Common descent is a concept in evolutionary biology applicable when one species is the ancestor of two or more species later in time. All living beings are in fact descendants of a unique ancestor commonly referred to as the
last universal common ancestor The last universal common ancestor (LUCA) is the most recent population from which all organisms now living on Earth share common descent—the most recent common ancestor of all current life on Earth. This includes all cellular organisms; ...
(LUCA) of all
life Life is a quality that distinguishes matter that has biological processes, such as signaling and self-sustaining processes, from that which does not, and is defined by the capacity for growth, reaction to stimuli, metabolism, energy tra ...
on Earth, according to modern evolutionary biology. Common descent is an effect of
speciation Speciation is the evolutionary process by which populations evolve to become distinct species. The biologist Orator F. Cook coined the term in 1906 for cladogenesis, the splitting of lineages, as opposed to anagenesis, phyletic evolution with ...
, in which multiple species derive from a single ancestral population. The more recent the ancestral population two species have in common, the more closely are they related. The most recent common ancestor of all currently living organisms is the last universal ancestor, which lived about 3.9 billion years ago. The two earliest pieces of evidence for life on Earth are graphite found to be biogenic in 3.7 billion-year-old metasedimentary rocks discovered in western Greenland and microbial mat
fossil A fossil (from Classical Latin , ) is any preserved remains, impression, or trace of any once-living thing from a past geological age. Examples include bones, shells, exoskeletons, stone imprints of animals or microbes, objects preserved ...
s found in 3.48 billion-year-old
sandstone Sandstone is a clastic sedimentary rock composed mainly of sand-sized (0.0625 to 2 mm) silicate grains. Sandstones comprise about 20–25% of all sedimentary rocks. Most sandstone is composed of quartz or feldspar (both silicates) ...
discovered in Western Australia. All currently living organisms on Earth share a common genetic heritage, though the suggestion of substantial
horizontal gene transfer Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) or lateral gene transfer (LGT) is the movement of genetic material between unicellular and/or multicellular organisms other than by the ("vertical") transmission of DNA from parent to offspring (reproduction). H ...
during early evolution has led to questions about the monophyly (single ancestry) of life. 6,331 groups of genes common to all living animals have been identified; these may have arisen from a single common ancestor that lived 650 million years ago in the Precambrian. Universal common descent through an
evolution Evolution is change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations over successive generations. These characteristics are the expressions of genes, which are passed on from parent to offspring during reproduction. Variation te ...
ary process was first proposed by the British naturalist Charles Darwin in the concluding sentence of his 1859 book '' On the Origin of Species'':


The idea that all living things (including things considered non-living by science) are related is a recurring theme in many indigenous worldviews across the world. Later on, in the 1740s, the French
mathematician A mathematician is someone who uses an extensive knowledge of mathematics in their work, typically to solve mathematical problems. Mathematicians are concerned with numbers, data, quantity, structure, space, models, and change. History ...
Pierre Louis Maupertuis Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (; ; 1698 – 27 July 1759) was a French mathematician, philosopher and man of letters. He became the Director of the Académie des Sciences, and the first President of the Prussian Academy of Science, at t ...
arrived at the idea that all organisms had a common ancestor, and had diverged through random variation and
natural selection Natural selection is the differential survival and reproduction of individuals due to differences in phenotype. It is a key mechanism of evolution Evolution is change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations ...
. In ''Essai de cosmologie'' (1750), Maupertuis noted:
May we not say that, in the fortuitous combination of the productions of Nature, since only those creatures ''could'' survive in whose organizations a certain degree of adaptation was present, there is nothing extraordinary in the fact that such adaptation is actually found in all these species which now exist? Chance, one might say, turned out a vast number of individuals; a small proportion of these were organized in such a manner that the animals' organs could satisfy their needs. A much greater number showed neither adaptation nor order; these last have all perished.... Thus the species which we see today are but a small part of all those that a blind destiny has produced.
In 1790, the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in ''Kritik der Urteilskraft'' (''
Critique of Judgment The ''Critique of Judgment'' (german: Kritik der Urteilskraft), also translated as the ''Critique of the Power of Judgment'', is a 1790 book by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Sometimes referred to as the "third critique," the ''Critique ...
'') that the similarity of animal forms implies a common original type, and thus a common parent. In 1794, Charles Darwin's grandfather,
Erasmus Darwin Erasmus Robert Darwin (12 December 173118 April 1802) was an English physician. One of the key thinkers of the Midlands Enlightenment, he was also a natural philosopher, physiologist, slave-trade abolitionist, inventor, and poet. His poems ...
uld it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end?
Charles Darwin's views about common descent, as expressed in '' On the Origin of Species'', were that it was probable that there was only one progenitor for all life forms:
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.
But he precedes that remark by, "Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide." And in the subsequent edition, he asserts rather,
"We do not know all the possible transitional gradations between the simplest and the most perfect organs; it cannot be pretended that we know all the varied means of Distribution during the long lapse of years, or that we know how imperfect the Geological Record is. Grave as these several difficulties are, in my judgment they do not overthrow the theory of descent from a few created forms with subsequent modification".
Common descent was widely accepted amongst the
scientific community The scientific community is a diverse network of interacting scientists. It includes many " sub-communities" working on particular scientific fields, and within particular institutions; interdisciplinary and cross-institutional activities are als ...
after Darwin's publication. In 1907, Vernon Kellogg commented that "practically no naturalists of position and recognized attainment doubt the theory of descent." In 2008, biologist T. Ryan Gregory noted that:
No reliable observation has ever been found to contradict the general notion of common descent. It should come as no surprise, then, that the scientific community at large has accepted evolutionary descent as a historical reality since Darwin’s time and considers it among the most reliably established and fundamentally important facts in all of science.


Common biochemistry

All known forms of life are based on the same fundamental biochemical organization: genetic information encoded in DNA, transcribed into RNA, through the effect of protein- and RNA- enzymes, then translated into proteins by (highly similar) ribosomes, with ATP,
NADPH Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate, abbreviated NADP or, in older notation, TPN (triphosphopyridine nucleotide), is a cofactor used in anabolic reactions, such as the Calvin cycle and lipid and nucleic acid syntheses, which require NA ...
and others as energy sources. Analysis of small sequence differences in widely shared substances such as
cytochrome c The cytochrome complex, or cyt ''c'', is a small hemeprotein found loosely associated with the inner membrane of the mitochondrion. It belongs to the cytochrome c family of proteins and plays a major role in cell apoptosis. Cytochrome c is high ...
further supports universal common descent. Some 23 proteins are found in all organisms, serving as enzymes carrying out core functions like DNA replication. The fact that only one such set of enzymes exists is convincing evidence of a single ancestry. 6,331 genes common to all living animals have been identified; these may have arisen from a single common ancestor that lived 650 million years ago in the Precambrian.

Common genetic code

The genetic code (the "translation table" according to which DNA information is translated into amino acids, and hence proteins) is nearly identical for all known lifeforms, from
bacteria Bacteria (; singular: bacterium) are ubiquitous, mostly free-living organisms often consisting of one biological cell. They constitute a large domain of prokaryotic microorganisms. Typically a few micrometres in length, bacteria were amo ...
archaea Archaea ( ; singular archaeon ) is a domain of single-celled organisms. These microorganisms lack cell nuclei and are therefore prokaryotes. Archaea were initially classified as bacteria, receiving the name archaebacteria (in the Archaebact ...
to animals and
plant Plants are predominantly photosynthetic eukaryotes of the kingdom Plantae. Historically, the plant kingdom encompassed all living things that were not animals, and included algae and fungi; however, all current definitions of Plantae exclude ...
s. The universality of this code is generally regarded by biologists as definitive evidence in favor of universal common descent. The way that codons (DNA triplets) are mapped to amino acids seems to be strongly optimised. Richard Egel argues that in particular the hydrophobic (non-polar) side-chains are well organised, suggesting that these enabled the earliest organisms to create
peptide Peptides (, ) are short chains of amino acids linked by peptide bonds. Long chains of amino acids are called proteins. Chains of fewer than twenty amino acids are called oligopeptides, and include dipeptides, tripeptides, and tetrapeptides. A ...
s with water-repelling regions able to support the essential electron exchange (
redox Redox (reduction–oxidation, , ) is a type of chemical reaction in which the oxidation states of substrate change. Oxidation is the loss of electrons or an increase in the oxidation state, while reduction is the gain of electrons or a de ...
) reactions for energy transfer.

Selectively neutral similarities

Similarities which have no adaptive relevance cannot be explained by convergent evolution, and therefore they provide compelling support for universal common descent. Such evidence has come from two areas: amino acid sequences and DNA sequences. Proteins with the same three-dimensional structure need not have identical amino acid sequences; any irrelevant similarity between the sequences is evidence for common descent. In certain cases, there are several codons (DNA triplets) that code redundantly for the same amino acid. Since many species use the same codon at the same place to specify an amino acid that can be represented by more than one codon, that is evidence for their sharing a recent common ancestor. Had the amino acid sequences come from different ancestors, they would have been coded for by any of the redundant codons, and since the correct amino acids would already have been in place,
natural selection Natural selection is the differential survival and reproduction of individuals due to differences in phenotype. It is a key mechanism of evolution Evolution is change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations ...
would not have driven any change in the codons, however much time was available.
Genetic drift Genetic drift, also known as allelic drift or the Wright effect, is the change in the frequency of an existing gene variant (allele) in a population due to random chance. Genetic drift may cause gene variants to disappear completely and the ...
could change the codons, but it would be extremely unlikely to make all the redundant codons in a whole sequence match exactly across multiple lineages. Similarly, shared nucleotide sequences, especially where these are apparently neutral such as the positioning of introns and pseudogenes, provide strong evidence of common ancestry.

Other similarities

Biologists often point to the universality of many aspects of cellular life as supportive evidence to the more compelling evidence listed above. These similarities include the energy carrier
adenosine triphosphate Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is an organic compound that provides energy to drive many processes in living cells, such as muscle contraction, nerve impulse propagation, condensate dissolution, and chemical synthesis. Found in all known forms of ...
(ATP), and the fact that all amino acids found in proteins are left-handed. It is, however, possible that these similarities resulted because of the laws of physics and chemistry - rather than through universal common descent - and therefore resulted in convergent evolution. In contrast, there is evidence for homology of the central subunits of Transmembrane ATPases throughout all living organisms, especially how the rotating elements are bound to the membrane. This supports the assumption of a LUCA as a cellular organism, although primordial membranes may have been semipermeable and evolved later to the membranes of modern bacteria, and on a second path to those of modern archaea also.

Phylogenetic trees

Another important piece of evidence is from detailed phylogenetic trees (i.e., "genealogic trees" of species) mapping out the proposed divisions and common ancestors of all living species. In 2010, Douglas L. Theobald published a statistical analysis of available genetic data, mapping them to phylogenetic trees, that gave "strong quantitative support, by a formal test, for the unity of life." Traditionally, these trees have been built using morphological methods, such as appearance, embryology, etc. Recently, it has been possible to construct these trees using molecular data, based on similarities and differences between genetic and protein sequences. All these methods produce essentially similar results, even though most genetic variation has no influence over external morphology. That phylogenetic trees based on different types of information agree with each other is strong evidence of a real underlying common descent.

Potential objections

Gene exchange clouds phylogenetic analysis

Theobald noted that substantial
horizontal gene transfer Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) or lateral gene transfer (LGT) is the movement of genetic material between unicellular and/or multicellular organisms other than by the ("vertical") transmission of DNA from parent to offspring (reproduction). H ...
could have occurred during early evolution. Bacteria today remain capable of gene exchange between distantly-related lineages. This weakens the basic assumption of phylogenetic analysis, that similarity of genomes implies common ancestry, because sufficient gene exchange would allow lineages to share much of their genome whether or not they shared an ancestor (monophyly). This has led to questions about the single ancestry of life. However, biologists consider it very unlikely that completely unrelated proto-organisms could have exchanged genes, as their different coding mechanisms would have resulted only in garble rather than functioning systems. Later, however, many organisms all derived from a single ancestor could readily have shared genes that all worked in the same way, and it appears that they have.

Convergent evolution

If early organisms had been driven by the same environmental conditions to evolve similar biochemistry convergently, they might independently have acquired similar genetic sequences. Theobald's "formal test" was accordingly criticised by Takahiro Yonezawa and colleagues for not including consideration of convergence. They argued that Theobald's test was insufficient to distinguish between the competing hypotheses. Theobald has defended his method against this claim, arguing that his tests distinguish between phylogenetic structure and mere sequence similarity. Therefore, Theobald argued, his results show that "real universally conserved proteins are homologous."

RNA world

The possibility is mentioned, above, that all living organisms may be descended from an original single-celled organism with a DNA
genome In the fields of molecular biology and genetics, a genome is all the genetic information of an organism. It consists of nucleotide sequences of DNA (or RNA in RNA viruses). The nuclear genome includes protein-coding genes and non-coding gen ...
, and that this implies a single origin for life. Although such a universal common ancestor may have existed, such a complex entity is unlikely to have arisen spontaneously from non-life and thus a cell with a DNA genome cannot reasonably be regarded as the “origin” of life. To understand the “origin” of life, it has been proposed that DNA based cellular life descended from relatively simple pre-cellular self-replicating RNA molecules able to undergo
natural selection Natural selection is the differential survival and reproduction of individuals due to differences in phenotype. It is a key mechanism of evolution Evolution is change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations ...
(see RNA world). During the course of evolution, this RNA world was replaced by the evolutionary emergence of the DNA world. A world of independently self-replicating RNA genomes apparently no longer exists (RNA viruses are dependent on host cells with DNA genomes). Because the RNA world is apparently gone, it is not clear how scientific evidence could be brought to bear on the question of whether there was a single “origin” of life event from which all life descended.

See also

* ''
The Ancestor's Tale ''The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life'' is a science book by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong on the subject of evolution, which follows the path of humans backwards through evolutionary history, describing some of humanity's c ...
'' * Urmetazoan


* * The book is available fro
The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online
Retrieved 2015-11-23. * Retrieved 2015-11-23. * * * *



External links

29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent
from the
TalkOrigins Archive The TalkOrigins Archive is a website that presents mainstream science perspectives on the antievolution claims of young-earth, old-earth, and "intelligent design" creationists. With sections on evolution, creationism, geology, astronomy and hom ...
The Tree of Life Web Project
{{DEFAULTSORT:Common Descent Evolutionary biology Descent Last common ancestors