News Tree of life

Maybe biological classification is more of an art exhibition than a science pursuit

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An expression of cultural beliefs. Or at least, that’s the impression one gets.

The British Museum is currently featuring an exhibit that, among other things, explores the various attempts to represent the tree of life. But is it in any meaningful sense a tree?

File:Great Chain of Being 2.png
Chain of being, 1579

It started out as a Great Chain of Being, where everything had its place in a hierarchical order.

Darwin and his followers got rid of that guy at the top and re-imaged it as a tree of “just naturally occurring” ascending complexity of evolution:

File:Tree of life by Haeckel.jpg
Ernst Haeckel, 1879

After genome mapping,  well suited to the times, it became a kumbayah circle of life, or else it is a pile of matchwood. Except for human evolution, which is a braid.

File:Tree of life SVG.svg
Current version of tree

And new approaches are emerging. As the article on the Exhibit says,

And, indeed here we are dealing with such vast amounts of information that one might begin to wonder whether there were any way in which we could meaningfully depict all of life on Earth on an A4 sheet of paper. There have been some attempts—but Imperial College London researcher James Rosindell has come up with an ingenious solution. One Zoom Tree, an interactive tree of life, allows viewers to zoom into the tree of life and explore the evolutionary relationships between tens of thousands of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

Then there’s the prokaryotic forest of life.

On wonders what will be hot at the shows a decade from now.

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4 Replies to “Maybe biological classification is more of an art exhibition than a science pursuit

  1. 1
    Dionisio says:

    One wonders what will be hot at the shows a decade from now.

    Given the wide acceptance of Italian food around the world these days, could it be some kind of ‘spaghetti bowl’ ? (‘al dente’ please).

  2. 2
    Dionisio says:

    On wonders what will be hot at the shows a decade from now.

    I assumed it is ‘one wonders…’ when I wrote comment #1.

  3. 3
    Dionisio says:

    Then there’s the prokaryotic forest of life.

    Interesting concept: the TOL being part of the FOL. Really cool! That must inspire quite a beautiful ‘surreal’ painting someday soon.

    At the fast pace science research is making exciting discoveries, while the Bioinformatics and computational biology folks make progress addressing the overwhelming ‘data avalanche’ issue, this whole FOL/TOL stuff might suffer substantial transformations.

    But in any case, the shape and form it will gradually take should impress all of us, regardless of our opinions.

    These are exciting times, when science research is finding more reasons to be in awe. That’s why we look forward with great anticipation to hear the news about new discoveries coming out of the best biochemistry labs.

    Hallelujah!

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    Well, I can certainly see how if it’s like a bonsai tree it could be considered an art form.

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