Monday, January 12, 2015

Does it matter which way up a tree is drawn?

To a modern phylogeneticist the answer to this question is obviously "no". Phylogenetic trees occur in the literature with their root at the top, the left or the bottom, and more rarely on the right. The graph has the same interpretation no matter where the root is placed, as all of the edges are implicitly directed away from the root. The tree can even be circular, with the root in the centre and the tree radiating outwards.

However, this was not always so for genealogies, and indeed this freedom seems to be a product of the past 200 years or so. The history of tree orientation has been discussed in detail by Christiane Klapisch-Zuber (1991. The genesis of the family tree. I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance 4: 105-129).

Originally, genealogies were drawn with the root at the top, as shown in previous blog posts: The first royal pedigree, and The first known pedigree of a non-noble family. These pedigree trees (ie. genealogies of individuals) have a particular ancestor at the root of the "tree", so that the tree expands forwards in time down the page, to increasing numbers of descendants at the leaves (ie. a "descent tree"). This made linguistic sense, because people "descended" from the ancestor down the page. In European languages pages are read top to bottom, and so the natural reading order was the same as the time sequence.

However, this arrangement makes no sense if one refers to the graph as a "tree". Trees have their root at the bottom, not the top. Trying to draw the pedigree as a tree while retaining the original orientation could lead to unusual results, as shown in the first figure, from the end of the 1300s CE (from Universitätsbibliothek, Innsbruck, ms. 590, folio 116r). This is actually an Arbor Consanguinitatis rather than an empirical pedigree — it shows the various relatives of a nominated individual (the man pictured in the center) and their degree of relationship to that person. These diagrams have been used to compute which relatives can marry without committing incest, or which can inherit if a person dies intestate. Jean-Baptiste Piggin, at his web site Macro-Typography, has noted that the earliest known examples are from the 400s CE.

In order to match a real tree, the genealogy has to be read from bottom to top. This implies an ascent through time, instead, with a spreading out of the family upwards through time.

The first known empirical pedigree in which the ancestor is at the base is the Genealogia Welforum, the pedigree of a dynasty of German nobles and rulers (Dukes of Bavaria, and Holy Roman Emperors, successors of the Carolingians). The earliest known example, drawn as part of the Historia Welforum [Welf Chronicle], is shown in the second figure (from Hessische Landesbibliothek, Fulda, ms. D.11 folio 13v). The original text version of the pedigree is dated 1167-1184 CE, with the miniatures added sometime from 1185-1191 CE.

Clearly, this diagram is only sketchily like a tree, with many of the people placed along the main trunk, and medallions hanging off for other relatives. This seems to arise from the pedigree's origin as prose, and the subsequent literal illustration of that prose.

The ancestor is labeled "Welf Primus", and he apparently lived in the time of Charlemagne (the best known of the Carolingian dynasty). The empty space at the top of the chart was apparently intended for a picture of Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, of the House of Hohenstaufen. The woman at the top right is Henry the Black's daughter Judith, who was the mother of Barbarossa. Intriguingly, the final bend of the Welf trunk to the left, combined with Barbarossa at the top, seems to imply that it is the descendants of Barbarossa who continue the Welf lineage, rather than those bearing the Welf name.

Historically, it seems to have been the proliferation, after about 1200 CE, of illustrations of the biblical Tree of Jesse that popularized the idea of "pedigrees as trees". The next figure shows such a tree from c. 1320 CE (from a Speculum Humanae Salvationis manuscript, Kremsen ms. 243/55). Jesse lies at the base of the tree, and the tree actually arises from him. His descendants then ascend to Jesus, shown at the crucifixion, with Heaven illustrated at the top. The tree thus uses Christ's pedigree to symbolize the ascent of humans to heaven (via his crucifixion), rather than simply the descent of humans through time. That is, the tree correctly represents ascent (as well as descent).

This leaves us contemplating just when we added the final twist to the iconography, by putting a single descendant at the base of the tree, and having the ancestors branching out above as leaves (ie. an "ascent tree"). This means that time flows from the top to bottom of the figure, even though the tree is oriented from bottom to top. This is quite illogical as an analogy, given that the base of a real tree is the origin of its growth (see Goofy genealogies). This particular iconography is not used for phylogenies but is very commonly used for pedigrees.

I have no idea when this first occurred. However, David Archibald (2014. Aristotle's Ladder, Darwin's Tree: The Evolution of Visual Metaphors for Biological Order. Columbia Uni Press) draws attention to a very tree-like pedigree of Ludwig (Louis III), fifth Duke of Württemberg, from the late 1500s, shown here as the final figure (from Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart). Ludwig is at the base of the tree, and ironically he had no descendants (although he married twice). His parents are above him in the tree (Christoph, Duke of Württemberg, to the left, and Anna Maria von Brandenburg-Ansbach, to the right), followed by four further ancestral generations. Note the leaves and hanging fruits, which highlight the tree metaphor.

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