Visualization Technology and Darwin's Tree of Life

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

I recently blogged about citizens becoming scientists by observing how nature around them is reacting to changes in climate and imputing their observations into a database. In other words making visible that which would otherwise remain invisible.  Keeping with the theme, I recently read an article in the NYT about biologists collaborating with computer scientists to construct the tree of life , first sketched by Darwin in 1837. They have the data – DNA from thousands of species from jungles, tundras and museum drawers that provides clues to how today’s diversity of baobobs, dandelions, mosses and other plants evolved over the past 450 million years.  Now they are working to make all of data visualizable using a program designed at the University of Arizona (which you can download and play with, although the installation is somewhat cumbersome; a less complex version can be found here Tree of Life by artist Carol Ballenger).  The complexity of the process is impressive as the article clearly conveys. So are the exisiting visualizations of the tree of life.  And you definitely have to know something about biology to really make sense of it.

On one hand, this is a further abstraction of the natural world, as if we weren’t removed enough already.  Species may be related in many different ways, and relying on statistical methods to idenitfy relationships that do the best job of explaining all the evidence lends itself easily to traditional critque of classification systems – they are ultimately subjective.  I also wonder about the use of the metaphor…if there are in fact more than one way in which species are connected (and given all that we have learned about networks), wouldn’t a web of life be more appropriate?  Futhermore, it favors the category over the individual.  Each individual in a species is unique, whether a human or a plant, and classification systems make more difficult perceiving them as such.  Many cultures in the world would argue for a completely different way of knowing the world, especially the natural world, where each member of a species is approached as an individual and as being able to teach one something unique about its existance (I’m thinking of the shamanic tradition here).

On the other hand, this is rewarding for its base premise, that we are all connected, and not just with other human beings.  As a (probably unintentional) response to social networks and social network visualisations (e.g. Facebook’s FriendWheel , the more sophisticated Nexus ), as well as to geneology tracing programs such as National Geographic’s Genographic Project , it allows us to see how we, as a species are related to the other living things that share this world.  The technology is not lay user friendly yet, but once it is, check it out, keeping in mind that your relationship to the world is far more complex than any tree of life visualization, no matter how high tech, can possibly depict.