The Family Tree: A History of Scientific Imagination

Vortrag von PhD Petter Hellström, Uppsala University (Schweden) und Visiting Fellow am Seminar für Kulturwissenschaften und Wissenschaftsforschung der Universität Luzern, im Rahmen des Kulturwissenschaftlichen Kolloquiums

Datum: 22. Februar 2022
Zeit: 16.00 Uhr bis 17.00 Uhr
Ort: Zoom
Elina Merenmies, ”Language of Trees” (2008), tempera and oil on canvas, 144 x 234 cm. Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki.

Petter Hellström’s research explores historical attempts at system building, classification and ordering, and the importance of models and metaphors, images and visual culture in the history of science. Link

Abstract: The employment of family trees as metaphors and models of evolutionary development is typically attributed to Charles Darwin, who painted a lyrical image of the evolutionary Tree of Life in Origin of Species, and who instructed his publisher to bind a ramified diagram of species transmutation into the same book. The imagery was further elaborated by Darwin’s friends and supporters, notably Ernst Haeckel, who produced evolutionary trees that looked like natural trees, thus blurring the line between metaphor and visual representation.

While family trees have remained key resources in the production, organization, and interpretation of scientific data on life ever since, in my research I have demonstrated that family trees entered the modern sciences at an earlier date, and independently of the evolutionary perspectives they were later made to illustrate. Before the family tree was generally adopted as a metaphor and model of evolutionary development, it served scientists and scholars as an image of natural hierarchy and perfect, even divinely instituted order.

In this explorative talk, I pause to address the implications of my earlier findings. Even as Darwin himself admitted that his image was not new, the fact that family trees were around in the sciences even before the rise of evolutionary theory has so far not been properly considered. What is the relation between early employments of family trees by lesser-known scientists and scholars and later employments at the hands of canonized authors? What role, if any, did the family tree play in the shaping of evolutionary theory?

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