The Hillis Plot

This map is so beautiful it nearly brings tears to my eyes. I discovered it in Richard Dawkins’ book, “The Greatest Show On Earth” (page 330).

The Hillis Plot
The Hillis Plot

We’re cousins of chimpanzees. We’re also related to dolphins, kangaroos, slugs and pond scum. So what?

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is brilliant beyond words. What’s truly amazing is that the concept took so long for us to figure out.

The Hillis Plot
The Hillis Plot

Excerpt from the book:

Detailed DNA comparisons will fill in all the gaps in our knowledge about the actual evolutionary relatedness of every epecies to every other: we shall know, with complete certainty, the entire family tree of all living creatures. Goodness knows how we’ll plot it; it won’t fit on any practical-sized sheet of paper.

The largest-scale attempt in that direction so far has been made by a group associated with David Hillis, brother of Danny Hillis who pioneered one of the first supercomputers. The Hillis plot makes the tree diagram more compact by wrapping it around in a circle. You can’t see the gap, where the two ends almost meet, but it lies between the ‘bacteria’ and the ‘archaea’. … The Hillis circular plot is the same, except that it has three thousand species. Their names appear around the outside edge of the circle above, far too small to read — though Homo sapiens is helpfully marked ‘You are here’. You can get an idea of how sparse a sampling of the tree even this huge plot is when I tell you that the closest relatives of humans that it can fit in the circle are rats and mice. The mammals had to be stripped down drastically, in order to fit in all the other branches of the tree to the same depth. Just imagine trying to plot a similar tree with ten million species in stead of the three thousand included here. And ten million is not the most extravagant estimate of the number of surviving species.

23 Replies to “The Hillis Plot”

  1. That is pure genius! Absolutely stunning. And now I know where I am! One little speck on the navel of all the creatures, flora, fauna….

    1. Jim – A smaller speck that this plot is capable of illustrating. This is a very tiny subset of the known species.

      “The navel” I like that.

  2. That’s pretty damn cool. I wonder what Jesus would make of all this?!

    1. Steven Pam wrote “That’s pretty damn cool. I wonder what Jesus would make of all this?!”

      Obviously Jesus would already have known all this… the surprising thing is simply that so many of his current followers would try to deny it. 😉

  3. Fascinating! You should get the wall poster and frame it. Are you going to get one of those tattoos shown on the website?

  4. Haha I recently read this book too. Absolutely fascinating diagram and even more fascinating that it’s far from complete too! Brilliant! It humbles us human beings who always have this persistant tendency to think we’re “special”, we’re not special, we’re just concious bald juvenile monkeys with huge brains 🙂

  5. You got it, Dennis. We are definitely not special in the usual–we are superior to every other creature–sense. Humans are special in many ways, though. So-so in others. Just plain inferior, as well.

  6. ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ fantastic, BUT, how will “nature”, in the future, handle the damage that we humans have done & are still doing to our invironment by sending 1,000’s (maybe 100 of 1,000’s) of spiecies into “Extinction”. Surely this is going to upset the balance of what ‘would have been’ & set “nature” on a very different course in so very, very a short period of time. I live in Western Australia & have observed the “Rabbit” over a period of time & have concluded that we Humans are VERY closely related because the Rabbit will multiply untill it has distroyed the invironment it lives in, & they all Die. The human race will achieve this in the next 2-3 hundred years. Nothing to do with God, Jesus or the Pope, we will achieve it all on our own & quicker than we think.
    Thanks Mike

    1. I agree, Mike. Our planet is not in peril, our species–and many others–is because of our misuse of natural resources.

      It does have “something” to do with religion. If you believe that god is ultimately in control you will most likely believe that it will not allow us to destroy ourselves. Or, you might think that god is doing it to us for some reason–punishment or a test. Also, you might suppose that if god is going to return shortly and fix everything, why bother conserving and protecting now? The religious mentality does little to help the environment. It is also dangerous because too often a religious mind is also one that eschews evidence and may reject scientific conclusions entirely. This, as you must admit, is very dangerous.

      There is a correlation between religiosity and a rejection of climate science, destruction of habitat, etc. At least in the United States.

  7. […] There’s a blog entry with a good description here. […]

  8. Fantastic book! The greatest show on earth. How lucky we are to live here.
    I’d love to see the The Hillis Plot with 20 million species but Id suspect it would be huge, perhaps it would make a great exhibit on a museum floor? Until then I’m getting the 1.5 meter square wall poster and framing it.

    1. Hi,
      Do you know where I could buy the 1.5 m sqare poster.
      A local print store wants $Au66 for an A2 sheet print, laminated. Just too much.

      1. Sorry. I have no idea.

  9. Just finished reading “The Greatest Show On Earth”, was very impressed. Beautiful diagram, worthy of the elegance of Darwin’s theory.

  10. Boris Borger says: Reply

    Dawkins is my favorite writer. I read all his books for a long time. Started with “de blinde horlogemaker”blind watchmaker.
    I wonder were to buy the hillisdiagram poster. please send me info if you have.

  11. Brent – glad you left this up. I think I’m going to print up a poster for my son!

    1. That would be cool! A t-shirt would be nice. Hmmmm…

  12. Just finished the book myself – I have not read such a fascinating book in a very long time …. I was glued until completion, with notes and time spent looking up in between … does anyone know where one could buy the graphic (poster)?

    1. Thanks for the comment. You can download the graphic in massive size, and print it out however you like.

  13. Is there an interactive version anywhere? Possibly even one where new species can be input by people (obviously subject to approvals, etc? ) I’d love to see this grow

    1. Excellent idea! You should contact David Hillis and propose the idea.

  14. I had the plot printed and now it´s on my wall. It is both informative and decorative. But one question I have:
    Where does the graph show me the geological formations, all the way from Cambrian to to Quarternary? The plot only makes real sense to me if it comes with the timescale.

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