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Deadwood taxonomies: trees of nature before evolution

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In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as more and more naturalists decried ‘artificial’ taxonomies and went in search of the true, inherent order of nature, some found themselves arguing for trees. This, importantly, had nothing to do with evolution. It was rather that the tree, already employed for centuries in genealogy and logic, made it possible to expand the scala naturae into a bundle, providing for a more complex system. The case is exemplified with the ‘botanical tree’ of Augustin Augier (1801), often discussed as the first tree in systematics and as a precursor to evolutionary trees. The biography of Augier, recently excavated by myself and colleagues in France, aligns with his vision of nature as static, beautiful and perfectly ordered: Augustin Augier de Favas was a priest of the Oratorian order. In this talk, I argue that early systematic trees, including that of Augier, really were deadwood, both in the sense that they were representations of unchanging nature, but also because they did not lead anywhere.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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