We Are All Related: Indigenous Knowledge Reaffirmed by Digitized Tree of Life

opentreeoflife.org / This circular family tree of Earth's lifeforms is considered a first draft of the 3.5-billion-year history of how life evolved and diverged.

It looks like a Venn diagram on meth, or the jagged skyline of an exotic city in another dimension.

Given its content, it could contain both.

The newly mapped out, comprehensive Tree of Life, compiled by a team of researchers from 11 institutions, unintentionally validates the traditional indigenous worldview that we are all related. This time, science has digitally mapped out the Tree of Life, showing 2.3 million of the tens of millions of species that are known to exist on Earth. The tree traces life back 3.5 billion years, when life is thought to have started on this planet, to shine a light on our common origins.

It is of course nothing new to Indigenous Peoples, whose traditional knowledge through millennia, regardless of cultural differences, has held that animals and all other creatures are our sisters and our brothers.

As many species as are on here, they comprise but a fraction of what exists, the researchers said. Tens of thousands of previously compiled species “trees” were cobbled together to make this one, but those were just the digitized ones. Only one of every six studies—that’s 1,250—are in a digital format that could be downloaded, Duke said in a statement. The rest of the 7,500 total phylogenetic studies appearing in more than 100 journals from 2000 through 2012 are in pdf form, or other forms that cannot be entered into a database, Duke said.

“There’s a pretty big gap between the sum of what scientists know about how living things are related, and what’s actually available digitally,” said principal researcher Karen Cranston of Duke University in a statement.

Thus the tree reveals as much by what isn’t there as it does about what is.

“As important as showing what we do know about relationships, this first tree of life is also important in revealing what we don’t know,” said co-author Douglas Soltis of the University of Florida in the statement, and the statement added, “Although a massive undertaking in its own right, this draft tree of life represents only a first step.”

To help fill in the blanks, the researchers made the tree available online for browsing and downloading at https://tree.opentreeoflife.org, with the underlying source code and data included, so that people could add to it and help expand the knowledge base.

“It’s by no means finished,” Cranston said. “It’s critically important to share data for already-published and newly-published work if we want to improve the tree.”

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