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Evolution: a paleontologist's perspective

by Dr. Niles Eldredge
Evolution is the only scientific concept that explains the history and diversity of life. Darwin was probably the first to pose the questions that made his famous theory testable: If evolution is "true"—if life really has evolved—what would I expect to observe as a consequence? How could I test this concept?

Testing the theory of evolution

Two of the most important general tests of the notion of evolution are:
  • If life has evolved, there should be nested patterns of resemblance linking up all life.
  • If life has evolved, we should observe a general sequence of primitive to more advanced forms in the history of life.
These two predictions have been continually tested ever since Darwin. (Indeed, they were part of the evidence that led Darwin and others to their evolutionary views in the first place). These predictions have been confirmed over and over again. Together with natural selection, speciation, and other evolutionary mechanisms, evolutionary theory is one of the most important and powerful scientific theories in the history of Western thought.
The fossil record bears on both of these predictions: All extinct forms of life fit into the nested patterns of resemblance that form the core of the "Tree of Life." For example, the trilobites I study are extinct members of the Phylum Arthropoda, which includes living crustaceans, arachnids, insects, and other groups. Trilobites share with all these other groups a segmented external skeleton and compound eyes; however, they are so primitive within the Arthropoda that experts disagree whether they are more closely related to Crustacea or Arachnida, which include the trilobite-like horseshoe crabs. And there has indeed been a sequence from simpler forms of life up through the more complex animals and plants, abundantly and consistently confirming Prediction #2, as the fossil record tells us loudly and clearly.
Trilobites are marine arthropods that flourished during the Paleozoic Era. © American Museum of Natural History
The Earth was formed circa 4.65 billion years ago. The first evidence of life consists of fossils of organisms similar to today's blue-green algae and other forms of bacteria that are at least 3.5 billion years old—though chemical traces in still older sedimentary rocks suggest that life was present even earlier. Bacteria are the most primitive forms of life known; they lack the nucleus that houses the DNA of our own complex "eukaryotic" cells.
Complex eukaryotic cells—somewhat larger, but still microscopic—appeared next, circa 2.5 billion years ago. Their appearance correlated with a rise in atmospheric oxygen that some scientists think was essential to this evolutionary step. Ciliates, flagellates, and many other groups of single-celled organisms (some rather plant-like, others more animal or fungal-like) are the simplest, most primitive members of the Eukaryota. The other eukaryotes, true multicellular plants, fungi, and animals, appear later.

The fossil record

The oldest multicellular life forms to appear in the fossil record are the "Vendian" faunas, which are approximately 650 million years old. Paleontologists have argued over the affinities of these organisms. Some interpret them to be a novel evolutionary "experiment" that produced an array of organisms not closely related to today's multicellular plants, fungi, and animals. Others, however, see in these fossils the evidence for "tissue-grade" organization, as seen in members of groups such as Cnidaria and Ctenophora (corals, jellyfish, and in the latter case, "comb-jellies"), which are primitive forms of animal life still very much with us today. Their bodies consist solely of layers of tissues that perform all their physiological functions, such as digestion; these organisms do not have true organs like stomachs. Some paleontologists interpret fossils such as Pteridinium to be an early member of the Cnidaria. Thus, it seems likely that the more primitive forms of animal life do in fact precede later, more complex forms.
The fossil record grew considerably more complicated when the "Cambrian Explosion" began circa 542 million years ago. Within roughly 10 million years, all of the most complex forms of animal life appeared, including the Phylum Arthropoda, the Phylum Mollusca, and the Phylum Echinodermata (starfish, sea urchins, etc.). Arthropods and Mollusca are "protostomes." During their embryological development, the first opening, the blastopore, becomes the mouth. Echinoderms are "deuterostomes," meaning that the mouth develops from a second hole formed in the embryo (as is the case in vertebrate development as well).
The vertebrate fossil record goes on to illustrate a sequence of primitive to more advanced forms. Jawless fishes precede jawed fishes; bony fish precede amphibians; amphibians precede reptiles; and reptiles precede both birds and mammals. The fossil record of human evolution reveals the same predicted pattern: a progression of smaller brains to larger ones. The most ancient hominids had brains roughly the size of modern chimpanzees', while the biggest-brained species (Neanderthals and ourselves) came last.
Creationists claim that the fossil record does not yield forms intermediate between groups. On the contrary, the origin of limbed tetrapods from fish, the origin of mammals from mammal-like reptiles, and the origin of birds from terrestrial dinosaurs—all have rich and dense fossil records showing the pathways of evolution from earlier to later forms. Whale evolution, which you will learn about next week, is a stunning example of fossils—and molecules—that converge to tell a detailed story of how an ocean-living mammalian group derived from terrestrial ancestors.
This essay was developed for the AMNH online course Evolution, part of Seminars on Science, a program of online professional development courses for educators.

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  • hopper cool style avatar for user Madeliv
    How does: "If life has evolved, we should observe a general sequence of primitive to more advanced forms in the history of life." coexist with the continued presence of simple forms like bacteria and the algae?
    (1 vote)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Brad  H.
      Good question. Two things that will clear it up for you: evolution is not a simple linear progression from "simple" organisms to "complex" organisms and nothing on Earth exists in a vacuum. There is no end goal of a super complex awesome organism. Instead the natural mutations in organisms' DNA from generation to generation are constantly throwing out slight differences that may or may not be successful. This may lead to a sucessful more complex organism millions of years down the line, a slightly different organism that is essentially unchanged in how it operates, or as we see both. Take humans and bacteria. Humans can trace our evolutionary history way back to a single celled bacteria as can the bacteria living in our stomach. From that ancient bacteria a mutation happened that lead to multi-celluar life, but also bacteria that didn't have that mutation and stayed single celled. Both were successful given the environments they found themselves and were able to reproduce. Fast forward hundreds of millions of years and you have the human with single celled bacteria living in its stomach. Don't confuse the bacteria in our stomachs with the ancient bacteria that we and other life forms evolved from though. As the saying goes: "the only constant is change."
      (6 votes)
  • leafers sapling style avatar for user Nistala Radha Ramani
    how they form The fossil record
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user David Hudson
    If we look at all cars, don't we see 'nested patterns of resemblance' and 'a general sequence of primitive to more advanced forms'? Isn't this seen for all sorts of items, regardless of whether the items in question evolved? Where those predictions read, "If life has evolved", wouldn't they be better worded as, "Regardless of whether or not life evolved"?
    (1 vote)
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