The Phylogeny Explorer Project

I wrote before about Aron Ra because of his debate with Creationist Kent Hovind. Ra is well know in these admittedly limited circles as a militant atheist and a staunch defender of evolution, but perhaps less well-known is that he is also an amateur scientist. (And despite what Hovind would tell you, amateur does not imply a lack of credibility. He definitely knows what he’s talking about.)

Aron Ra’s main project is something called the Phylogeny Explorer Project. As he describes it, “it is an attempt to render the entire taxonomic tree of life as a navigable, online encyclopedia.” In other words, he wants to put the evolutionary tree of all known species on one easy-to-use website. That website recently went live at explorer.phylogenyexplorerproject.com, and f you’re interested in biology or evolution or even just dinosaurs or something, you should really check it out.

So what am I talking about, exactly? Most explanations of evolution will usually go into this at least a little. Simply put, the tree of life is usually shown as something like an actual tree, like this:

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/70/Phylogenetic_tree.svg/800px-Phylogenetic_tree.svg.png

And the idea goes all the way back to Darwin, who in 1837 sketched this representation:

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/10/Darwin_Tree_1837.png

But to meet Ra’s goal of including every species we know would mean a tree with literally millions of branches. How is he doing it? With a continuous, navigable tree that you can select any section of and how deep you want to go in it, and it looks like this:

This is the base tree for animals. It might not look like much, but when you navigate through it, you can see how much is going on here.

Ra has been working on this project for ten years. He began it when he discovered that there was no website of this type that really did it right. Other such projects exist, but many of them only include living species, not fossils. Many are unwieldy and hard to use or modify. Only one was scientifically peer-reviewed: the University of Arizona’s Tree of Life Web Project, but it ran out of funding ten years ago, and much of it badly outdated and doesn’t include modern genetic studies at all.

The Phylogeny Explorer Project is an attempt to fill this gap in the literature and media. It’s not peer-reviewed yet either, but it is based on scientific papers. And already, it is by far the most complete and the best-researched digital tree of life in the world, and it was designed specifically to be free and open, volunteer-run, and with enough funding and infrastructure to make it sustainable indefinitely. They’re still a ways from doing all of that, but they’ve already surpassed all other projects of this sort that have been attempted.

Ra has been working on this so hard because he believes that taxonomy—the study of evolutionary relationships and the evolutionary tree—is the best evidence for evolution because it lays it out so clearly. But he also believes that this is a valuable tool for scientists, educators, and laypeople alike, and I have to agree with him. I know I’ve wanted a tool like this since I was in elementary school, and I had to settle for encyclopedia articles, the Tree of Life Project, and later Wikipedia’s extensive, but contradictory cladograms. The Phylogeny Explorer Project is something that’s been needed for a long time, and I’m very excited to finally see it in action.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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