Aristotle's Ladder, Darwin's Tree

Aristotle's Ladder, Darwin's Tree: The Evolution of Visual Metaphors for Biological Order

J. David Archibald
Copyright Date: 2014
DOI: 10.7312/arch16412
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/arch16412
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  • Book Info
    Aristotle's Ladder, Darwin's Tree
    Book Description:

    Leading paleontologist J. David Archibald explores the rich history of visual metaphors for biological order from ancient times to the present and their influence on humans' perception of their place in nature, offering uncommon insight into how we went from standing on the top rung of the biological ladder to embodying just one tiny twig on the tree of life. He begins with the ancient but still misguided use of ladders to show biological order, moving then to the use of trees to represent seasonal life cycles and genealogies by the Romans. The early Christian Church then appropriated trees to represent biblical genealogies. The late eighteenth century saw the tree reclaimed to visualize relationships in the natural world, sometimes with a creationist view, but in other instances suggesting evolution. Charles Darwin'sOn the Origin of Species(1859) exorcised the exclusively creationist view of the "tree of life," and his ideas sparked an explosion of trees, mostly by younger acolytes in Europe.

    Although Darwin's influence waned in the early twentieth century, by midcentury his ideas held sway once again in time for another and even greater explosion of tree building, generated by the development of new theories on how to assemble trees, the birth of powerful computing, and the emergence of molecular technology. Throughout Archibald's far-reaching study, and with the use of many figures, the evolution of "tree of life" iconography becomes entwined with our changing perception of the world and ourselves.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53766-7
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Biological Sciences, History, Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Preface
    (pp. IX-X)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. XI-XIV)
  5. CHAPTER ONE Blaming Aristotle
    (pp. 1-21)

    Our perceptions as well as our misperceptions of the history of life on this planet arise in large measure from the representations of evolutionary history, both verbal and visual. One need not be a biologist to understand the meaning of “lower” and “higher” animals. Images abound showing the march of primate evolution from a lowly, monkey-like ancestor to the pinnacle of humanness—Homo sapiens. We do, of course, deem ourselves as the highest animals—in the Western tradition, just below the angels. But what do we mean with these seemingly innocuous adjectives? What makes us presume that we are the...

  6. CHAPTER TWO The Roots of the Tree of Life
    (pp. 22-52)

    A tree constitutes the single most powerful and most often used image of evolutionary history. Unlike the easily traceable Aristotelian ladder or scale of life, the origins of the biological tree of life imagery present a much more tangled but nonetheless traceable history. Evolutionary tree of life imagery constitutes an amalgam of male descent traceable from at least the Roman Republic with combined Roman religious and political acanthus-laden, tree-like imagery borrowed from the Greeks that appeared in temples recording birth-death-rebirth within cyclical nature. Early Christians adopted the acanthus/tree motif almost wholesale, with increasing dollops of Christian symbols added over time....

  7. CHAPTER THREE Competing Visual Metaphors
    (pp. 53-79)

    Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, European scientists struggled to keep pace with the work of classifying organisms brought back in great batches from overseas expansionary expeditions. The world’s biological expanse and richness rapidly became apparent. Nevertheless, placement of this cornucopia of new species appeared mostly in dry tables and lists that only barely touched the overarching idea of organic organization let alone how it originated, except by resorting to God’s creative powers.

    Especially the first half of the nineteenth century saw a hodgepodge of competing ways to illustrate and organize nature’s order, and as we now know, the tree won...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Deciphering Darwin’s Trees
    (pp. 80-112)

    Charles Darwin did not discover evolution, a fact known to most modern biologists but not to many others. The idea of “descent with modification,” or what we more colloquially call evolution, was a hotly debated topic by the early nineteenth century. The debate lacked what Darwin provided, along with Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913): a mechanism, and the mechanism was natural selection. After the publication of Darwin’sOn the Origin of Speciesin 1859, no one would ever look at a tree of life in the same way. Thus Darwin’s various evolutionary trees, all but one of which went unpublished...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE The Gilded Age of Evolutionary Trees
    (pp. 113-133)

    Before Darwin’sOn the Origin of Specieswas published in 1859, evolutionary trees of life were a novelty; after Darwin, they were a necessity, not likely because of Darwin’s single tree-like diagram in this work but because of the foundations that he laid for “descent with modification by means of natural selection.” The trees that ensued did not, however, bloom equally in all areas dealing with evolutionary matters. As well, for almost the next one hundred years following the establishment of a pattern of visual representation soon after Darwin, with few exceptions, we see relatively little lasting change in how...

  10. CHAPTER SIX The Waning and Waxing of Darwinian Trees
    (pp. 134-157)

    As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the reality of evolution became firmly ensconced within the scientific community. Darwin deserves credit for the overused idea of a paradigm shift—evolution was a scientific “fact,” but not so for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. This intellectual retreat happened for a number of reasons. A common perception suggests that when Gregor Mendel’s (1822–1884) work “Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden” (Experiments in Plant Hybridization, 1866) on particulate inheritance was rediscovered at the turn of the twentieth century, its sole importance came as a mechanism for inheritance. In the hands of scientists such as...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Three Revolutions in Tree Building
    (pp. 158-199)

    The trees of the mid-twentieth century, especially those of scientists such as Alfred Sherwood Romer and George Gaylord Simpson, emphasized the grand unfolding radiations of life over geologic time, very much in accord with perceptions of a Darwinian view of evolution. By the 1970s, perceptions and research programs, including how to build and show trees, began to change radically for three reasons. First, in the 1960s two new, quite different schools of biological systematics emerged that challenged how one assesses relationships and how one represents these relationships visually. Second, although biochemically and genomically based phylogenetic studies began before the invention...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT The Paragon of Animals
    (pp. 200-212)

    Where do we or, more broadly, where does our species,Homo sapiens, belong in this nexus of relationships? Are we the pinnacle of creation espoused by the ancients, and not so ancients, or do we fit as one small twig on the vast tree (or web) of evolutionary relationships? In large measure, one’s worldview dictates the answer; but in spite of what we as individuals believe about this vexing issue, our understanding of our place in nature has expanded in the past two thousand years almost beyond comprehension, to the point that we now realize that we constitute but a...

  13. References
    (pp. 213-228)
  14. Index
    (pp. 229-242)