Convergent Evolution Has Been Fooling Us: Most of Our Evolutionary Trees Could Be Wrong

Elephant shrews are more closely related to elephants than they are to shrews, according to molecular evolutionary trees.

Scientists say convergent evolution is much more common than previously thought.

An evolutionary tree, or phylogenetic tree, is a branching diagram showing the evolutionary relationships among various biological species based upon similarities and differences in their characteristics. Historically, this was done using their physical characteristics — the similarities and differences in various species’ anatomies.

However, advances in genetic technology now enable biologists to use genetic data to decipher evolutionary relationships. According to a new study, scientists are finding that the molecular data is leading to much different results, sometimes overturning centuries of scientific work in classifying species by physical traits.

New research led by scientists at the Milner Center for Evolution at the University of Bath suggests that determining evolutionary trees of organisms by comparing anatomy rather than gene sequences is misleading. The study, published in the journal Communications Biology on May 31, 2022, shows that we often need to overturn centuries of scholarly work that classified living things according to how they look.

“It means that convergent evolution has been fooling us — even the cleverest evolutionary biologists and anatomists — for over 100 years!” — Matthew Wills

Since Darwin and his contemporaries in the 19th Century, biologists have been trying to reconstruct the “family trees” of animals by carefully examining differences in their anatomy and structure (morphology).

However, with the development of rapid genetic sequencing techniques, biologists are now able to use genetic (molecular) data to help piece together evolutionary relationships for species very quickly and cheaply, often proving that organisms we once thought were closely related actually belong in completely different branches of the tree.

For the first time, scientists at Bath compared evolutionary trees based on morphology with those based on molecular data, and mapped them according to geographical location.

They found that the animals grouped together by molecular trees lived more closely together geographically than the animals grouped using the morphological trees.

Matthew Wills, Professor of Evolutionary Paleobiology at the Milner Center for Evolution at the University of Bath, said: “It turns out that we’ve got lots of our evolutionary trees wrong.

“For over a hundred years, we’ve been classifying organisms according to how they look and are put together anatomically, but molecular data often tells us a rather different story.

“Our study proves statistically that if you build an evolutionary tree of animals based on their molecular data, it often fits much better with their geographical distribution.

“Where things live – their biogeography – is an important source of evolutionary evidence that was familiar to Darwin and his contemporaries.

“For example, tiny elephant shrews, aardvarks, elephants, golden moles, and swimming manatees have all come from the same big branch of mammal evolution — despite the fact that they look completely different from one another (and live in very different ways).

“Molecular trees have put them all together in a group called Afrotheria, so-called because they all come from the African continent, so the group matches the biogeography.”

Molecular evolutionary trees show that elephant shrews are more closely related to elephants, than they are to shrews. Credit: Danny Ye

The study found that convergent evolution – when a characteristic evolves separately in two genetically unrelated groups of organisms – is much more common than biologists previously thought.

Professor Wills said: “We already have lots of famous examples of convergent evolution, such as flight evolving separately in birds, bats, and insects, or complex camera eyes evolving separately in squid and humans.

“But now with molecular data, we can see that convergent evolution happens all the time – things we thought were closely related often turn out to be far apart on the tree of life.

“People who make a living as lookalikes aren’t usually related to the celebrity they’re impersonating, and individuals within a family don’t always look similar — it’s the same with evolutionary trees too.

“It proves that evolution just keeps on re-inventing things, coming up with a similar solution each time the problem is encountered in a different branch of the evolutionary tree.

“It means that convergent evolution has been fooling us — even the cleverest evolutionary biologists and anatomists — for over 100 years!”

Dr. Jack Oyston, Research Associate and first author of the paper, said: “The idea that biogeography can reflect evolutionary history was a large part of what prompted Darwin to develop his theory of evolution through natural selection, so it’s pretty surprising that it hadn’t really been considered directly as a way of testing the accuracy of evolutionary trees in this way before now.

“What’s most exciting is that we find strong statistical proof of molecular trees fitting better not just in groups like Afrotheria, but across the tree of life in birds, reptiles, insects, and plants too.

“It being such a widespread pattern makes it much more potentially useful as a general test of different evolutionary trees, but it also shows just how pervasive convergent evolution has been when it comes to misleading us.”

Reference: “Molecular phylogenies map to biogeography better than morphological ones” by Jack W. Oyston, Mark Wilkinson, Marcello Ruta and Matthew A. Wills, 31 May 2022, Communications Biology.
DOI: 10.1038/s42003-022-03482-x

EvolutionEvolutionary BiologyPopularUniversity of Bath
Comments ( 27 )
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  • Ruby Jenkins

    Is it fact or fiction that Charles Darwin spent the later half of his life trying to remove his theory or evolution because he only proposed it to be excepted by his peers in the Royal Society. His greatest achievement was his biggest heart ache and regret…

    • Mr Deer

      Complete and utter fiction.

    • George sandford

      excepted or accepted……

    • Daniel Neira

      what the fuxk where do you find those stupid stories… also, ACCEPTED, not “excepted” by his peers.

    • TheHeck

      It’s fiction, created by a bunch of people who manipulate the weak-minded.

  • davidpeters1954

    Having built a trait-analysis cladogram that tests 2107 vertebrate taxa, including fossils, I can affirm that deep time gene studies produce false positives, probably due to endemic viruses often limited by continental areas (e.g. Afrotheria). Gene studies are valuable for a few dozen generations, but in deep time are no better than alchemy.Witness: in gene studies bats are related to horses. The U of Bath team accepts that untenable result. Cladogram here: http://reptileevolution.com/reptile-tree.htm

  • Michael C

    @Ruby Jenkins
    Fiction. Darwin did not try to “remove” his theory–still one of the greatest scientific achievements ever.

  • GregH

    My favourite is the discovery that falcons are more closely related to parrots, and not part of hawks & eagles at all.

  • Kafantaris George

    “[D]etermining evolutionary trees of organisms by comparing anatomy rather than gene sequences is misleading.”
    You bet. Why keep judging books by their cover when we can now read them.

  • Bans

    Evolution is a con

    • TheHeck

      Exactly! Evolution asks you to contribute money every Sunday, so that you can evolve more after you die, right? Oh wait, no – that’s religion. That’s the con.

  • JR

    How does one “remove” a theory?

  • Daniel Neira

    oh, so nice and neat! I almost forgot about the existence of EXTINCT SPECIES. Do these scientists even care about the relationships between organisms OVER EXTENDED PERIODS OF TIME? Disregarding the problem of fitting FOSSILS in the phylogeny is irresponsible for biology as a whole.

    • TheHeck

      If stupidity was painful, you’d be screaming 24/7.

  • Daniel Neira

    what about fossils. what about extinct animals that cant be put in the computer with living DNA. do we just avoid to think about them as part of evolution so our family trees can be worked out easily? is that science?

  • John F. Bramfeld

    Not one example?

  • Jeff Magnus

    Cue the religious nitwits with their cunning responses. “Aha, we knew this whole science thing was half-baked – our counter theory is that a magical being snorted all of existence into place! (mic drop).”

    Yes, science, unlike magical thinking / childish wishes, can be wrong about details and can update itself. The infantile “sky being waved a hand so nyah” can never be wrong, because it exists only in a subset of very limited minds and doesn’t require all that tiresome “proof” and “use of functioning neurons” and all that.

    • Much2Do

      It isn’t likely that anyone will see this post, because the “subset” of persons who are truly interested in reading articles like this one is relatively small. I just thought I’d take the opportunity to let you, and “The Heck,” and a couple of others know, that of all the things I’ve been called over years, the terms “nitwit,” ”infantile,” and “limited,” were not among those things. I’m a real, live scientist who also happens to believe in God. I don’t know what your background is, but the types of comments you make—almost down to a letter–present the same close-minded accusations against persons of faith. It’s almost as if you and your like-minded cousins call each other at night to check on the buzzwords you plan on using the next morning along with who will go to which media site.

      You have no idea that what you really did in your comment was turn your index finger 180° and make it obvious that malfunctioning neurons consistently fire messages of sarcasm, ignorance, self-righteousness, and cowardice.

      I’ve been hungry for scientific knowledge my entire life, and I’ve studied enough of it now to know that the very brightest scientists, researchers, teachers, and mentors from every profession are the ones who also have some measure of respect for other people, regardless of their beliefs.

      I know you love to believe that science and the Bible are mutually exclusive. You’re uninformed, and have been continually misinformed, because one does not disprove the other, and if you were willing to put some effort into talking to someone who you’re convinced will NOT agree with you, you’d find out that I’m correct. Be very careful about making generalizations, then trying to call them a “subset.” You won’t find a scientist in any area of study that even attempts to do so. And hey–thanks for reading a little story from the magical mind of this childish ‘ole nitwit. Cue Godless Gabby to the mic…

  • BSherwood

    As our technology advances, we refine our scientific theories according to the new data we can collect. For hundreds of year all we had was body shape, size, color, etc. As our genetic analysis progresses we will find new connections and correct old misconceptions. This doesn’t invalidate science, but supports it. One difference between science and faith is science welcomes and adjusts with new data. Faith discounts it or tries to adjust the data to fit the preconceived beliefs.

  • Fajita

    This is why you don’t automatically trust the science.

    • TheHeck

      Science doesn’t demand automatic acceptance and never claims to know everything with absolute certainty, unlike religion. Science demands skepticism and you are encouraged to challenge existing frameworks. That’s how science works.

      That has given us the PC/Phone you used to type your comment in. Religion has given us some dusty old fairy tale books.

  • Josh Kariakin

    cue Ruperk Sheldrake / morphin resonance fans – evolution reinventing things = archytypical patterns are fundamental to the universe…or something

  • Jim Duggan

    Yet another nail on the coffin of evolutionary theory. In short: Common design, common Designer.

    • TheHeck

      I guess you didn’t read the article. if you did, you obviously didn’t understand it.

  • PW

    This “news” is at least 25 years old.

  • Don Parker

    A beloved scientific dogma “wrong?” …and scientist admitting it to boot? The world must be ending. LOL!