Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 42, Issue 3, pp 561–592 | Cite as

Edward Hitchcock’s Pre-Darwinian (1840) “Tree of Life”

  • J. David ArchibaldEmail author


The “tree of life” iconography, representing the history of life, dates from at least the latter half of the 18th century, but evolution as the mechanism providing this bifurcating history of life did not appear until the early 19th century. There was also a shift from the straight line, scala naturae view of change in nature to a more bifurcating or tree-like view. Throughout the 19th century authors presented tree-like diagrams, some regarding the Deity as the mechanism of change while others argued for evolution. Straight-line or anagenetic evolution and bifurcating or cladogenetic evolution are known in biology today, but are often misrepresented in popular culture, especially with anagenesis being confounded with scala naturae. Although well known in the mid 19th century, the geologist Edward Hitchcock has been forgotten as an early, if not the first author to publish a paleontologically based “tree of life” beginning in 1840 in the first edition of his popular general geology text Elementary Geology. At least 31 editions were published and those between 1840 and 1859 had this “paleontological chart” showing two trees, one for fossil and living plants and another for animals set within a context of geological time. Although the chart did not vary in later editions, the text explaining the chart did change to reflect newer ideas in paleontology and geology. Whereas Lamarck, Chambers, Bronn, Darwin, and Haeckel saw some form of transmutation as the mechanism that created their “trees of life,” Hitchcock, like his contemporaries Agassiz and Miller, who also produced “trees of life,” saw a deity as the agent of change. Through each edition of his book Hitchcock denounced the newer transmutationist hypotheses of Lamarck, then Chambers, and finally Darwin in an 1860 edition that no longer presented his tree-like “paleontological chart.”


L. Agassiz H. Bronn R. Chambers creationism G. Cuvier C. Darwin E. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire S. Gould E. Haeckel E. Hitchcock J. Lamarck H. Miller P. Pallas phylogeny scala naturae “tree of life” 


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This paper began as a chance discovery of the 8th edition (1852) of Hitchcock’s Elementary Geology at Wahrenbrock’s Book House, San Diego some 10 years ago. It was a shock to see in this volume a foldout showing the “tree of life” in a geological and paleontological context fully seven years before Darwin’s Origin of Species, nine years before Bronn’s “tree of life,” 14 years before Haeckel’s coining of the word phylogeny and publication of his well-known phylogenies. Work on this project first started as a talk for the Zamorano Club, Los Angeles in 2002, and then an expanded version for the Darwin Day Celebration, National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, 2008. Various help and information from the following people is gratefully acknowledged: Gloria E. Bader, E. Nicholas Genovese, Hans-Dieter Sues, and David J. Ward. I thank Paul Farber, E. Nicholas Genovese, Curtis Johnson, Kevin Padian, Hans-Dieter Sues, and three anonymous reviewers for reading and providing comments that improved the manuscript. The California State University at Long Beach Library, the Princeton University Library, the San Diego State University Library, and the University of California Los Angeles Library, are thanked for access to print materials in their care. The Google® book search engine, The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online©, and Kurt Stüber’s Online Library are thanked for access to electronic materials in their care.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologySan Diego State UniversitySan DiegoUSA

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