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The Contribution of Bioinformatics to Evolutionary Thought
Partially in honor of my first talk given at the American Scientific Affiliation Annual Meeting this summer, and partially because I’ve been thinking a lot about the origin of life lately, I’ve adapted part of my talk here, on the contribution of bioinformatics to evolutionary thought.
More to come in this series, in which I will demonstrate the abilities of various bioinformatics databases to examine arguments about the common ancestry of chimpanzees and humans; this is just an introduction:
"Evolution is the reigning paradigm in the scientific community, and the prevailing assumption is that humans are the result of an evolutionary process from a common ancestor with other apes, including chimpanzees and gorillas" (Jelsma 2012).
The history of evolutionary thought itself is primitive; it began in 1698, when the English anatomist Edward Tyson acquired the remains of a chimpanzee and published his astonishment at the anatomical similarity between the chimpanzee and a human (Wood 2006). In 1740, Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis made the suggestion in a series of essays that all organisms may have diverged through random processes and natural selection from a single common ancestor (Bromley 1970). In 1790, Immanuel Kant suggested in Kritik der Urtheilskraft that the “analogy of animal forms” implies a common original type, or common parent (Kant and Warner 1987). Five years later, Charles Darwin’s grandfather posed the question of common ancestry, and sixty years afterwards Charles Darwin elaborated on it in The Origin of Species, published in 1859.
“Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed” (Darwin 1859).
More recently, the field of bioinformatics has begun to contribute to the search for answers. All life forms share the same fundamental biochemical organization: nucleic acids, which encode genetic information, are transcribed and translated into protein, mediated by enzymes and ribosomes. In addition, the genetic code is nearly identical for all lifeforms currently known to exist. It is such similarities that have prompted bioinformaticians to meticulously compare sequences, pseudogenes, and repeated sequences in the genomes of humans and chimpanzees.
In the new age of technology, bioinformatics has become the battleground of choice for evolutionary biologists. The field is a collaborative effort among scientists all over the globe, and provides a wealth of information about comparative genomics. Countless blogs, articles, and papers have been published in recent years that cite information made accessible to even the most ordinary of people. Yet the plethora of genetic evidence for common ancestry already available is only just the beginning. There is so much that humanity has yet to uncover about our past, and bioinformatics will be providing answers for decades to come.
"Genetic mechanism in all its happenstance has produced the genetic basis of humanness. Genetics describes the process, ordained and upheld by God, to make the creature that expresses God’s ‘image and likeness’" (Finlay 2008).