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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


'In the Shadow of the Tree: The Diagrammatics of Relatedness as Scientific, Scholarly and Popular Practice' is an interdisciplinary collaboration of four research groups investigating the bewildering variety of diagrams that have been used to conceptualize, determine, and produce relatedness in Western Europe and in spaces of European expansion since the Late Medieval Period.

Work on the 'tree of life' has brought to light unexpected evolutionary affinities, and the possibility to study the genetic make-up of human populations as well as to identify the place of individual human DNA within 'the human family tree' has impacted our understandings of relatedness. In parallel, new digital methods to visualize such relations have proliferated. Drawing on a long cultural and scientific history, such visualizations tend to take the form of a tree, reflecting the assumption that evolution and descent follow a bifurcating pattern. 'Tree thinking' has therefore been identified as a dominant mode of thought and the tree as a canonical icon in modern biology. Indeed, tree thinking has been made out as a general modern Western rationale that reduces relatedness to descent.

Rather than tracing the history of a particular idea or icon, however, we offer a comparative analysis of diagrams of relatedness as epistemic, cultural, and political practices. The project introduces a new interdisciplinary approach to diagrammatics that analyzes diagrams as techniques that transcend such binaries as 'thought and action' and 'image and text' and includes the reconstruction of the practices of collection, observation, experimentation, modelling, drafting, commenting, explaining etc. that inform diagrams of relatedness, as well as the politics of their production and use.


Marianne Sommer, Project Leader, University of Lucerne

Caroline Arni, Research Group Leader, University of Basel

Staffan Müller-Wille, Research Group Leader, University of Cambridge

Simon Teuscher, Research Group Leader, University of Zurich

Eric Hounshell, Project coordinator, University of Lucerne


Swiss National Foundation Synergeia Grant