10 Million Years of Evolution Visualized in an Elegant, 5‑Foot Long Infographic from 1931

Click here to see the entire his­tom­ap in large, zoomable, for­mat.

The ear­ly decades of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry belonged to Cecil B. DeMille and his epic films both Bib­li­cal and clas­si­cal: The Ten Com­mand­ments, Cleopa­tra, Sam­son and Delilah. The grand scale of these pseu­do-his­to­ries required the most up-to-date cin­e­mat­ic inven­tion of the day, and the most impe­r­i­al vision, one lat­er decades looked upon rather cyn­i­cal­ly. But just as the epic has roared back with a vengeance—with tech­no­log­i­cal feats that make The Great­est Show on Earth look like com­mu­ni­ty theater—so anoth­er medi­um of ambi­tious scope once pop­u­lar between the wars has made a reap­pear­ance: the his­tor­i­cal info­graph­ic, or as it was called back then, the “histomap”—5‑foot long visu­al his­to­ries of a vari­ety of dis­ci­plines.

As with film, infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy has advanced to such a degree to make this ear­ly means of con­dens­ing huge amounts of data per­haps seem quaint. But if we imag­ine a world pre-inter­net, when the prospect of visu­al­iz­ing a sub­ject as com­plex as, say, evo­lu­tion, would be daunt­ing indeed, we might just find the his­tom­ap as impres­sive a means of con­vey­ing infor­ma­tion as its ear­ly read­ers did. These huge graphs of big ideas, writes Rebec­ca Onion at Slate, fit “with a trend in non­fic­tion book pub­lish­ing of the 1920s and 1930s: the ‘out­line,’ in which large sub­jects (the his­to­ry of the world! every school of phi­los­o­phy! All of mod­ern physics!) were dis­tilled into a form com­pre­hen­si­ble to the most une­d­u­cat­ed lay­man.”

We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured that 1931 “His­to­ry of the World!” his­tom­ap, an impres­sive con­dens­ing of 4000 years of human activ­i­ty. The evo­lu­tion graph­ic you see here, also from 1931 and “arranged” by John B. Sparks, is equal­ly impres­sive, and speaks to the times in ways that DeMille’s Bible movies did as well. Bear in mind that the Scopes Mon­key Tri­al had only con­clud­ed six years ear­li­er, and the country—as it is again today—was hot­ly divid­ed over the sub­ject rep­re­sent­ed here. Nonethe­less, Sparks and pub­lish­er Rand McNal­ly game­ly pre­sent­ed this “Sto­ry of the Emer­gence and Pro­gres­sion of Life” with con­fi­dent pre­ci­sion and with­out apol­o­gy.

I couldn’t begin to tell you how the sci­ence here has aged, though some of it, I’d sus­pect, not par­tic­u­lar­ly well. In any case, the form of this ele­gant data map, with its grace­ful lines of descent flow­ing down the page like mag­ma, com­ple­ments its con­tent. Rather than pre­sent­ing the the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion as a for­gone con­clu­sion or belief, Sparks’ graph­ic lays out all of the evi­dence, and fits it togeth­er neat­ly and com­pre­hen­sive­ly. Some mod­ern evo­lu­tion info­graph­ics sur­pass the visu­al appeal, but not the lev­el of sci­en­tif­ic detail shown here. Oth­ers reduce the sci­ence, and the design, to the lev­el of over­sim­pli­fied ide­ol­o­gy. And though we may have enough his­tor­i­cal dis­tance to make info­graph­ic­ss of hun­dreds of years of evo­lu­tion­ary thought, it may seem that the tech­nol­o­gy of the evo­lu­tion info­graph­ic may not have advanced as much as we might expect.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

4000 Years of His­to­ry Dis­played in a 5‑Foot-Long “His­tom­ap” (Ear­ly Info­graph­ic) From 1931

6,000 Years of His­to­ry Visu­al­ized in a 23-Foot-Long Time­line of World His­to­ry, Cre­at­ed in 1871

Watch 570 Mil­lion Years of Evo­lu­tion on Earth in 60 Sec­onds

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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