A cartoon history of evolutionary biology

January 27, 2012 • 3:06 pm

This drawing, produced by Harvard student Esther Hamburger as a class assignment, is one of the most fantastic evolution-related cartoons I’ve seen. In fact, it’s not really a cartoon at all: it’s a graphical history of evolutionary biology, showing all the principals.  Throughout it winds the Great Chain of Being—in this case a genuine chain of intellectual advance.

Here’s Esther’s description, which I reproduce (along with the drawing) with her permission:

Generating an illustrated history of evolutionary biology was an idea partially inspired by the caricatures of James Gillray. The British artist’s work served to illustrate the political and social scenes of the late 18th century, and was interspersed throughout the Harvard summer school course, taught by Andrew Berry, for which this image was created. Starting from the Greek philosophers who first observed and consequently attempted to explain the world around them, the tree winds it way down to Darwin, the “father of evolution”, and Wallace, his widely unknown counterpart who seems to have lost out  in evolution’s custody battle (Google this man). It would,however, be false to say that the image was not in any way spawned by the thought: “Hmmm. I’d really rather not write a history paper.”

Click to enlarge.  It repays long study, for every detail in this drawing is meaningful.  If you pull the picture onto your desktop, you’ll see that you can zoom in on it considerably without loss of detail, as you’ll get a 10.6 megabyte image.
Thanks to Esther and Andrew for alerting me to this, and allowing me to reproduce it.

29 thoughts on “A cartoon history of evolutionary biology

  1. The goal may partly have been to avoid writing a history paper but it must have taken a huge amount of work to achieve. Amazing!

  2. As an evolutionist I am offended by this cartoon of Charles Darwin! This is clearly a racist caricature and should be removed at once!

    Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

    Fantastic artwork, I’ll be saving this one for future analysis!

  3. My favorite bit is Louis Agassiz giving evolution the thumbs-down while the cliff crumbles beneath him.

    Runner-up: Descartes’ security blanket.

  4. I think the ultimate reputations of Wallace and Darwin, respectively, depend on their careers after the famous paper was delivered.

    Wallace hared off into things like spiritism, phrenology, and mesmerism, as well as being an early anti-vaxxer. But perhaps more important to his reputation, while he continued valuable scientific research, it was in a variety of fields, not so much about evolution

    Darwin, otoh, proceeded to write a long series of books which can legitimately be considered extensions of OoS, the whole approximating the large essay on natural selection he abandoned in haste when Wallace’s paper came into his hand. You might say that in natural selection, Darwin had found his métier and stuck to it faithfully.

    Fair? Unfair? Now, 150 years since the first publication of OoS, we are gaining a balanced perspective on these two great biologist. If in the interim, the situation has been one-sided, there’s no helping it now.

    Ever was the public fickle.

    PS: There is also the matter of pre=OoS work. Darwin was already very well known, among biologists for his work on barnacles, among the public for his “Voyage of the Beagle”. Wallace had no such foundation to his reputation, at least not in popular circles.

    1. Click to enlarge a second time. Depending on your browser the cursor should change to a magnifying glass. Otherwise just right click on the “enlarged”image and “Save image as”. Once saved locally your image browser of choice should allow you to zoom in to view the detail.

  5. WOW.

    Like that isn’t worth about a thousand history papers…

    I do hope Esther copyrights this and produces purchasable posters.

    I like the “Atheists of the Future…Welcome” sign Epicurus is holding. 🙂

    As always, a 2nd set of comments is accruing beneath the picture on the first click-to-enlarge page…

  6. Esther- if you are reading this blog… please please please have this drawing made available as a poster for sale. I already have my wallet out…

  7. I like it, but I wish it didn’t stop with Darwin (gives the wrong impression, plus most of what interests me about evolutionary biology came after, like population genetics and molecular evolution).

  8. Really, really nice. I agree with Golkarian that we are due a second poster depicting the evolutionary biology scene post-1860. Of course, Bates, Wallace, Huxley, and Hooker, among others, were active after the Origin was published. There was also a gang of enemies who had a great negative influence on the acceptance of natural selection, considered atheistic, and who defended and made acceptible alternatives consistent with vitalism. (It is called accommodationism, if I am not mistaken) The anti-Darwin works and agendas of George Campbell (Duke of Argyll), St. George Jackson Mivart, Fleeming Jenkin, and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) should become better known. Hamburger shows Louis Agassiz, but Darwin’s great American and German defenders, Asa Gray and Ernst Haeckel, are absent. Haeckel has been criticized for making faulty drawings (usually by religiously inspired critics who were not up to taking on his evolutionary biology), but his popular works on evolution, by being both less technical and scandalously iconoclastic, were much more widely read and influential than Darwin’s books. [S. J. Gould deserved to have been locked up for a year in the stock room for the toxic lies he told about Haeckel]. Mendel, as we know, read the Origin of Species and saw nothing in it. The founders of Mendelian genetics, William Bateson and Thomas Hunt Morgan, were so willfully antagonistic towards natural selection, it is hard to believe that they were not vitalists. Indeed, Morgan began his career as an embryologist, collaborated famously with arch-vitalist Hans Driesch and wrote aggressively against biological adaptation before hitting on Drosophila genetics. A big drawing of a Drosophila would have Morgan pulling on one side for magic macromutations and his rebellious student, Hermann Joseph Muller, on the other pulling for Darwin. Then come the Trinity: Ronald A. Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane and Sewall Wright. It goes on and on. Pity I can´t draw.

  9. Absolutely fabulous. This also shows why it is a great idea to let creative students be creative, and also that creativity becomes truly awesome when backed up with research. She clearly did her research on this, probably even did more research than some students who wrote a paper.

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