Next History

Visualizing the Origin of Species

This week’s resource up for discussion: The Preservation of Favoured Traces

One of many visualization projects of Ben Fry, this page shows you how the Origin of Species changed over time, allowing for both broad and detailed views of the text. Though perhaps not suitable for rigorous textual analysis, could this be of real value for getting a sense of a large corpus? Is it just eye candy?

Also, you might check out some other (not always historical) examples of visualization at These are examples of using an open-source programming language (called Processing, created by Fry) often used to visualize data. Did you get any ideas about how you represent some of your own ideas and concepts?

14 thoughts on “Visualizing the Origin of Species

  1. The idea of compairing the various editions together is essential to trace the ideas through time. This technology is too hard to use effectively. It has too much data and may be more useful to have extant hard copies of each edition on a table. It does not replace the use of hard copies but may help scanning the documents faster to identify idea changes but at the risk of missing too much. Picking out text is almost by accident. I do not like it much.

  2. This seems very effective for following additions to the text. I cannot tell how this comparison deals with changes that involve deletions or more complex editing changes. Perhaps they are in there somehow and I have not found a passage that displays them.

  3. Impressive! An even better that that, the program used “Processing” is free to download, free to use, and open source. I must definitely arrange time to get deeper into it sometime.

    I quess that an easy way to make a similar text comparison with a shorter text could be using the compare documents -feature in the Word -text processor.

  4. Something like this could also be useful in biblical studies to compare various ms’s or translation differences–although it’s probably a lot of work to set it up. I don’t have the time right now, but would like to try to use this to illustrate changes in concepts as well. In what I teach, for a couple of examples, marriage styles (polygamy, polyandry, etc.) or tracking parallels of music and art with industry or similar changes.

  5. Certainly the most complex visual application I’ve seen yet and therefore useless to me. Complexity is not the answer. It seems to me that the visualization itself was the end rather than a means to an end. I was not able to actually accomplish anything with it. I found it much too dense and difficult to use. It would only hinder my research eventhough I can see that a refined application has potential. I’m glad someone came up with the idea, but the application itself is completely useless to me as of now.

  6. I guess I do not see how it would work. The information is shown as flashing lights, rather than the actual text and I did not see anything that looked like page numbers.

    It is good to see the chart reflect the changes, but if you can’t actually see the changes in the text, how can you analyze the evolution of thought? Maybe I just don’t get how it works.

    However, I must admit it is great eye candy! I also love the idea that open source is being used. If I had my way that is all I would use, unfortunately, I am not savvy enough to really make good use of it. I wish I was.

  7. This is an interesting visualization–giving you a graphic sense of which chapters and which sections of the work underwent the most change. But as others have noted above–it is really better suited to directing you to portions to study more closely than it is as a tool to actually do the studying.

    Having done a fairly laborious by hand comparison of many issues of Margaret Sanger’s 16p. pamphlet, Family Limitation, in order to start to date issues that were not dated or identified, I could see that this might help me to focus in on the sections of the work that underwent the most revisions. I eventually figured that out on my own, the question is whether it is worth entering the text of all those editions to get that kind of intuition?

  8. This looks like a great tool for historians who work extensively with published pieces. Most of my documents are handwritten legal documents, so I’m not sure how this tool would be useful for me personally. Perhaps an analysis like this of legal treatises would be useful. Also, I think a tool like this would be great for a classroom demonstration and discussion of how works change over time. Even the Darwin example would be interesting to show students.

  9. I find this incredibly compelling visually and can see how useful it would be for tracking certain canonical texts which underwent nearly constant revision. As a nineteenth-century person I can think of a number of texts which I would love to see subjected to this kind of analysis and presented in this way.

    It would be fascinating to know what historians of the book think about this – whether it truly represents and/or aides how they go about their work. I can’t resist posting a link to a current visualization tool for this kind of analysis:

    which a colleague of mine recently saw being used:

  10. I certainly think this visualization is more than eye candy. It does allow for a deeper understanding of the evolution of Darwinian thought and argues against stagnation of ideas. In terms of research, the visualization does not stand alone, but it does provide an interesting point of analysis by allowing us to have a bird’s eye view of the changes made to the work. The tool does not replace extensive work with hard copies of the text, but it could provide a helpful companion to textual analysis by pointing out changes that otherwise would not be readily apparent.

  11. Well i thought the project was a very interesting way of visualizing what would have been one of the most unvisual of subjects. It was fascinating to see how a text which many assume to be ironclad can change so much over time. I felt that it was amusing and gave me some new viewpoints, but like the collapse of empires animation we watched on the first day i would hardly call it scholarly.

  12. This visualization is extremely well done, and I’m in awe of the work that must have gone into it. I guess I’m not a data-minded historian, because I see it as a shortcoming that it doesn’t go beyond being a visualization. Hovering over colored lines and seeing some words, while a feat in and of itself, only makes me want to go farther and see the same data laid out in, say, a color-coded text document. Obviously, this tool is made to be a quick version of that, and for what it is I’d say it does an extremely good job. Before going on to do an in-depth text analysis, this is exactly the tool I’d want to have to start off.

  13. This Origin of Species visualization is an interesting way of examining editorial changes over time. It calls to mind the cultural historian Roger Chartier’s idea of exploring changing interpretations and uses of a given text over time as a way of doing cultural history. Tracking changes made in different editions of a text (different versions of a play, poem, etc.) can serve a similar end.

    This project demonstrates the power of visualizations in textual analysis. Viewing a condensed layout of the whole text provides a measure of spatial orientation and simultaneity that would be lacking in a simple list of editorial changes. Of course, as other commentators mentioned, more could be accomplished using digitized full-text versions of each edition in addition to this visualization, but that should not detract from its utility as an analytical tool. That said, it would be nice if the visualization allowed users to zoom in and scroll through sections rather than just having a magnifying window pop up.

    I found this tool well designed even if somewhat limited in functionality. The magnifying function is pretty precise, and although the text takes a while to load, the magnifier does a nice job tracking the section you are reading even as its position changes. I agree with Anne that it’s not clear how (or whether) deletions or rephrasings are indicated. Perhaps they could have used a matching, color-coded strikethrough to signify such changes.

    What I really like about this visualization is its potential applicability to digital humanities more broadly. Tim commented on the possibility of such an application for biblical studies; this was one of my first thoughts as well. A visualization showing which books or sections of the bible were selected by different kings or publishers over time could be of tremendous service to those interested in the cultural history of Christendom. Perhaps the visualization could even be layered with different translations of the text from different periods or marked in a way to indicate sections used by influential theologians.

    Thomas complained that the visualization contains too much condensed information, giving the user a rather haphazard means of entry into the text. This is a fair criticism, but it does not point to a technical obstacle so much as a shortcoming of this particular visualization. Such haphazardness could be reduced by simply listing page numbers along the edges or preferably a range of numbers corresponding to the pagination of each edition. As far as the density of the text goes, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine a large projector screen or multi-monitor setup enabling a closer view of the text and chapter titles, perhaps even an option to increase the size of the first few lines of each section to give users a more immediate sense of the full content.

  14. I found this work very interesting and a great a resource for the historian when studying the work of an author in particular, and analyzing the process/development of concepts and the line of thought along the time. Very efficient to the study of different editions of a specific book, could this tool be used to study different works from the same author or even different authors with a specific question in mind? Lets say to observe the occurrence of the word evolution or race in works of a given period of the nineteenth century and then examine what the concepts are. If the aplication does not exempt the historian of working with the full text, it helps in selecting the sources and determining the approach.

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