Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 25, Issue 4, pp 689–709 | Cite as

Trashing life’s tree

  • L. R. Franklin-HallEmail author


The Tree of Life has traditionally been understood to represent the history of species lineages. However, recently researchers have suggested that it might be better interpreted as representing the history of cellular lineages, sometimes called the Tree of Cells. This paper examines and evaluates reasons offered against this cellular interpretation of the Tree of Life. It argues that some such reasons are bad reasons, based either on a false attribution of essentialism, on a misunderstanding of the problem of lineage identity, or on a limited view of scientific representation. I suggest that debate about the Tree of Cells and other successors to the traditional Tree of Life should be formulated in terms of the purposes these representations may serve. In pursuing this strategy, we see that the Tree of Cells cannot serve one purpose suggested for it: as an explanation for the hierarchical nature of taxonomy. We then explore whether, instead, the tree may play an important role in the dynamic modeling of evolution. As highly-integrated complex systems, cells may influence which lineage components can successfully transfer into them and how they change once integrated. Only if they do in fact have a substantial role to play in this process might the Tree of Cells have some claim to be the Tree of Life.


The tree of life Phylogenetics Evolutionary modeling Lineages Tree of cells 



I would like to thank John Dupré and Maureen O’Malley for their work on this issue and for establishing and running the Question the Tree of Life research project. I am particularly indebted to my referees and to Maureen O’Malley for helpful suggestions on this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.New York UniversityNew YorkUSA

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