The Coral of Life

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


The Tree of Life (ToL) has been of central importance in the biological sciences, usually understood as a model or a metaphor, and portrayed in various graphical forms to summarize the history of life as a single diagram. If it is seen as a mathematical construct—a rooted graph theoretical tree or, as more recently viewed, a directed network [Network of Life (NoL)]—then its proper visualization is not feasible, for both epistemological and technical reasons. As an overview included in this study demonstrates, published ToLs and NoLs are extremely diverse in appearance and content, and they suffer from inevitable bias towards particular groups, or are restricted to a single major taxon. Metaphorical trees are even less useful for the purpose, because ramification is the only property of botanical trees that may be interpreted in an evolutionary or phylogenetic context. This paper argues that corals, as suggested by Darwin in his early notebooks, are superior to trees as metaphors, and may also be used as mathematical models. A coral diagram is useful for portraying past and present life because it is suitable: (1) to illustrate bifurcations and anastomoses, (2) to depict species richness of taxa proportionately, (3) to show chronology, extinct taxa and major evolutionary innovations, (4) to express taxonomic continuity, (5) to expand particulars due to its self-similarity, and (6) to accommodate a genealogy-based, rank-free classification. This paper is supplemented with a figure, The Coral of Life (CoL), which is, to the author’s knowledge, the first attempt to combine all of the above features in a single diagram for the entirety of life, thus serving as a prototype for further analysis and improvement. The discussion is partly historical: references to classical and modern writings help the reader to understand how biological thinking and methods of visualization have evolved to reach this achievement.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)123-144
Number of pages22
JournalEvolutionary Biology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 15 2019


  • Branching silhouettes
  • Cladistics
  • Network
  • Phylogeny
  • Romerogram
  • Tree of life

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics

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