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In the Shadow of the Tree: The Diagrammatics of Relatedness as Scientific, Scholarly, and Popular Practice

Applicant Sommer Marianne
Number 183567
Funding scheme Sinergia
Research institution Seminar für Kulturwissenschaften und Wissenschaftsforschung Universität Luzern
Institution of higher education University of Lucerne - LU
Main discipline Interdisciplinary
Start/End 01.02.2019 - 31.01.2023
Approved amount 2'957'306.00
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All Disciplines (3)

Discipline
Interdisciplinary
Philosophy
General history (without pre-and early history)

Keywords (9)

social history; genealogy; history of biology; history of law; kinship; diagrams; history and philosophy of science; history of anthropology; family tree

Lay Summary (German)

Lead
Das Projekt untersucht die enorme Vielfalt von Diagrammen, die seit dem Mittelalter in Westeuropa und in Räumen der europäischen Expansion verwendet wurden, um Verwandtschaft und Abstammung zu konzeptualisieren.
Lay summary

Inhalt und Ziel des Forschungsprojekts

In den letzten drei Jahrzehnten hat die Sequenzierung und Analyse von Genomen eine schnelle und umfassende Bestimmung von Abstammung, Herkunft und Verwandtschaft zwischen Organismen, einschließlich Menschen, ermöglicht. Hat die Arbeit am ‘tree of life’ unerwartete evolutionäre Affinitäten ans Licht gebracht, so verändern Einsichten der Populationsgenetik und Untersuchungen der DNA von Individuen Vorstellungen von Identität. Parallel dazu setzen sich neue digitale Methoden zur Visualisierung von genealogischen Beziehungen durch. Sie tendieren aufgrund einer langen kultur- und wissenschaftsgeschichtlichen Tradition zur Form des Baums und widerspiegeln Annahmen, wonach Evolution und Abstammung einem gabelnden Muster folgen. Das ‘Baumdenken’ wurde schon als dominanter Denkmodus der Biologie und sogar als allgemeine westliche Tendenz bezeichnet, Verwandtschaft auf Abstammung zu reduzieren.

Anstatt allein die Geschichte des Baumdiagramms zu verfolgen, analysieren wir vergleichend verschiedenste Formen von Verwandtschaftsdiagrammen, ihre Herstellung und Verwendung. Dafür entwickeln wir eine Diagrammatik, die Diagramme als Techniken analysiert, die über binäre Oppositionen wie ‘Denken/Handeln’ und ‘Bild/Text’ hinausgehen.

 

Wissenschaftlicher und gesellschaftlicher Kontext

Das Projekt verbindet kulturwissenschaftliche, wissenschaftshistorische und -philosophische sowie anthropologische Perspektiven zu einer interdisziplinären Diagrammatik. Es initiiert Diskussionen über die Hypothese, dass Baumdenken die westliche Wissensproduktion strukturiere und reflektiert den politischen Einsatz von Verwandtschaftsdiagrammen.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 29.11.2018

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Employees

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
135055 Königsfelden und sein Adel: Annäherungen an eine neue Sozialgeschichte 01.05.2012 Project funding (Div. I-III)
145387 Visibility Matters: Rendering Human Origins and Diversity in Space and Time 01.04.2013 Scientific Conferences
112788 Geschlecht sichtbar machen - Das Diagramm in der Geschichte der Paläoanthropologie 01.02.2006 International short research visits

Abstract

In the past three decades, whole-genome sequencing and analysis have created unprecedented capacities for the rapid and copious determination of ancestry, descent, and kinship among organisms, including humans. 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.Although the tree does appear as a structuring device for organismic relatedness in religion, law, genealogy, natural history, biology, anthropology, psychiatry, eugenics, genetics, etc., from the Middle Ages to the present, there seems to be a more dynamic history of conceptualizing and visualizing relatedness both in terms of descent and otherwise. Naturalists around 1800, f.e., preferred the network to explore ‘natural affinities’ among organisms rather than descent. Furthermore, diagrams that look like trees do not necessarily embody their logic of embranchment. Many medieval and early modern ‘forerunners’ of tree diagrams actually depict linear relations of descent, while modern family trees may be pervaded by a reticulate logic derived from understandings of kinship laid down in canon law. Such complicated connections between diagram and meaning suggest a set of questions: What different understandings of relatedness are associated with particular visualizations, and what are their respective social and political implications, f.e. with respect to incest prohibition, (male) hereditary succession of power and wealth, or the determination of ‘purity of blood and race’? Why did evolutionary anthropologists prefer to visualize human evolution as proceeding through independent and isolated lines that continually split to form new lines? What does it mean that eugenicists and human geneticists analyzed inheritance on the basis of pedigrees that placed equal emphasis on maternal and paternal contributions? And what can be learned from the drafting, discarding, or redrafting of family trees by laypeople? This project will be the first to investigate 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. We seek to understand the enormous influence that tree diagrams have had in certain domains, and posit that this success can only be adequately understood by, first, attending to alternatives, such as the scale, the circle, or the net, and secondly, by shifting focus from the iconography of such diagrams to their production and use as well as the transformations of their meanings. Developing a new understanding of diagrammatics as an interdisciplinary approach that analyzes diagrams as techniques that transcend such binaries as ‘thought and action’ and ‘image and text’, we also significantly go beyond the existing literature on a methodological level. Rather than tracing the history of a particular idea or icon, we offer a comparative analysis of diagrams of relatedness as epistemic, cultural, and political practices.
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