Lamarck beat Darwin to the tree

A useful reminder for evolutionary biologists and science journalists, posted to the Evoldir list by Joel Parker:

I have noticed many evolutionary biologists making an embarrassing mistake of falsely attributing the first use of the tree analogy to Darwin. This has occurred in numerous documentaries and on websites which I will pass on naming here. Ironically, the earliest use of the tree analogy diagram to depict evolution was published in the year of Darwin's birth (1809) by Lamarck in his book Philosophie Zoologique (see pg 463, Lamarck even uses botanical terms (branches and rameaux) to describe the origin of animals with respect to this figure. The figure that is usually cited from Darwin's notebook is from 1837 (, a full 8 years after Lamarck's death. Even with our high admiration for Darwin, we should at least give credit where credit is due, and not forget that much of evolution was becoming understood before Darwin. Explaining the mechanism of natural selection was Darwin's great contribution.
Update: in the comments, the esteemed John S. Wilkins demurs. I'm inclined to take Wilkins' word over pretty much anyone's; do any other readers have any insights to add?
Update the second: Luke Jostins has a long post disputing Parker's argument.
Update the third: Mark Pallen adds his thoughts.

More like this

I must demur. Lamarck's is not an evolutionary tree, but rather more of a kind of roadmap of the paths individual lineages can take. The earliest taxonomic tree of which I know is Angier's 1801 botanical tree, and the earliest mention of a taxonomic tree is by Pallas in 1766. However, the earliest evolutionary tree is that drawn by Darwin in his notebooks, although Bronn published a kind of tree in 1858. There were evolutionary trees drawn for language, before that but I don't have my notes to hand.

I don't really agree with this, I still think Darwin's tree is the first. Although it depends what you mean by a tree I suppose. I certainly don't think this issue is resolved in Lamarck's favour as clearly as Joel Parker implies and it is certainly not an "embarrassing mistake" to come out in favour of Darwin. Here are some places to find info.
The tree itself, which looks very persuasive at first look,'s_Tree.jpg
John Wilkins' Evolving Thoughts,…
The comments to this blog post are interesting,

By Dave Lunt (not verified) on 16 Aug 2009 #permalink

So true! so many evolutionary thinkers are forgotten: Let's not forget also Alfred Russell Wallace, who discovered natural selection independently of Darwin.

Evolutionary ideas are also found earlier throughout history: Leonardo Da Vinci, after noticing fossils in a cave, comments in his notebooks that the earth must be millions of years old (he was someone who really is not given due credit concerning his scientific brilliance. The problem being that many of his ideas ere so ahead of their time, that by the time they were "discovered", it had been forgotten that he had proposed them in the first place). Darwin was of course inspired by Lyell. Many philosophers, from Kant to the Greeks, had evolutionary ideas. Etc.

Darwin happened to be the one who came up with the most complete theory, but he certainly didn't do so in an intellectual vacuum.


I don't buy that at all; there is a lot that Joel misses out or glosses over here.

I call Darwin the father of the evolutionary, I believe that the tree concept is his most important contribution, and I do not consider myself an embarrassment. I've written a full response over at my blog:

Darwin first starts talking of the Tree of Life in Chapter 11 of "the origin of species" - and clearly believes it to be an existing concept, widely accepted among his audience, and already seen by them.

If the number of the species included within a genus, or the number of the genera within a family, be represented by a vertical line of varying thickness, ascending through the successive geological formations, in which the species are found, the line will sometimes falsely appear to begin at its lower end, not in a sharp point, but abruptly; it then gradually thickens upwards, often keeping of equal thickness for a space, and ultimately thins out in the upper beds, marking the decrease and final extinction of the species. This gradual
increase in number of the species of a group is strictly conformable with the theory, for the species of the same genus, and the genera of the same family, can increase only slowly and progressively; the process of modification and the production of a number of allied forms necessarily being a slow and gradual process,- one species first giving rise to two or three varieties, these being slowly converted into species, which in their turn produce by equally slow steps other varieties and species, and so on, like the branching of a great tree from a single stem, till the group becomes large.

Which implies that people were drawing trees before Darwin, and Darwin expected his audience to have seen those trees - he treats evidence for the existence of a tree of life as evidence for natural selection, as a fact known to his audience and in need of explanation.

Darwin's contribution was survival of the fittest, and all the shockingly brutal and politically incorrect results that flow from that idea.

On my blog I post on the political motives that make people want to attribute common descent and the tree of life to Darwin, rather than the many people who preceded him on that issue.