Trees of History in Systematics and Philology

Memorie della Società Italiana di Scienze Naturali e del Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Milano, 27(1): 81–88

8 Pages Posted: 2 Feb 2015

Date Written: 1996


"The Natural System" is the name given to the underlying arrangement present in the diversity of life. Unlike a classification, which is made up of classes and members, a system or arrangement is an integrated whole made up of connected parts. In the pre-evolutionary period a variety of forms were proposed for the Natural System, including maps, circles, stars, and abstract multidimensional objects. The trees sketched by Darwin in the 1830s should probably be considered the first genuine evolutionary diagrams of the Natural System — the first genuine evolutionary trees. Darwin refined his image of the Natural System in the well-known evolutionary tree published in the Origin of Species, where he also carefully distinguished between arrangements and classifications. Following the publication of the Origin, there was a great burst of evolutionary tree building, but interest in trees declined substantially after 1900, only to be revived in recent years with the development of cladistic analysis.

While evolutionary trees are modern diagrams of the Natural System, they are at the same time instances of another broad class of diagrams that may be called "trees of history": branching diagrams of genealogical descent and change. During the same years that Darwin was sketching his first evolutionary trees, the earliest examples of two other trees of history also appeared: the first trees of language evolution and of manuscript genealogy. Though these were apparently independent of evolutionary trees in their origin, the similarities among all these trees of history, and among the historical processes that underlie them, were soon recognized. Darwin compared biological evolution and language evolution several times in the Origin of Species, and both Ernst Haeckel and the linguist August Schleicher made similar comparisons. Both linguists and stemmaticists (students of manuscript descent) understood the principle of apomorphy — the principle that only shared innovations provide evidence of common ancestry — more clearly than did systematists, and if there had been more cross-fertilization among these fields the cladistic revolution in systematics might well have taken place in the nineteenth century.

Although historical linguists and stemmaticists have in some respects had sounder theory than have systematists, at least until recently, they have also had the practical problem of very large amounts of data, a problem not often faced by systematists until the advent of molecular sequencing. The opportunity now exists for systematists to contribute to the theory and practice of linguistics and stemmatics, their sister disciplines in historical reconstruction, through application of our commonly used computer programs for tree estimation. Preliminary results from the application of numerical cladistic analysis to a large stemmatic data set have been very encouraging, and have already generated much discussion in the stemmatics community.

Keywords: evolution, historical linguistics, palaetiology, philology, philosophy of science, philosophy of history, phylogeny, stemmatics, systematics, tree-thinking

Suggested Citation

O’Hara, Robert J., Trees of History in Systematics and Philology (1996). Memorie della Società Italiana di Scienze Naturali e del Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Milano, 27(1): 81–88, Available at SSRN:

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