Darwin’s tree of life has been an icon in textbooks and classrooms for generations. According to the theory, all living things share a common ancestor. Thus, when you trace the branches back, you should find a common trunk from which all living things ultimately sprang. Before scientists knew much about genetics, these branches were traced through similar physical traits between organisms (called “morphology”). So long as they didn’t take the fossil record into consideration, the theory looked great. When they honestly examined the fossils, however, a disturbing picture emerged. Darwinian evolutionists had expected to find a “bottom-up” pattern in the fossil record with lower levels in the biological hierarchy appearing before the higher levels. The evidence, thanks in large part to a fossil find termed “the Cambrian Explosion,” showed precisely the opposite. According to the evidence, it seems as if animals appeared fully formed and have diversified/adapted from there in a “top-down” fashion. Jonathan Wells, author of Icons of Evolution, observed, “the Cambrian explosion stands Darwin’s tree of life on its head.”
False theories, however, aren’t abandoned easily. So, rather than admit that the evidential ax had felled Darwin’s tree, scientists turned in hope to the emerging field of molecular biology. By examining gene sequencing in living organisms they hoped to find the evidence needed to save Darwin’s tree. The evidence, however, has not been kind to the iconic tree. Each new discovery fell like an ax at its roots. One scientist famously lamented, “Molecular phylogenists will have failed to find the ‘true tree,’ not because their methods are inadequate or because they have chosen the wrong genes, but because the history of life cannot properly be represented as a tree.”
And just this year a paper in Trends in Genetics
observed that “the more we learn about genomes the less tree-like we find their evolutionary history to be.” Another researcher minced no words when he wrote, “the holy grail was to build the tree of life…” but “today that project lies in tatters, torn to pieces by an onslaught of negative evidence.” He went on to say, “many biologists now argue that the tree concept is obsolete and needs to be discarded.”
After an extensive study of genetic evidence another researcher bluntly concluded, “We’ve just annihilated the tree of life. It’s not a tree any more, it’s a different topology entirely.”
The evidential ax has not been kind to Darwin’s tree. Each new genetic find sent fresh splinters flying until it has finally dropped it entirely. And yet the iconic tree continues to stand in textbooks. Are we to believe the authors unaware of the latest evidence or has the icon proved too useful in promoting a troubled theory?
For those willing to evaluate the evidence honestly, a startling image begins to emerge. Instead of a singular tree, an orchard of life stands. In other words, the branches trace back not to one common ancestral trunk, but to a great number of original kinds. What we see, then, is diversification within kinds, but not change across kinds. And this is precisely what the Biblical account would predict: original created kinds imbued with great genetic flexibility and adaptability to maximize survivability. Perhaps it’s time to insist upon a new icon.
 Scientific America, 2000.