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Diagramming Evolution: The Case of Darwin’s Trees

Date and Time: 
Thursday, December 5, 2019. 06:00 PM - 08:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Humanities Center Board Room
Workshop: 
Working Group in Literary & Visual Culture
Meeting Description: 

From his earliest student days through the writing of his last book, Charles Darwin drew diagrams. In developing his evolutionary ideas, his preferred form of diagram was the tree. An examination of several of Darwin’s trees—from sketches in a private notebook from the late 1830s through the diagram published in the Origin—opens a window onto the role of diagramming in Darwin’s scientific practice. In his diagrams, Darwin simultaneously represented both observable patterns in nature and conjectural narratives of evolutionary history. He then brought these natural patterns and narratives into dialogue, allowing him to explore whether the narratives could explain the patterns. But Darwin’s diagrams did not reveal their meaning directly to passive readers; they required readers to engage dynamically with them in order to understand the connections they disclosed between patterns and narratives. Moreover, the narratives Darwin depicted in his diagrams did not represent past sequences of events that he claimed had actually occurred; the narratives were conjectural, schematic, and probabilistic. Instead of depicting actual histories in all their particularity, Darwin depicted narratives in his diagrams in order to make general claims about how nature works. The conjunction of these features of Darwin’s diagrams is central to how they do their epistemic work.

Greg Priest in a PhD candidate in history of science, with respondent Professor Tom Owens, English.

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