Aristocratic family trees became scientific model
1 October 2019
Before the French Revolution, family trees were reserved for the feudal upper classes, who used them to consolidate their social status. While feudalism broke down and family trees lost their old roles, the trees gained new functions as scientific models. This is shown by a new thesis in the history of science and ideas.
Today, family trees are self-evident metaphors and models for anyone wishing to visualise evolutionary relations and development. Tree charts and arboreal metaphors are particularly pertinent in biology, genetics and linguistics. They are routinely used in data simulation and computer modelling, academic and non-specialist writing, museum displays and teaching.
Despite its overwhelming presence, the tree model is subject to lively debate in the research community. Critics argue that the tree model gives a misleading picture of evolutionary history. Given the greater complexity of molecular-level evolutionary processes than is allowed for by the tree model, criticism has intensified in step with the rapid advances in molecular biology.
French scholarship after the revolution
In a new Uppsala University thesis in the history of ideas, Petter Hellström examines the early history of family trees in the modern sciences. The focus of the thesis is on French scholarship around 1800, i.e. shortly after the French Revolution had abolished the monarchy, aristocracy, and more generally the feudal system.
The thesis builds on historical research showing that genealogy and family trees, in pre-revolutionary France, were employed by the aristocracy to safeguard their family’s social status and access to offices, titles and land. In 1790, however, all inheritance privileges were abolished.
“While French revolutionaries abolished genealogy as a principle of social order, French scientists were discovering genealogy as a principle of natural order. It is hard to say exactly how these events were linked, but the connection in terms of time and place is remarkable,” Hellström says.
In previous research, the histories of evolutionary theory and of the tree model have often been blended together, with the tree model described as virtually a consequence of Darwin’s theory. Hellström’s study shows that the connection was the exact opposite: family trees were used in scientific classification for at least half a century before Darwin adopted the family tree model in his ground-breaking book, On the Origin of Species, first published in 1859.
An order created by God
As Hellström shows in his study, there was no connection between using the family tree as a scientific model and regarding the order of nature as a product of evolutionary processes or development over time – at least not in the first half of the 19th century. Most people who used the tree model during this period had in mind an order created by God.
“The first known family tree of the natural order was drawn by Augustin Augier,” Hellström says. “Augier was both a nobleman and a priest – one of the Revolution’s losers. It is striking that, only a few years after the Revolution, he claimed to have discovered how the order of nature reflected the feudal order in which he himself had grown up.”
Another important result of the study is that the early use of family trees was not confined to natural sciences and language studies. Family trees were used in various fields of knowledge where they are no longer in use today, such as music theory, medicine, and economics.
“Previous research looked backwards from the present, therefore finding trees only in the disciplines where they are used today. I decided, instead, on a time and place, and did a broad search. In the French archives, I found a range of previously overlooked tree charts from completely different fields. I had to fundamentally rewrite the history of trees in science,” Hellström says.
Hellström, P. Trees of Knowledge. Science and the Shape of Genealogy. Uppsala Studies in History of Ideas 51. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2019. 339 p.
A full-text PDF of the thesis is available upon request. The abstract is available here.
“The American dilemma is far from resolved”
15 juni 2020
The police violence in Minneapolis that resulted in the death of George Floyd has once again thrust relations between black and white Americans onto the agenda, a dilemma that will most likely play a central role in this autumn’s presidential elec...
Social graces and etiquette vital for Carl Linnaeus
04 juni 2020
What would have become of Carl Linnaeus if he had remained single? Would science have missed out on one of its major lodestars without his well-functioning household? And was his son, Carl Linnaeus the Younger, really the ne’er-do-well he was repu...
Medieval manuscript fragments acquired
26 maj 2020
A group of fragments of medieval manuscripts has been acquired by Uppsala University Library. Among these there is a fragment related to Saint Bridget of Sweden. This particular fragment may have been written at or owned by the Vadstena Abbey.
She studies AI as existential media
30 april 2020
How are we influenced when smart digital assistants, like Siri and Alexa, become part of our homes? And what happens when we begin to track deviating individuals through biometrics? “More research is needed on what it means to be human in a digita...
New study reveals unknown side of Astrid Lindgren’s creative process
21 februari 2020
Why did Jonathan Lionheart’s pitch-black hair suddenly turn golden? And how did Master Detective Kalle Blomqvist get his proper name? In the “Astrid Lindgren Code”, literature researcher Malin Nauwerck lifts the lid on some of the literary world’s...
History professor given prestigious assignment
22 januari 2020
Maria Ågren, professor of history, has been awarded a distinguished professor grant of SEK 50 million over 10 years by the Swedish Research Council. The council awarded grants totalling some SEK 380 million to eight applicants.
Winner of the 2019 Geijer Prize Named
14 januari 2020
The Geijer Prize for history 2019 has been awarded to Mia Kuritzen Löwengart for her doctoral thesis A Matter of Social Urgency: The emergence of a symphony orchestra and concert house in Stockholm, ca. 1890-1926 and Hedvig Widmalm for her doctora...
Legendary runestone bears witness to climate anxiety 1,200 years ago
08 januari 2020
After more than 1,000 years, one of the greatest mysteries of the early Viking Age, the Rök runestone which bears the world’s longest runic inscription, appears to have been solved. According to four Swedish researchers, the puzzling inscription h...
Martin Henriksson Holmdahl Prize goes to Afaf Doleeb and Patricia Lorenzoni
21 november 2019
The Martin Henriksson Holmdahl Prize is Uppsala University’s foremost award for contributions to the promotion of human rights and liberty. This year’s prize is shared by graduate student Afaf Doleeb and researcher Patricia Lorenzoni for their com...
Large-scale cadastral maps on parchment digitised
08 november 2019
Uppsala University Archives holds a large collection of hand-drawn seventeenth century maps on parchment. These maps are of significant historical value and a valuable source of information on the University’s agricultural properties at the time.
New Honorary Doctors Appointed at Uppsala University
21 oktober 2019
The nine faculties at Uppsala University have decided on who they wish to appoint as honorary doctors this academic year. The new honorary doctors include researchers in fields as diverse as string theory, maternal healthcare, evolutionary biology...
Excavation documentation from Labraunda digitised
21 oktober 2019
Uppsala University Library's part of the project Mötesplats Medelhavet ("Labraunda") - a research platform for digitised archaeological collections and archives at the Swedish institutes in Athens, Rome and Istanbul, is now being started. The aim ...
Aristocratic family trees became scientific model
01 oktober 2019
Before the French Revolution, family trees were reserved for the feudal upper classes, who used them to consolidate their social status. While feudalism broke down and family trees lost their old roles, the trees gained new functions as scientific...
Uppsala philosopher elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
19 september 2019
Folke Tersman, professor of practical philosophy at Uppsala University, has been elected as a member of the class for humanities and for outstanding services to science at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Johan Ihre’s dissertations now in digital form.
06 september 2019
Johan Ihre (1707-1780) was professor of Rethoric and Politics at Uppsala University for 42 years. During this time he managed no less than 453 dissertations, the theses of the time. These dissertations are currently a widely used source material i...
Sustainable urbanisation requires collaboration
10 juni 2019
On Sunday, 30 June, six seminars on sustainability and urbanisation focusing on India and Sweden will take place in Almedalen. To find out more, we talked to Swaminathan Ramanathan, visiting research fellow, and Owe Ronström, professor of ethnolog...
Races for women play an important role
06 maj 2019
Participating in a race for women plays an important role for women and increases self-confidence among participants. Women aim to perform as well as they can, and they place most emphasis on their physical performance, despite the organisers’ oft...
Award for research and teaching on the Holocaust
11 april 2019
Tomislav Dulić, Senior Lecturer in History and Director of the Hugo Valentin Centre, has been awarded the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Award 2019.
Diplomatic wives’ political clout often overlooked
07 mars 2019
Many 20th-century accounts of international relations and diplomacy often leave out the role of women. Diplomats’ wives were not officially employed, but diplomacy was frequently based on couples working together.
Ola Larsmo awarded Martin Henriksson Holmdahl Prize
16 november 2018
The Martin Henriksson Holmdahl Prize is Uppsala University’s foremost award for efforts to promote human rights and liberty. This year’s prize is awarded to author and honorary doctor Ola Larsmo.