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Common descent

A group of organisms is said to have common descent if they have a common ancestor. In modern biology, it is generally accepted that all living organisms on Earth are descended from a common ancestor or ancestral gene pool.

A theory of universal common descent based on evolutionary principles was proposed by Charles Darwin in his book On the Origin of Species (1859), and later in The Descent of Man (1871). This theory is now generally accepted by biologists, and the last universal common ancestor (LUCA or LUA), that is, the most recent common ancestor of all currently living organisms, is believed to have appeared about 3.9 billion years ago. The theory of a common ancestor between all organisms is one of the principles of evolution, although for single cell organisms and viruses, single phylogeny is disputed (see: origin of life).

History

The first suggestion that all organisms may have had a common ancestor and diverged through random variation and natural selection was made in 1745 by the French mathematician and scientist Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759) in his work Vénus physique. Specifically:
"Could one not say that, in the fortuitous combinations of the productions of nature, as there must be some characterized by a certain relation of fitness which are able to subsist, it is not to be wondered at that this fitness is present in all the species that are currently in existence? Chance, one would say, produced an innumerable multitude of individuals; a small number found themselves constructed in such a manner that the parts of the animal were able to satisfy its needs; in another infinitely greater number, there was neither fitness nor order: all of these latter have perished. Animals lacking a mouth could not live; others lacking reproductive organs could not perpetuate themselves... The species we see today are but the smallest part of what blind destiny has produced..."

In 1790, Immanuel Kant (Königsberg (Kaliningrad) 1724 - 1804), in his Kritik der Urtheilskraft, states that the analogy of animal forms implies a common original type and thus a common parent.

Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, hypothesized in 1795 that all warm-blooded animals were descended from a single "living filament":

"...would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality...?" (Zoonomia, 1795, section 39, "Generation")

In 1859, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was published. The views about common descent expressed therein vary between suggesting that there was a single "first creature" to allowing that there may have been more than one. Here are the relevant quotations from the Conclusion:

"[P]robably all of the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed."

"The whole history of the world, as at present known, ... will hereafter be recognized as a mere fragment of time, compared with the ages which have elapsed since the first creature, the progenitor of innumerable extinct and living descendants, was created."

"When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled."

The famous closing sentence describes the "grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one." The phrase "one form" here seems to hark back to the phrase "some few beings"; in any case, the choice of words is remarkable for its consistency with recent ideas about there having been a single ancestral "genetic pool".

Evidence of universal common descent

Common biochemistry and genetic code

All known forms of life are based on the same fundamental biochemical organisation: genetic information encoded in DNA, transcribed into RNA, through the effect of protein- and RNA-enzymes, then translated into proteins by (highly similar) ribosomes, with ATP, NADH and others as energy sources, etc. Furthermore, the genetic code (the "translation table" according to which DNA information is translated into proteins) is nearly identical for all known lifeforms, from bacteria to humans. The universality of this code is generally regarded by biologists as definitive evidence in favor of the theory of universal common descent. Analysis of the small differences in the genetic code has also provided support for universal common descent.

Selectively neutral similarities

Similarities which have no relevance to evolution and therefore cannot be explained by convergence, tend to be very compelling support for the universal common descent theory.

Such evidence has come from two domains: amino acid sequences and DNA sequences. Proteins with the same three-dimensional structure need not have identical amino acid sequences; any irrelevant similarity between the sequences is evidence for common descent. In certain cases, there are several codons (DNA triplets) that code for the same amino acid. Thus, if two species use the same codon at the same place to specify an amino acid that can be represented by more than one codon, that is evidence for a recent common ancestor.

Other similarities

The universality of many aspects of cellular life is often pointed to as supportive evidence to the more compelling evidence listed above. These similarities include the energy carrier ATP, and the fact that all amino acids found in proteins are left-handed. It is possible that these similarities resulted because of the laws of physics and chemistry, rather than universal common descent and therefore resulted in convergent evolution.

Phylogenetic trees

Another important piece of evidence is that it is possible to construct detailed phylogenetic trees (that is, "genealogic trees" of species) mapping out the proposed divisions and common ancestors of all living species. Traditionally, these trees have been built using morphological methods (based on appearance, embryology, etc). Recently, it has been possible to construct these trees using molecular data (based on similarities and differences between genetic and protein sequences). Crucially, all these methods produce essentially similar results, despite the fact that most genetic variation has no influence over external morphology. The fact that phylogenetic trees based on different types of information agree with each other is strong evidence of a real underlying phylogeny - that is, common descent.

Illustrations of common descent

Artificial selection

Artificial selection offers remarkable examples of the amount of diversity that can exist between individuals sharing a late common ancestor. To perform artificial selection, one begins with a particular species (following examples include wolves and wild cabbage) and then, at every generation, only allow certain individuals to reproduce, based on the degree to which they exhibit certain desirable characteristics. In time, it is expected that these characteristics become increasingly well-developed in successive generations. Many examples of artificial selection, like the ones below, occurred without the guidance of modern scientific insight.

Dog breeding
An obvious example of the power of artificial selection is the diversity found in various breed in domesticated dogs. The various breeds of dogs all share common ancestry (being all ultimately descended from wolves) but were domesticated by humans and then selectively bred in order to enhance various features such as coat color and length or body size. To see the wide range of difference between the many breeds of dogs compare the Chihuahua, Great Dane, Basset Hound, Pug, and Poodle. Also compare this enormous diversity with the relative uniformity of wild wolves.
Wild cabbage

Early farmers cultivated many popular vegetables from the Brassica oleracea (common name wild cabbage) by artificially selecting for certain attributes. Common vegetables such as cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts are all descendants of the wild cabbage plant. Brussels sprouts were created by artificially selecting for large bud size. Broccoli was bred by selecting for large flower stalks. Cabbage was created by selecting for short petioles. Kale was bred by selecting for large leaves.

Natural selection

Natural selection is the evolutionary process by which favorable traits that are heritable become more common in successive generations of a population of reproducing organisms, and unfavorable traits that are heritable become less common.

Darwin's finches
During Darwin's studies on the Galápagos Islands, Darwin observed 13 species of finches that are closely related and differ most markedly in the shape of their beaks. The beak of each species is suited to its preferred food, suggesting that beak shapes evolved by natural selection. Large beaks were found on the islands where the primary source of food for the finches is nuts and therefore the large beaks allowed the birds to be better equipped for opening the nuts and staying well nourished. Slender beaks were found on the finches which found insects to be the best source of food on the island they inhabited; their slender beaks allowed the birds to be better equipped for pulling out the insects from their tiny hiding places. The finch is also found on the main land and it is thought that they migrated to the islands and began adapting to their environment through natural selection.

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