Common descent facts for kids

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Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (Levrac-Tournières)
Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (Levrac-Tournières)

Common descent describes how, in evolutionary biology, a group of organisms share a most recent common ancestor. There is evidence of common descent that all life on Earth is descended from the last universal common ancestor (LUCA). In July 2016, scientists reported identifying a set of 355 genes from the LUCA of all organisms living on Earth.

Common ancestry between organisms of different species arises during speciation, in which new species are established from a single ancestral population. Organisms which share a more recent common ancestor are more closely 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 evidences 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 fossils found in 3.48 billion-year-old sandstone discovered in Western Australia. All currently living organisms on Earth share a common genetic heritage (universal common descent), with each being the descendant from a single original species.


In the 1740s, French mathematician Pierre Louis Maupertuis made the first known suggestion in a series of essays that all organisms may have had a common ancestor, and that they had diverged through random variation and natural selection.

Universal common descent through an evolutionary process was first proposed by the English naturalist Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species (1859).

Artificial selection

Artificial selection demonstrates the diversity that can exist among organisms that share a relatively recent common ancestor. In artificial selection, humans selectively direct the breeding of one species at each generation, allowing only those organisms that exhibit desired characteristics to reproduce. These characteristics become increasingly well-developed in successive generations. Artificial selection was successful long before science discovered the genetic basis.

Dog breeding

Big and little dog 1
The Chihuahua mix and Great Dane both share a common ancestor, the wolf, but show the power of artificial selection to create diversity of form in a relatively short period of time.

The diversity of domesticated dogs is an example of the power of artificial selection. All breeds share common ancestry, having descended from wolves. Humans selectively bred them to enhance specific characteristics, such as color and length or body size. This created a range of breeds that include the Chihuahua, Great Dane, Basset Hound, Pug, and Poodle. Wild wolves, which did not undergo artificial selection, are relatively uniform in comparison.

Wild cabbage

Early farmers cultivated many popular vegetables from the Brassica oleracea (wild cabbage) by artificially selecting for certain attributes. Common vegetables such as cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts are all descendants of the wild cabbage plant. Brussels sprouts were created by artificially selecting for large bud size. Broccoli was bred by selecting for large flower stalks. Cabbage was created by selecting for short petioles. Kale was bred by selecting for large leaves.

Natural selection

Natural selection is the evolutionary process by which heritable traits that increase an individual's fitness become more common, and heritable traits that decrease an individual's fitness become less common.

Darwin's finches

During his studies on the Galápagos Islands, Charles Darwin observed 13 species of finches that are closely related and differ most markedly in the shape of their beaks. The beak of each species is suited to the food available in its particular environment, suggesting that beak shapes evolved by natural selection.

Large beaks were found on the islands where the primary source of food for the finches are nuts and therefore the large beaks allowed the birds to be better equipped for opening the nuts and staying well nourished. Slender beaks were found on the finches which found insects to be the best source of food on the island they inhabited; their slender beaks allowed the birds to be better equipped for pulling out the insects from their tiny hiding places.

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