Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 25, Issue 4, pp 475–496 | Cite as

The series, the network, and the tree: changing metaphors of order in nature

  • Olivier RieppelEmail author


The history of biological systematics documents a continuing tension between classifications in terms of nested hierarchies congruent with branching diagrams (the ‘Tree of Life’) versus reticulated relations. The recognition of conflicting character distribution led to the dissolution of the scala naturae into reticulated systems, which were then transformed into phylogenetic trees by the addition of a vertical axis. The cladistic revolution in systematics resulted in a representation of phylogeny as a strictly bifurcating pattern (cladogram). Due to the ubiquity of character conflict—at the genetic or morphological level, or at any level in between—some characters will necessarily have to be discarded (qua noise) in favor of others in support of a strictly bifurcating phylogenetic tree. Pattern analysts will seek maximal congruence in the distribution of characters (ultimately of any kind) relative to a branching tree-topology; process explainers will call such tree-topologies into question by reference to incompatible evolutionary processes. Pattern analysts will argue that process explanations must not be brought to bear on pattern reconstruction; process explainers will insist that the reconstructed pattern requires a process explanation to become scientifically relevant, i.e., relevant to evolutionary theory. The core question driving the current debate about the adequacy of the ‘Tree of Life’ metaphor seems to be whether the systematic dichotomization of the living world is an adequate representation of the complex evolutionary history of global biodiversity. In ‘Questioning the Tree of Life’, it seems beneficial to draw at least four conceptual distinctions: pattern reconstruction versus process explanation as different epistemological approaches to the study of phylogeny; open versus closed systems as expressions of different kinds of population (species) structures; phylogenetic trees versus cladograms as representations of evolutionary processes versus patterns of relationships; and genes versus species as expressions of different levels of causal integration and evolutionary transformation.


K. R. Popper W. Hennig Phylogenetic trees Cladograms Networks Species 



This paper was first presented at the workshop, Perspectives on the Tree of Life, sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust and held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, July, 2009. I thank Eric Bapteste for invaluable guidance to the literature; he and two anonymous reviewers offered much appreciated comments and criticism of an earlier version of this paper.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeologyThe Field MuseumChicagoUSA

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