Why Scientists Can't Understand the Tree of Life

Ruth Hopkins

Confession: I’m a science nerd.

What I really geek out over is plant life. In college, I spent a lot of time with elders and medicine people learning about medicinal plant uses, collected and classified specimens, and conducted research on a species of hemp. My degrees may have read Biology and Chemistry, but all things herbaceous were my ultimate focus.

Two of my favorite courses were Systematic Botany and Molecular Genetics.  As someone who was born and raised on the Reservation and practices her traditional ways, I enjoyed both classes because within them I could see how much modern scientific ‘discoveries’ and ancient Indigenous teachings had in common.

Systematic Botany is the study of plant diversity and the relationships between them. More broadly, Systematics delves into the phylogeny of every living organism and traces their evolutionary lineages. Here, the principle of common ancestry forms what geneticists call, The Tree of Life.

Yes, that Tree, my Natives. What western scientists don’t know is Natives have been in the presence of the Tree of Life for thousands of years. It stands in the middle of our Sundance grounds, bedecked in prayer ties fashioned lovingly by the hands of elders, women and children. Kings and Queens in Crowns of Sage hang from it and offer flesh, dancing and praying for four days without food or water every summer.  This Tree, that we teach connects all life on Earth to the Heavens above, is what scientists have Columbused (the art of ‘discovering’ something that’s not new and stripping it of cultural context), through many decades of complex study and with the aid of computer programs.

Scientists have known for quite some time that we’re all composed of the same stuff. Everything on Ina Maka (Mother Earth) is composed of the same atomic particles found in stars and supernovas, and all life here shares the same genetic base pairs (adenine-thymine and guanine-cytosine in DNA, adenine-uracil and guanine-cytosine in RNA). 

The study of genomics has enabled science to take this theory a step further, and tabulate relatedness through DNA analysis. In short, Genetics is being used to map out the details of what our Native ancestors already knew: from microscopic bacteria to prairie sage; four legged beasties to two legged homo sapiens (humans), we are all related.

There are anywhere from 8 to 100 million species estimated to be living on Earth right now. Around 15,000 new species are documented every year. New species are being discovered every week. Of late, researchers have published a new Tree of Life. This latest ‘Tree’ combined 500 existing ones and is the most comprehensive version to date. It shows everything western science knows about the kinship of all living creatures on this wobbling blue marble we call home.

In its circular form, I can’t help but notice how much their interpretation of the Tree of Life resembles tree rings. This seems appropriate given its nomenclature and the reality that Earth’s history is written within our DNA.

Genetic researchers’ work is far from complete. They’ve invited other researchers to help revise their work.  As it turns out, while simple in composition, the Tree of Life is remarkably diverse and complex in design. The more they discover, the more they realize that which they don’t know.

Western science has only recently begun to seriously investigate the idea of connectedness. Part of this reluctance is due to their unwillingness to entertain ideas with spiritual connotations. Scientists will only address what’s measurable. This from a group who once thought the Earth was flat and didn’t practice basic hygiene. Fine. As their ability to measure increases and colonial arrogance decreases, they will begin to understand that instinct, essence, and Indigeneity has a place in humanity’s scientific body of knowledge. Without it, they will never fully grasp the vast expanse of the Universe. Notwithstanding biology, astronomy and medicine, they would do well to listen to Indigenous when it comes to climate change, the environment, and sustainable living. We managed resources for millennia, but thanks to the industrial age, western society may be tapping out after only a few hundred years.

Maybe someday the science community’s big wigs will work up the courage to visit our learned elders and medicine men. Fellas, bring tobacco.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.

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