The Biological Overview Effect Our Place in Nature

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Charles H. Lineweaver
Aditya Chopra


While gazing at the Earth from orbit, some astronauts have described a cognitive shift known as the overview effect. Here we describe an analogous biological overview effect produced by looking at the tiny twig of humanity on the tree of life. We describe the increasingly precise phylogenetic tree of all life on Earth and how it shows us our place in nature. We discuss problems with this tree including the assumption of sexual isolation, purely vertical gene transmission and the dependence of LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor) on the completeness of the tree. We compile and present the most concise taxonomic overview of the evolution of our lineage from Archaea to humans.

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Author Biographies

Charles H. Lineweaver, Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University

Charles H. Lineweaver received a BA in History from the State University of New York at Binghamton, an MA in English from Brown University, a BS in physics from Ludwig-Maximillians Universitat and a PhD in physics from University of California, Berkeley. An astrophysicist and astrobiologist, his research involves the cosmological prerequisites for the formation of terrestrial planets and life, the statistical distribution, composition and habitability of exoplanets, the cosmic microwave background radiation, the entropy of the universe and cancer.

Aditya Chopra, Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics, Australian National University

Aditya Chopra completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Western Australia in 2007. He graduated with 1st class Honours in Astronomy (2008) and a PhD in Earth Sciences from the Australian National University (2015). He was awarded an Australia Awards Endeavour Postdoctoral Fellowship and was a visiting Research Fellow at the University of Hawaii and the University of Washington in 2016. His research interests include using the elemental composition of life forms and their environments, and the astrophysical, geochemical and biological constraints on planetary habitability. He has authored 12 peer-reviewed articles and is currently developing an online Astrobiology MOOC course.