Petter Hellström

doctoral/PhD student at Department of History of Science and Ideas

+4618-471 5750
Visiting address:
Engelska parken, Thunbergsvägen 3P

Postal address:
Box 629
751 26 UPPSALA

Short presentation

PhD candidate and department member since 2012.

In my thesis I investigate the employment of family trees in scientific theory and practice, with a focus on France in the period after the Revolution.

For more on my ongoing doctoral project, see ”Research”. For already published research, see "Publications". For conference papers, talks and public outreach, see ”Biography”.

Also available at

My courses


Born and raised in Stockholm. Educated at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (BA Honours in Arabic and the Study of Religions), and at the University of Cambridge (MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science).

PhD candidate and department member since 2012. Visiting student at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin), the Centre Alexandre Koyré (Paris), and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science (Cambridge).

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— ”Charles XII, roi de Suède. Sa vie après la mort”, guest lecture at the Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2016-10-18.

— ”Genealogies of genealogies, trees of trees. Reflexions on reflexive methodologies”, paper at the conference ”Trames arborescentes”, Centre d’études supérieures de la Renaissance, Université François Rabelais de Tours, 2015-12-16.

— ”The priest and the tree. Augustin Augier’s ’botanical tree’ (1801) as an image of divine creation”, paper at the bi-annual conference of the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology, Université de Québec à Montréal, 2015-07-09.

— ”Deadwood taxonomies. Trees of nature before evolution”, talk at the Cabinet of natural history, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, 2015-03-09.

— ”Deadwood. Failed genealogies of the family tree”, paper at the conference ”Methodology in question”, Stockholm University, 2014-11-23.

— ”Genetic lineages. Y chromosomes, mitochondrial DNA, and the quest for Jewish origins”, research presentation at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, 2013-04-13.

— ”Population genetics and the origin of the Jews”, research presentation at the Minerva-Gentner Symposium, Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, 2012-10-16.

— ”The secularisation of the tree of life”, paper at the conference ”Ends and beginnings”, European Society for the Study of Religions, Södertörn University, 2012-08-25.

— ”White maps of Africa. The making of blank spaces, 1700–1800”, Maps and society lecture, Warburg Institute, University of London, 2012-01-26.

— ”Darwin and the tree of life. The roots of the evolutionary tree”, paper at the annual conference of the British Society for the History of Science, University of Aberdeen, 2010-07-23.

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— ”Not on the map. Cartographic omission from New England to Palestine”, The Guardian, 2016-08-22.

— ”The tree of life. With Darwin from Genesis to genomics”, The Guardian, 2016-04-19.

— ”Monoculturalism has failed”, TEDx, 2012-11-12.



In my ongoing PhD project, I study the historical role of trees and genealogy in scientific knowledge production. In our own time, the family tree is such a commonly employed metaphor and model of evolutionary development that we hardly react to it; we understand what is meant when the history of life on earth is discussed in terms of roots and branches, or when ramifying diagrams show the history and relationships of languages. Yet this employment of family trees as models and metaphors of evolutionary history is relatively recent. Metaphors and models change. Before the breakthrough of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century, trees served rather different purposes in knowledge production.

To investigate what trees meant, before they meant what they mean today – and to ask what role they have played in the formation of modern scientific theory – I turn to France and the period immediately preceding the rise of evolutionary theories. Tentatively in the eighteenth century, then more emphatically in the beginning of the nineteenth, the conceptual and graphical imagery of genealogy and trees was seized upon by scholars and scientists who sought to make sense of the world and who wanted to discover the inherent, natural order of things. Their appropriation of the established genealogical imagery for learned and taxonomical purposes was not fully unprecedented, but the scope of possible applications expanded as conceptual and graphical trees appeared and were set to work in knowledge fields that had not previously been organised by recourse to trees. New applications included natural history and philology, but also medicine and mathematics, political economy and music.

Informed by significant advancements in media history, visual studies, metaphor studies, and the history of scientific discovery and change, in my project I also draw upon recent work on the history of the ancien régime and the French Enlightenment, genealogy and patterns of kinship and inheritance, mnemonics and pedagogics, natural systematics, evolutionary theory, music theory, linguistics, and the history of historiography itself. The outcome is a highly interdisciplinary but also distinctly historical study about the use of genealogical images – linguistic and graphical – in scientific theory and practice. Behind the investigation is my wish to contribute to a better understanding of the role of language, metaphor, and images, in the production of scientific knowledge.

Because the family tree eventually became such a routinely used metaphor and model of evolutionary development, especially in the life sciences and in historical linguistics, much energy has been invested in its early history, not least in the last years. However, in some analogy to the ways in which evolutionary scientists produce fossil records of extinct species to induce genealogies of those living, the efforts have been almost exclusively spent on a number of presumed ancestors of contemporary trees in science. Hence the way in which early trees in natural history and philology have been repeatedly inscribed into a course of development leading up to trees in modern biology and linguistics. All while trees in other fields of knowledge, in which trees are not used today, have generally been overlooked and are predominantly absent in the historiography. So far the present has dictated which historical trees have been studied and which have not. This, of course, has impacted negatively on our ability to understand the historical role of trees and genealogy in scientific knowledge production.

To avoid the pitfalls of teleology, in my ongoing research project I avoid the big names and the long narratives, in favour of a limited number of close case studies, all concerned with previously overlooked theorists and pedagogues active in France in the early years of the nineteenth century. This, again, was before evolutionary theories became any significant factor in science, and before genealogy and trees became generally established models with which to conceptualize the relationship of the present to the past, and of the parts to the whole.

How can we make sense of Augustin Augier’s family tree of the natural system, published in 1801 – fifty-eight years before Charles Darwin published his ‘tree of life’ – and which represented the order of nature as instituted by God at the moment of Creation? What do we make of Henri-Montan Berton’s equally atemporal ‘family tree of chords’, from 1807, or François­-Claude Turlot’s ‘encyclopaedic tree’, from 1816? How do we explain that Félix Gallet’s ‘family tree of dead and living languages’, from 1807 – published forty-six years before August Schleicher’s tree diagram of the Indo-European language family – was unsuccessful at the time, to the point that the author could not sell it?

What was going on with trees in early nineteenth-century science? How come people who did not know about each other, and who worked in different fields of learning, all were drawing family trees to know and organise their respective outlook on the world? Why did they do it? How did they do it? And how can those early trees be understood in relationship to the later, iconic trees, which would exercise such an influence on modern science?


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