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A family resemblance

Our planet has been, and still is, home to an extraordinary number of life forms - any more and we would all be swamped!  And yet scientists continue to sort, classify and arrange these life forms.  Ever since Charles Darwin came onto the scene, evolution theory has brought new meaning to this ongoing and seemingly endless work.  Classification of species in our time draws parenting links between living things, and tells us something about their evolutionary history.  This is your chance to try out your own tree-acrobatics – on the tree of life!


Script, animation & direction: Yannick Mahé
Design & development: Thomas Cussonneau
Development of "The tree of life": Emmanuel Grandadam
Illustrations: Gilles Macagno
Text: Adeline André
Production: CNDP (2011)


Scientific expert

Guillaume Lecointre

Guillaume Lecointre

Muséum national d'histoire naturelle, Département Systématique & Evolution, Paris, France

«Mankind has always sought to impose order on the things it comes across, if only to be able to talk about them.  We see classification going on where things are sorted according to what qualities they demonstrate or do not demonstrate, as well as classification that brings together objects on the basis of what they have in common.  In the natural sciences, we use a series of successive sorting methods to draw up a nomination flowchart. This acts as a kind of roadmap in which you answer a series of questions, with the answers leading you to the name of a species.  Nominational flowcharts charts do not actually classify species, they simply serve to identify an object so that it has a species name.  The nomination flowchart does not tell us anything about the living world, it is there as a practical tool.  Classification systems, however, organise the living world along explanatory guidelines.  In natural sciences today species are organised taking into account their earlier evolution.  Species are grouped according to shared characteristics since we know, from the Darwinian times, that shared characteristics are the manifestations of a how closely related species are.  A person classifying a species today starts with building a phylogenetic ‘tree’ that shows the degree of closeness between species.  He will then deduce a classification from this by slotting one group within another along the various branches of the tree, with each group and its descendants incorporating its own hypothetical ancestry.»


Canopé Ludwig Maximilians Universität München Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique Westfälische Wilhelms Universität Münster