Another Look at the Latest Blow to the Darwinian Tree of Life -- and the Man Who Dealt It

Kevin Peterson.jpg

How many times can evolutionists say everything they know is wrong before people start to really believe it?

As Casey Luskin noted here earlier, a news article in Nature tells the tree-shaking story of Kevin Peterson. This whole subject is so delightful it deserves another look.

A molecular paleobiologist at Dartmouth, Peterson never set out to disturb fellow believers in Darwinian theory. He just thought he would try a new method for constructing phylogenetic trees: tracking relationships via micro-RNAs. Peterson thought micro-RNAs would be a good marker of evolutionary relationships:

MicroRNAs, Peterson and [colleague Lorenzo] Sempere discovered, are unlike any of the other molecular metrics that biologists typically use to tease apart evolutionary relationships. DNA binding sites, for example, continuously mutate; microRNAs, by contrast, are either there or they aren't, so their interpretation doesn't require such complex sequence and alignment analyses. And once gained, microRNAs usually remain functional, which means that their signal stays intact for hundreds of millions of years.

But when Peterson tested the conventional Darwinian tree of life for rotifers, his tree didn't match the conventional one. That was only the beginning. He found tree rot all over:

But a chance investigation of microRNAs in microscopic creatures called rotifers led him to examine these regulatory molecules in everything from insects to sea urchins. And as he continues to look, he keeps uncovering problems, from the base of the animal tree all the way up to its crown.

Peterson's observations, first published in a minor journal but now getting notice in Nature and Science, are winning him some vocal critics, but mostly reluctant supporters. His work on the family tree of placental mammals will be his latest unsettling contribution. Peterson had decided to lay it all on the line by testing the family tree of mammals. "We're mammals, so this matters," he said. Sure enough, problems are surfacing there, too.

The data's refusal to cooperate with other Darwinian phylogenies has left Peterson "up a tree," as Nature writer Elie Dolgin quips: "At first, Peterson was shocked by his results, which still haven't been published. But he has spent the past year validating his tree with gene-expression libraries and genomic sequences, all of which he says support his findings." He's being extra careful, because "If we get this wrong, all faith that anyone has in microRNAs [for phylogenetics] will be lost," his colleague Philip Donoghue, a palaeobiologist at the University of Bristol, said. "It could well be the end of all our careers."

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