UNCG MLS 610a — Interdisciplinary Seminar: Trees of History

Three distinct and seemingly unrelated disciplines all endeavor to reconstruct the branching histories of their special objects of study: evolutionary biology reconstructs the evolutionary genealogy of life; historical linguistics reconstructs the tree of language history; and textual criticism or stemmatics reconstructs the descent of manuscripts copied over the ages from ancient originals that are now lost. What these fields have in common is that the objects they study all undergo, in Darwin’s phrase, “descent with modification.” Although the parallels among these different fields have long been noticed, they have rarely been examined in detail or subjected to critical analysis. In this seminar and discussion course we will investigate the theory and practice of tree reconstruction in each discipline today, as well as the origin of the tree as a model of history in the nineteenth century and before. Students will be actively engaged with the instructor in the work of interdisciplinary comparison and synthesis. Some familiarity with either evolutionary biology, linguistics, or textual criticism will be helpful, but is not required.


Dr. Robert J. O’Hara, Center for Critical Inquiry in the Liberal Arts, 100 Foust Building. Office hours: Monday/Wednesday 2:00–3:00 p.m., Thursday 3:00–5:00 p.m., or any other time by appointment or chance.

Required Text

Recommended Texts


The principal requirement of the course will be active participation: doing the readings and joining in class discussions. In addition, each student will be expected to lead one of the class meetings toward the end of the term on a topic of his or her choice and to submit a critical review (about 15 pages long) of the readings assigned for that class by 10 December. An extensive bibliography on trees of history will be supplied at the beginning of the course and this should help students to select a topic and a set of readings for their presentation and report.


27 August: Introductory material; a collection of trees; the fields of systematics, linguistics, and stemmatics; historical trees vs. logical trees; the scope of the historical sciences.

3 September: Representing trees and reconstructing trees; representational elements in trees; the ambiguous relationship between classification and genealogy.

10 September: History of trees, part 1.

17 September: History of trees, part 2.

24 September: Library visit: genres of tree literature.

1 October: Reconstructing trees, part 1: simple examples and the principle of apomorphy.

8 October: Reconstructing trees, part 2: homoplasy, horizontal transmission, and other complications.

15 October: Computers and tree reconstruction; demonstrations of PAUP and other reconstruction software.

22 October: Limitations and philosophical issues; trees of history elsewhere.

29 October, 5 November, 12 November, 19 November, 3 December: Student presentations; other topics to be selected.

Two Perspectives on Our Theme

Much of our course will be concerned with the relationship between what philosophers sometimes call The World (that is, things that actually exist and events that actually happened), and representations of The World (words or pictures that try to show what The World is like). To set our theme I offer the following two quotations. The first is a word of warning from a philosopher of science, and the second is the most famous of all verbal pictures of a tree of history.

Men of science are supposed, except by other men of science, to be literal and exact, and unlike poets, in all their utterances. (Chauncey Wright, 1877, Philosophical Discussions.)

The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during each former year may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and groups of species have tried to overmaster other species in the great battle for life. The limbs divided into great branches, and these into lesser and lesser branches, were themselves once, when the tree was small, budding twigs; and this connexion of the former and present buds by ramifying branches may well represent the classification of all extinct and living species in groups subordinate to groups. Of the many twigs which flourished when the tree was a mere bush, only two or three, now grown into great branches, yet survive and bear all the other branches; so with the species which lived during long-past geological periods, very few now have living and modified descendants. From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these lost branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only from having been found in a fossil state. As we here and there see a thin straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit, so we occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus or Lepidosiren, which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large branches of life, and which has apparently been saved from fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications. (Charles Darwin, 1859, On the Origin of Species.)

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