List of Figures

April 25, 2010

Early evolutionary trees of life

Charles Darwin’s seminal On the Origin of Species wasn’t rich in figures. In fact, this diagram was its only illustration:

The funny thing is, it’s virtually unknown to non-specialists, whereas this scribble from Darwin’s notebooks is something of an evolutionary icon:

Of course, the “tree of life” (visual) metaphor had been used by naturalists for some 200 years before Darwin, but only as a representation of the history of life. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that evolutionary theories of one sort or another appeared, and so did evolutionary trees of life. To name a few: Augustin Augier had a very detailed one for plants in 1801[1]; Jean-Baptiste Lamarck published a sketchy diagram for animals in 1809[2]; Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, anonymously published by Robert Chambers in 1844, had an even sketchier one, where fish, reptiles, and birds are represented by branches from a path leading to mammals[3]; finally, in 1858, just a year before the Origin of Species, Heinrich Georg Bronn published a hypothetical phylogenetic tree labeled with letters[4].

A recent 2009 paper in Journal of the History of Biology[5] adds a new and marvelous image to this list. Please meet: the foldout diagram titled “Paleontological chart” from Edward Hitchcock’s Elementary Geology, first published in 1840[6]:

What’s wonderful about it (apart from the multiple roots, sick-cacti-like appearance and the hilarious crowns over men and palms) is that it wasn’t meant to be an evolutionary tree; furthermore, once a tree of life image became closely associated with Darwin, Hitchcock dropped it altogether. As the paper’s abstract puts it: “Whereas Lamarck, Chambers, Bronn, Darwin, and Haeckel saw some form of transmutation as the mechanism that created their ‘trees of life’, Hitchcock, like his contemporaries Agassiz and Miller, who also produced ‘trees of life’, saw a deity as the agent of change. Through each edition of his book Hitchcock denounced the newer transmutationist hypotheses of Lamarck, then Chambers, and finally Darwin in an 1860 edition that no longer presented his tree-like ‘paleontological chart’.”


  1. A. Augier, Essai d’une nouvelle classification des vegetaux. Lyon, 1801.
    The tree was rediscovered in 1983: P. F. Stevens, Augustin Augier’s “Arbre Botanique” (1801), a Remarkable Early Botanical Representation of
    the Natural System
    . Taxon, Vol. 32, No. 2 (May, 1983), pp. 203-211. JSTOR
  2. J.-B. Lamarck, Philosophie Zoologique. Paris, 1809. Google books
  3. R. Chambers, Vestiges of the natural history of creation. London, 1844. Scans
  4. H. G. Bronn, Untersuchungen über die Entwicklungs-Gesetze der organischen Welt während der Bildungszeit unserer Erd-Oberfläche. Stuttgart, 1958. Scans
  5. J. David Archibald, Edward Hitchcock’s Pre-Darwinian (1840) “Tree of Life”. Journal of the History of Biology (2009) 42:561–592. PDF
  6. E. Hitchcock, Elementary Geology. New York, 1840. Google books

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