Nautilus

Evolution, You’re Drunk

Amoebas are puny, stupid blobs, so scientists were surprised to learn that they contain 200 times more DNA than Einstein did. Because amoebas are made of just one cell, researchers assumed they would be simpler than humans genetically. Plus, amoebas date back farther in time than humans, and simplicity is considered an attribute of primitive beings. It just didn’t make sense.

The idea of directionality in nature, a gradient from simple to complex, began with the Greeks, who called nature physis, meaning growth. That idea subtly extended from changes over an organism’s lifetime, to changes over evolutionary time after Charles Darwin argued that all animals descend from a single common ancestor. When his contemporaries drew evolutionary trees of life, they assumed increasing complexity. Worms originated early in animal evolution.  Creatures with more complex structures originated later. Biologists tweaked evolutionary trees over the following century, but generally, simple organisms continued to precede the complex.

Take the textbook scenario on early animal evolution. It essentially goes as follows: Single-celled organisms gained the ability to adhere to and communicate with one another more than 600 million years ago, and from the resulting colonies, the first multicellular animals emerged. Today’s sponges, sedentary animals on the sea floor with no guts, brains, or tissue layers, descend directly from some of these

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