The tree of life might seem like a stable design, appropriate for indelible ink. Plenty of people think so. An Internet search for “phylogenetic tattoos” turns up some showy skin art.
But the branches are shifting. Since a radial diagram based on 1990s genetics inspired a rush for tree-of-life tattoos, technical diagrams of life’s ancestral connections have been redrawn. And the simplified version of the tree of life memorized by schoolchildren for decades lags far behind what researchers depict today.
In the new vision — based on increasingly sophisticated genetic analyses — people and other animals are closer cousins to single-celled choanoflagellates than to other multicellular organisms. Giant kelp that grow as wavering undersea forests off the California coast are closer relatives to single-celled plankton called diatoms than to multicelled red seaweeds or plants. Multicelled organisms mingle with singles. Some organisms (orphans, above) have not yet been placed in one of the seven or so supergroups. (1)
A new tree with no roots and brances.
With no single-point ancestors.
Just interconnected organisms.
Just… life as it is.