tree has had to regrow itself or at least huge portions of itself. And yet, we can return to the opening statement:

“Our thesis (is) the Wholeness of The Tree; its Gradualness of growth and change (between extinctions); its Continuity from bottom to top and side to side; its Contrasting set of Qualities and Values; Its Unity of Process. In this sense, Darwin and Dennett have argued that The Distinctions within The Tree are secondary, highly interdependent, and vague by comparison to this massive swath of overall Creative Unity. A true source of Awe, say I: A massive piece of Organic Art.”

And Dennett says at the end of his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea : “The Tree of Life, an utterly unique and irreplaceable creation…(It) is neither perfect nor infinite in space or time, but it is actual, and if it is not Anselm’s ‘Being greater than which nothing can be conceived,’ it is surely a being that is greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail. Is something sacred? Yes, say I with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred.”

THANK YOU, I hope you learned as much as I did! For details, Please return to the previous 4 posts in this series, temporarily stored in The Connection, Varied Topics section.