Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Tree of Life

One of the goals of science is to find theories that provide unifying frameworks. In physics, Newton's Theory of Universal Gravitation unified the heavens and the Earth by showing that the same forces that goverened terrestrial matters also applied to the extraterrestrial. Physics is, however, still in search of a grand unifying theory that accounts for all forces via a single equation that can, in principle, explain all physical interactions. Many disciplines lack even basic unification. We don't, for example, have a grand congitive theory (which is not to denigrate the accomplishments of cognitive scientists who are, after all, dealing with an extremely complex subject).

In all of the sciences, the best example of a unifying theory is Darwin's Theory of Evolution. It is a shame that Darwin's magnificent theory does conflict with a number of religious dogmas. It is not the first time that this has happened. The Catholic Church famously rejected the Copernican Theory of Heliocentrism, Christian Scientists, to this day, reject the Germ Theory of Disease, and there are even groups that reject, on religious grounds, the Theory of Sphericalism when interpreting the shape of the planet. It is my hope that the current furor over the Darwinian model will, too, die down in the fullness of time. Be that as it may.

Although the theory has been updated somewhat (i.e. the Modern Synthesis) by the integration of genetics and elucidated by such things as Game Theory, Darwin's central insight into the mechanism by which new species of organisms arise remains simultaneously elegant and profound. Darwinism also implies a different sort of unification by demonstrating the profound interconnections between all living organisms. I've already spoken of this in my prior essay titled Immanence; however, this time I'd like to draw attention to a site that beautifully illustrates these interconnections.

This is the Tree of Life web project. The Tree of Life site is, essentially, a gigantic database of the connecting nodes (e.g., generas, phylums, etc) of life on this planet. This description, however, fails to give a sense of how beautifully the site is organized nor of the depth of information that is provided at each node (to say nothing of the plethora of beautiful photographs and illustrations). This also fails to give a sense at the sorts of surprises that one can find (for instance the observation that crocodiles are more closely related to birds than to turtles, overturning our traditional conception of what it means to call something a reptile). It is the sort of site that begs you to pick a starting point and to simply wander through it. I have lost (or, rather, found) hours of time doing just that. I hope that you shall, too.

Once you've had your fill of the site (as if!), I might also encourage you to go out and buy Richard Dawkin's new book The Ancestor's Tale, which expands on these interconnections via a brilliant "prilgramage" backwards in time to meet up with our "concestors".

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