Exhibiting the Tree of Life


Evolution is the central organizing principle of biology. One of the most fundamental concepts of the theory since developed by Charles Darwin is that species share a common origin —commonality of descent from a single ancestor— and have subsequently diverged through time. Darwin came to use the metaphor of a great tree to illustrate this notion of descent with modification as early as 1837 on his Notebook ‘B’. A tree that has a unique basal trunk to address commonality of origin for every species and many branches that either ramify further (splitting of biological lineages) or die out (extinction). Divergence is represented by this separation, distinct branches do not join.
Very soon after the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, numerous diagrams started to appear until the tree of life became one of the central images associated with life. That is the reason why ever since Darwin, biologists have been using treelike diagrams or phylogenies to describe the pattern and timing of events that gave rise to the earth´s biodiversity and for the tree of life to be one of the most powerful images in biology.
It has been established that non specialists are prone to misunderstand evolutionary trees and derive naïve interpretations from phylogenies, such as the notion that evolution is oriented from simple toward complex organisms (incarnating the idea of a single ladder of life amidst the extraordinary diversity of organisms), and that humans are at the pinnacle of the evolutionary story. As Natural History Museums play a major role in the public understanding of evolution, we analyzed the way these institutions design their evolutionary exhibits and phylogenies in order to come up with a proposal of an ‘evolutionary tree exhibit’ that can be used to eradicate some of these preconceptions and prejudices.
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Ana Barahona
Erica Torrens