Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp 135–160

Telling the tree: Narrative representation and the study of evolutionary history

  • Robert J. O'Hara

DOI: 10.1007/BF00129880

Cite this article as:
O'Hara, R.J. Biol Philos (1992) 7: 135. doi:10.1007/BF00129880


Accounts of the evolutionary past have as much in common with works of narrative history as they do with works of science. Awareness of the narrative character of evolutionary writing leads to the discovery of a host of fascinating and hitherto unrecognized problems in the representation of evolutionary history, problems associated with the writing of narrative. These problems include selective attention, narrative perspective, foregrounding and backgrounding, differential resolution, and the establishment of a canon of important events. The narrative aspects of evolutionary writing, however, which promote linearity and cohesiveness in conventional stories, conflict with the underlying chronicle of evolution, which is not linear, but branched, and which does not cohere, but diverges. The impulse to narrate is so great, however, and is so strongly reinforced by traditional schemes of taxonomic attention, that natural historians have more often abandoned the diverging tree than they have abandoned the narrative mode of representation. If we are to understand the true nature of the evolutionary past then we must adopt “tree thinking”, and develop new and creative ways, both narrative and non-narrative, of telling the history of life.

Key words

Cladistics classification evolutionary history narrative natural history natural system philosophy of history philosophy of science phylogeny progress systematics tree thinking tree topology 

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert J. O'Hara
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and The Zoological MuseumUniversity of Wisconsin — MadisonMadisonU.S.A.

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