Aristotle's Ladder, Darwin's Tree

The Evolution of Visual Metaphors for Biological Order

J. David Archibald

Columbia University Press

Aristotle's Ladder, Darwin's Tree

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Pub Date: August 2014

ISBN: 9780231164122

256 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $70.00£59.00

Pub Date: August 2014

ISBN: 9780231537667

256 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $69.99£59.00

Aristotle's Ladder, Darwin's Tree

The Evolution of Visual Metaphors for Biological Order

J. David Archibald

Columbia University Press

Leading paleontologist J. David Archibald explores the rich history of visual metaphors for biological order from ancient times to the present and their influence on humans' perception of their place in nature, offering uncommon insight into how we went from standing on the top rung of the biological ladder to embodying just one tiny twig on the tree of life. He begins with the ancient but still misguided use of ladders to show biological order, moving then to the use of trees to represent seasonal life cycles and genealogies by the Romans. The early Christian Church then appropriated trees to represent biblical genealogies. The late eighteenth century saw the tree reclaimed to visualize relationships in the natural world, sometimes with a creationist view, but in other instances suggesting evolution. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) exorcised the exclusively creationist view of the "tree of life," and his ideas sparked an explosion of trees, mostly by younger acolytes in Europe.

Although Darwin's influence waned in the early twentieth century, by midcentury his ideas held sway once again in time for another and even greater explosion of tree building, generated by the development of new theories on how to assemble trees, the birth of powerful computing, and the emergence of molecular technology. Throughout Archibald's far-reaching study, and with the use of many figures, the evolution of "tree of life" iconography becomes entwined with our changing perception of the world and ourselves.

J. David Archibald is one of the leading paleomammalogists in the world, and one of the foremost experts on the biotic changes across the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. In this book, he shows a deep understanding of the chronology and iconography of the 'tree' as both an iconic metaphor and a conceptual device in the history of biology.

Kevin Padian, University of California, Berkeley

This book presents a fascinating trip through the history of imagery and conceptual frameworks used to understand the diversity and evolution of life. J. David Archibald has produced an authoritative and delightful text that will be relished by anyone interested in evolution, biodiversity, the history and philosophy of science, scientific art, or graphic design.

David M. Hillis, University of Texas at Austin

Through the long history of drawings and diagrams, J. David Archibald's magnificent new book shows us how people have depicted the diverse interrelated array of life: from linear chains and ladders up through modern evolutionary trees. Archibald's work makes it clear that these relationships have been sensed regardless of the competing ideas of how the patterns were formed: whether through supernatural causes or natural evolutionary processes.

Niles Eldredge, author of Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life

Aristotle's Ladder, Darwin's Tree provides a fascinating insight into the way biologists use diagrams to show the history of evolution. David Archibald documents the story of these pictures in an engaging and refreshing style, ranging from beautiful early manuscripts and frescoes that display religious and human genealogical relationships, to the most modern phylogenetic trees that appear in scientific journals and textbooks. A great book for a biologist!

Janet Browne, Harvard University

Archibald's book is interdisciplinary, authoritative, well-written and complete, with a deep historiographic appreciation of its many subjects.


Aristotle's Ladder, Darwin's Tree will be intellectually stimulating for those interested in the history and philosophy of biology, and especially for those impressed by the importance of the visual for the construction of scientific knowledge.

Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Impressive and rather humbling...


Fascinating... A book that is very much worth reading by anyone who is interested in the conceptual heritage of phylogenetic trees.

Systematic Biology

Splendid.... Aristotle's Ladder, Darwin's Tree is a wonderful book.

Quarterly Review of Biology

Illuminating... It has cross-disciplinary appeal, but will be more digestible to readers with prior knowledge of evolutionary theories.

Journal of Historical Geography

Rich in content, beautifully illustrated, and often thought-provoking, this book should be of interest to anyone interested in the history of visual representations in the life sciences... This is a book to think with.

Archives of Natural History

Incites curiosity.

Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology
1. Blaming Aristotle
2. The Roots of the Tree of Life
3. Competing Visual Metaphors
4. Deciphering Darwin's Trees
5. The Gilded Age of Evolutionary Trees
6. The Waning and Waxing of Darwinian Trees
7. Three Revolutions in Tree Building
8. The Paragon of Animals

Read the chapter, "Blaming Aristotle":

About the Author

J. David Archibald is professor emeritus of biology at San Diego State University as well as curator of mammals in the SDSU Vertebrate Collections. He has written or coedited more than 150 articles and 6 books, including The Rise of Placental Mammals: Origins and Relationships of the Major Extant Clades and Extinction and Radiation: How the Fall of Dinosaurs Led to the Rise of Mammals.