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Has All Life Descended From a Common Ancestor?

Has All Life Descended From a Common Ancestor?

Darwin thought that all life might be traced to a common ancestor. He imagined that the history of life on earth resembled a grand tree. Later, others believed that this “tree of life” started as a single trunk with the first simple cells. New species branched from the trunk and continued to divide into limbs, or families of plants and animals, and then into twigs, all the species within the families of plants and animals alive today. Is that really what happened?

What do many scientists claim? Many give the impression that the fossil record supports the theory of a common origin for life. They also claim that because all living things use similar “computer language,” or DNA, that all life must have evolved from a common ancestor.

What does the Bible say? The Genesis account states that plants, sea creatures, land animals, and birds were created “according to their kinds.” (Genesis 1:12, 20-25) This description allows for variation within a “kind,” but it implies that there are fixed barriers separating the different kinds. The Bible account of creation also leads us to expect that new types of creatures would appear in the fossil record suddenly and fully formed.

What does the evidence reveal? Does the evidence support the Bible’s description of events, or was Darwin correct? What have discoveries over the past 150 years revealed?


In recent years, scientists have been able to compare the genetic codes of dozens of different single-celled organisms as well as those of plants and animals. They assumed that such comparisons would confirm the branching “tree of life” proposed by Darwin. However, this has not been the case.

What has the research uncovered? In 1999 biologist Malcolm S. Gordon wrote: “Life appears to have had many origins. The base of the universal tree of life appears not to have been a single root.” Is there evidence that all the major branches of life are connected to a single trunk, as Darwin believed? Gordon continues: “The traditional version of the theory of common descent apparently does not apply to kingdoms as presently recognized. It probably does not apply to many, if not all, phyla, and possibly also not to many classes within the phyla.”29 *

Recent research continues to contradict Darwin’s theory of common descent. For example, in 2009 an article in New Scientist magazine quoted evolutionary scientist Eric Bapteste as saying: “We have no evidence at all that the tree of life is a reality.”30 The same article quotes evolutionary biologist Michael Rose as saying: “The tree of life is being politely buried, we all know that. What’s less accepted is that our whole fundamental view of biology needs to change.”31 *


Many scientists point to the fossil record as support for the idea that life emerged from a common origin. They argue, for example, that the fossil record documents the notion that fish became amphibians and reptiles became mammals. What, though, does the fossil evidence really show?

“Instead of finding the gradual unfolding of life,” says evolutionary paleontologist David M. Raup, “what geologists of Darwin’s time, and geologists of the present day actually find is a highly uneven or jerky record; that is, species appear in the sequence very suddenly, show little or no change during their existence in the record, then abruptly go out of the record.”32

In reality, the vast majority of fossils show stability among types of creatures over extensive amounts of time. The evidence does not show them evolving from one type into another. Unique body plans appear suddenly. New features appear suddenly. For example, bats with sonar and echolocation systems appear with no obvious link to a more primitive ancestor.

In fact, more than half of all the major divisions of animal life seem to have appeared in a relatively short period of time. Because many new and distinct life forms appear so suddenly in the fossil record, paleontologists refer to this period as “the Cambrian explosion.” When was the Cambrian period?

Let us assume that the estimates of researchers are accurate. In that case, the history of the earth could be represented by a time line that stretches the length of a soccer field (1). At that scale, you would have to walk about seven eighths of the way down the field before you would come to what paleontologists call the Cambrian period (2). During a small segment of that period, the major divisions of animal life show up in the fossil record. How suddenly do they appear? As you walk down the soccer field, all those different creatures pop up in the space of less than one step!

The relatively sudden appearance of these diverse life forms is causing some evolutionary researchers to question the traditional version of Darwin’s theory. For example, in an interview in 2008, evolutionary biologist Stuart Newman discussed the need for a new theory of evolution that could explain the sudden appearance of novel forms of life. He said: “The Darwinian mechanism that’s used to explain all evolutionary change will be relegated, I believe, to being just one of several mechanisms​—maybe not even the most important when it comes to understanding macroevolution, the evolution of major transitions in body type.”33


Why do some textbooks change the scale of the fossils that they depict as following a proposed sequence?

Above left: scale of fossils as shown in some textbooks

Above right: real relative size

What, though, of the fossils that are used to show fish changing into amphibians, and reptiles into mammals? Do they provide solid proof of evolution in action? Upon closer inspection, several problems become obvious.

First, the comparative size of the creatures placed in the reptile-to-mammal sequence is sometimes misrepresented in textbooks. Rather than being similar in size, some creatures in the series are huge, while others are small.

A second, more serious challenge is the lack of proof that those creatures are somehow related. Specimens placed in the series are often separated by what researchers estimate to be millions of years. Regarding the time spans that separate many of these fossils, zoologist Henry Gee says: “The intervals of time that separate the fossils are so huge that we cannot say anything definite about their possible connection through ancestry and descent.”34 *

Commenting on the fossils of fish and amphibians, biologist Malcolm S. Gordon states that the fossils found represent only a small, “possibly quite unrepresentative, sample of the biodiversity that existed in these groups at those times.” He further says: “There is no way of knowing to what extent, if at all, those specific organisms were relevant to later developments, or what their relationships might have been to each other.”35 *


An article published in National Geographic in 2004 likened the fossil record to “a film of evolution from which 999 of every 1,000 frames have been lost on the cutting-room floor.”36 Consider the implications of that illustration.

If “95 frames” of the fossil record show that animals do not evolve from one type into another, why do paleontologists arrange the remaining “5 frames” to imply that they do?

Imagine that you found 100 frames of a feature film that originally had 100,000 frames. How would you determine the plot of the movie? You might have a preconceived idea, but what if only 5 of the 100 frames you found could be organized to support your preferred plot, while the other 95 frames tell a very different story? Would it be reasonable to assert that your preconceived idea of the movie was right because of the five frames? Could it be that you placed the five frames in the order you did because it suited your theory? Would it not be more reasonable to allow the other 95 frames to influence your opinion?

How does that illustration relate to the way evolutionists view the fossil record? For years, researchers did not acknowledge that the vast majority of fossils​—the 95 frames of the movie—​showed that species change very little over time. Why the silence about such important evidence? Author Richard Morris says: “Apparently paleontologists had adopted the orthodox idea of gradual evolutionary change and had held onto it, even when they discovered evidence to the contrary. They had been trying to interpret fossil evidence in terms of accepted evolutionary ideas.”37

“To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story​—amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific.”​—In Search of Deep Time—​Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life, by Henry Gee, pp. 116-117

What about evolutionists today? Could it be that they continue to place fossils in a certain order, not because such a sequence is well-supported by the majority of fossil and genetic evidence, but because doing so is in harmony with currently accepted evolutionary ideas? *

What do you think? Which conclusion fits the evidence best? Consider the facts we have discussed so far.

  • The first life on earth was not “simple.”

  • The odds against even the components of a cell arising by chance are astronomical.

  • DNA, the “computer program,” or code, that runs the cell, is incredibly complex and gives evidence of a genius that far surpasses any program or information storage system produced by humans.

  • Genetic research shows that life did not originate from a single common ancestor. In addition, major groups of animals appear suddenly in the fossil record.

In light of these facts, do you think it is reasonable to conclude that the evidence is in harmony with the Bible’s explanation of the origin of life? Many people, however, assert that science contradicts much of what the Bible says about creation. Is that true? What does the Bible really say?

^ par. 9 The biological term phyla (singular, phylum) refers to a large group of animals that have the same distinctive body plan. One way that scientists classify all living things is by a seven-step system in which each step is more specific than the one before it. Step one is kingdom, the broadest category. Then come the categories phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. For example, the horse is categorized in the following way: kingdom, Animalia; phylum, Chordata; class, Mammalia; order, Perissodactyla; family, Equidae; genus, Equus; species, Caballus.

^ par. 10 It should be noted that neither the New Scientist article nor Bapteste nor Rose mean to suggest that the theory of evolution is wrong. Their point, rather, is that Darwin’s proposed tree of life, a mainstay of his theory, is not supported by the evidence. Such scientists still seek other explanations involving evolution.

^ par. 21 Henry Gee does not suggest that the theory of evolution is wrong. His comments are made to show the limits of what can be learned from the fossil record.

^ par. 22 Malcolm S. Gordon supports the teaching of evolution.

^ par. 27 See, for example, the box “ What About Human Evolution?

^ par. 50 Note: None of the researchers quoted in this box believe in the Bible’s teaching of creation. All accept the teaching of evolution.

^ par. 54 The term “hominid” is used to describe what evolutionary researchers feel make up the human family and prehistoric humanlike species.