In evolutionary biology, a group of organisms share common descent if they have a common ancestor. There is strong quantitative support for the theory that all living organisms on Earth are descended from a common ancestor.
Charles Darwin proposed the theory of universal common descent through an evolutionary process in On the Origin of Species, twice stating the hypothesis that there was only one progenitor for all life forms and ending with “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one”. The theory asserts that all currently living organisms on Earth share a common genetic heritage with each being the descendant from a single original species, though the suggestion of substantial horizontal gene transfer during early evolution has led to questions about monophyly of life.
The last universal ancestor (LUA) (also called the last universal common ancestor, LUCA), that is, the most recent common ancestor of all currently living organisms, is believed to have appeared about 3.9 billion years ago.
History of Evolutionary Thought
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 wrote in Kritik der Urtheilskraft (Critique of Judgement) that the analogy of animal forms implies a common original type, and thus a common parent.
In 1795, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, asked:
[W]ould it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, 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, with the power of acquiring new parts attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end?
In 1859, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published. The views about common descent expressed therein were that it was possible that there was only one progenitor for all life forms.
“Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.”
Darwin’s 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.”
Evidence of Universal Common Descent
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. A statistical comparison of various alternative hypotheses has shown that universal common ancestry is significantly more probable than models involving multiple origins.
Selectively neutral similarities
Similarities which have no adaptive relevance cannot be explained by convergent evolution, and therefore they provide compelling support for the theory of universal common descent.
Such evidence has come from two areas: 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.
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. In 2010 an analysis of available genetic data, mapping them to phylogenetic trees, gave “firm quantitative support for the unity of life. …there is now strong quantitative support, by a formal test, for the unity of life. It should be noted, however, the ‘formal’ test is criticised for not including consideration of convergent evolution, and Theobald has defended the method against this claim.
Traditionally, these trees have been built using morphological methods, such as 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. All these methods produce essentially similar results, even though most genetic variation has no influence over external morphology. That phylogenetic trees based on different types of information agree with each other is strong evidence of a real underlying common descent.
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