Trees and networks before and after Darwin

Biol Direct. 2009 Nov 16;4:43; discussion 43. doi: 10.1186/1745-6150-4-43.


It is well-known that Charles Darwin sketched abstract trees of relationship in his 1837 notebook, and depicted a tree in the Origin of Species (1859). Here I attempt to place Darwin's trees in historical context. By the mid-Eighteenth century the Great Chain of Being was increasingly seen to be an inadequate description of order in nature, and by about 1780 it had been largely abandoned without a satisfactory alternative having been agreed upon. In 1750 Donati described aquatic and terrestrial organisms as forming a network, and a few years later Buffon depicted a network of genealogical relationships among breeds of dogs. In 1764 Bonnet asked whether the Chain might actually branch at certain points, and in 1766 Pallas proposed that the gradations among organisms resemble a tree with a compound trunk, perhaps not unlike the tree of animal life later depicted by Eichwald. Other trees were presented by Augier in 1801 and by Lamarck in 1809 and 1815, the latter two assuming a transmutation of species over time. Elaborate networks of affinities among plants and among animals were depicted in the late Eighteenth and very early Nineteenth centuries. In the two decades immediately prior to 1837, so-called affinities and/or analogies among organisms were represented by diverse geometric figures. Series of plant and animal fossils in successive geological strata were represented as trees in a popular textbook from 1840, while in 1858 Bronn presented a system of animals, as evidenced by the fossil record, in a form of a tree. Darwin's 1859 tree and its subsequent elaborations by Haeckel came to be accepted in many but not all areas of biological sciences, while network diagrams were used in others. Beginning in the early 1960s trees were inferred from protein and nucleic acid sequences, but networks were re-introduced in the mid-1990s to represent lateral genetic transfer, increasingly regarded as a fundamental mode of evolution at least for bacteria and archaea. In historical context, then, the Network of Life preceded the Tree of Life and might again supersede it.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Eukaryota / classification
  • Eukaryota / genetics
  • History, 16th Century
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Nature
  • Phylogeny*
  • Prokaryotic Cells / classification
  • Prokaryotic Cells / metabolism
  • Vertebrates / classification