Where did we come from? What set of biological coincidences and accidents led us to this point; the point at which I am able to sit at a computer and write this for you?

Around 600 million years ago the taxonomy of life underwent a major schism. It was at this time that the boundaries between species became more clearly defined, with ‘animals’, as we know them today, beginning to set themselves apart from the other branches of the biological tree. But, which was the true proto ‘animal’ species? Which creature has earned the right to call itself our ancestor? And where should we send our Christmas cards to?

For years, biologists have debated two possibilities – the sponge or the comb jelly – and have reached only academic stalemate. Now, that might be about to change, thanks to new developments in the science of understanding and demonstration.

That’s right. Not content with helping businesses develop their strategies and leverage the power of pure insight, Big Data is now helping us to get to the bottom of the mysteries of life.

Complex Data/Complex Organisms

It might sound like a fairly inconsequential squabble – a “we know we came from somewhere, so let’s leave it at that” kind of deal – but there is in fact more at stake here than pride. The fact is, scientists still don’t fully understand the evolution of our complex biological systems. For example, our digestive system, nervous system and other sophisticated feats of organic engineering.

Experts hope that, by getting closer to an understanding of ‘Step 1’ in the evolutionary process, they can begin to decode the nature of these systems as they exist today, unwrapping their complexity and developing our knowledge of them. This will have a huge impact on medical practice and procedure and will help medical professionals to administer the right treatment when it is needed.

To do achieve this, we need data; something that the sponge camp has in abundance. A study published in the scientific journal Current Biology showcased just how much of the data points to sponges as being the ancestors of the animal kingdom. While sponges do not have a brain in the human sense, nor do they have a nervous system or digestive tract, the genetic data gathered from samples shows that the building blocks are in place for sponges to develop these important additions to their anatomy. This could be evidence that it was the sponge which was the first to do so.

Big Data has reached into pre-history and selected its winner… or has it?

Imperfect Data Leads to Imperfect Conclusions

In fact, the debate is not over yet. Not everyone is convinced by the sponge argument. Professors at the University of Texas at Austin appreciate the might and majesty of the sponge camp’s datasets, but dispute that this represents a final, definitive verdict.

“They’ve got a large dataset,” evolutionary biologist David Hillis said, “but almost certainly this is not the final word. This is just such a tough problem to solve.”

The trouble with Big Data is that – in its larger configurations – it is nuanced and varied. Just because a certain dataset says one thing, doesn’t mean that there is not an equal and opposite dataset somewhere else. Through genetic analysis and examination, other teams of biologists have arrived at the conclusion that we are descended from the comb jelly and that we get our handsome and shapely noses from this side of the family.

In truth, there is yet to be a conclusive set of findings released either way. However, the potential of Big Data has levered the debate back open, injecting it with fresh hope that – one day – a consensus will be reached. Whereas once there was just theory and conjecture, now there is data – and lots of data. The theory and conjecture is still there, but such is the nature of science. With the right means and tools to achieve proof, these theories can eventually graduate into accepted evolutionary wisdom.

The Big Data Concepts Opening Up Science

Science has always been about data. A scientist might witness a coincidence or similarity between two data points, and use this happening to formulate a theory. This theory is then tested, generating more data, and is then either proven or disproving.

What is happening now, however, is that scientists are finding it much easier to store and wield vast sets of data. This, in theory, should make it easier for scientists to find the proof they need. Simply apply a search or reporting tool to the dataset they need to analyze and have the data presented to them; data which can then be used to support or eliminate the theory under scrutiny.

Recent studies into primate brain size, for example, have used data to cast doubt on the theory that we owe our large primate brains to the complexity of our social structures; the theory that we needed such large computing machines in our heads to keep track of our interactions. The data has shown little correlation between social structure and brain size and has instead, somewhat surprisingly, highlighted a potential link between larger brains and a diet rich in fruit.

Current theories, still under exploration, hint that – while monkeys and smaller primates ate leaves, the common ancestors of humans and apes ate fruits; a food of far higher nutritional value, which gave us and our ancestors the nutrients required to grow the big brains we take for granted today. The action of sourcing and preparing fruit for consumption also requires more brain power than simply jamming your fist into a tree and tearing off a bunch of leaves, which could also have contributed to this schism in development between the primate families.

As with most areas of science, we just don’t know for sure yet. Perhaps we will never have an absolutely definitive answer. But, we can be sure that Big Data interpretation, comparison, storage and transmission will be shaping the way in which we understand the world around us in the years to come.

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