Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Religions and phylogenetic networks


There have been a number of posts in this blog about the use of phylogenetics in anthropology, broadly defined (eg. False analogies between anthropology and biology; Productive and unproductive analogies between biology and linguistics). One of the essential points under consideration is the extent to which the phylogenetic model as used in biology can be realistically applied to the evolutionary history of human cultural artifacts (languages, tools, books, tales, concepts, etc).

In spite of a number of vocal (and influential) proponents, especially in linguistics and stemmatology, one of the principal criticisms of phylogenetic practice is the use of a tree model. There has simply been too much cross-fertilization in human history for a divergent model of evolution to be viable. A network seems intuitively to be a better model than a tree.

Nevertheless, the extent to which tree models are imposed on representations of anthropological histories varies considerably. Indeed, several people have argued for the use of trees even in the face of reticulate histories.

It seems to me that one interesting example of this variation concerns the history of religions. Below I show several examples of such phylogenetic histories gathered from around the web. These start with the most tree-like ones and proceed to more realistic representations. However, even the most reticulate one is still basically a "tree covered in vines".






The fully scalable version of this final one is available in Wikimedia.

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