Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Humans, Trees, and Education

hlehman's picture

 “Life on Earth has been generated over billions of years in a single branching tree- the Tree of Life- by one algorithmic process or another” (Dennett, 51).

 “Trees” have recently played a significant role in my life outside from the Story of Evolution/ Evolution of Stories course.  In addition to our class discussions on the Tree of Life and evolution, I have also been working on phylogenetic tree analysis for another biology course and evolution has been a popular topic almost everywhere I look.  From daily articles in The New York Times to different class readings and lectures, evolution is all I think about anymore.  I’ve even realized that I’m starting to make analogies between my own life and what we have been working on and reading about in class, and trees are at the top of the list.  I think that trees are a very interesting aspect of the story of evolution because although they can be extremely complex, they are something everyone can understand and relate to.  One way in which I am interested in using evolutionary trees to explain something outside the specifics of biology, in particular, is to describe education and the evolution of our intellectual journeys and progress. 

Every tree starts with a seed.   So let us begin as seeds and the beginning of what we know- that which is given to us in our genes.  There have been numerous debates as to how much genetics play in our intellect and intellectual capacity compared to what we gain from the environment, and whether it is simply a 50/50 relationship or influenced more from one side.  At the core of what we each know, however, exists an important set of data that we are born with and instructions that are critical to who we are and who we become.  As we start to develop roots and an early relationship with the world, our initial education has a crucial influence on our growth and ability to make choices.  The first things we learn often revolve around basic life skills and ideas that form the foundation to our future success and ability to achieve/ gain as much as possible from the world and others around us.  Our parents instill in us general ideas such as the importance of sharing, saying “please” and “thank you,” and the difference between right and wrong.  Our teachers emphasize spelling, reading, and arithmetic that we quickly learn to rely on every day.  Constantly drilling these subjects in our minds at an early age provides us with the groundwork and healthy roots we need to advance and mature.

The older we get, the wider and taller our trunks grow and the more complex our systems develop.  Every year we add more branches as we dive deeper in our quest for knowledge and understanding of the world.  Every class, person, and moment is a new stem or leaf and contributes to the overall power of the tree to thrive.  Our higher education mirrors the change: we start in elementary school, a more simple and straightforward style, building our trunk and foundation for the future, and eventually reach a multifaceted level of thought and self-discovery based on our college and post- graduate degree careers.  The sophisticated interworking of the branches and adaptability of older, greater trees to respond to change and survive parallels higher-level education and how our minds are affected as we learn more.   

Trees are everywhere.  Whether physical presence, use in an analogy, or description of one’s family patterns, they appear throughout society and provide a comprehendible, interesting way to explain life and relationships.  We also often hear stories about the “Tree of Life” or “Tree of Knowledge” in reference to the biblical story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.  I find it very interesting that this story in particular is so dependent on trees because this is the core to one belief on the origin of life, while Darwin’s story of evolution also focuses on a “Tree of Life,” yet in a much different form.  Maybe it is more than a coincidence, however, that these two stories revolve around a similar “Tree of Life.”  Perhaps such a tree really does exist, but its significance is simply to be determined in whichever way one chooses.  I think that what we can all gain from such an idea, no matter how one interprets it, however, is insight on the connections that exist between people, the environment, history, knowledge, and the future.

People can use trees to explain how we got here, how we develop, and to describe how things change in our lives and why.  We can use them to justify our place in society and relationships with others, and they can often answer some of our greatest questions about ourselves, such as where did we come from?  Our growth through education is only one way to mirror Darwin’s Tree of Life on a somewhat smaller scale, yet still revolves around the same basic principle.  Life is about connections and we need to understand our relationships in order to survive and succeed in the future.  We are constantly growing and learning and as everything builds, our individual trees of life start to branch into one another and together form the ultimate story of our existence and evolution.


Dennett, Daniel. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster,1995.