Trees, Coral, and Seaweed: An Interpretation of Sketches Found in Darwin’s Papers


The sole diagram in On the Origin of Species is generally considered to be merely an illustration of Darwin’s ideas, but such an interpretation ignores the fact that Darwin himself expressly stated that the diagram helped him to discover and express his ideas. This article demonstrates that developing the so-called “tree diagram” substantially aided Darwin’s heuristics. This demonstration is based on an interpretation of the diagram and of 17 sketches found in Darwin’s scientific papers. The key to this interpretation is the meaning that Darwin assigned to the graphic elements he used to construct the preliminary sketches and the diagram. I argue that each of the sketches contributed to the shaping of Darwin’s ideas and that, in their succession, each added new elements that ultimately resulted in the fully developed published diagram.

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