Chronological Order: Timelines About Life

Posted on: December 14, 2010

Timeline: Universe to Humans

What does this timeline show us?

This timeline caught my eye. It encapsulates the concepts of emergence, process, change and transformation so well; it’s colorful, witty; and I just liked the delightful style.

You could say this graphic offers us one view of human evolution. But on a larger scale, the drawing also conveys the overarching concept of transformation: things change, don’t they? They can adapt, mutate, flourish and take off in one or more directions. They can also stultify, remain static, wither and perish. A single, accidental mutation in one organism—or even the organism’s extinction—can give rise to a profusion of new, dissimilar life forms.

One thing for sure, though: Nothing stands still in time, at least not for very long. Time inexorably modifies, erases, transfigures, changes, enhances, diminishes, grows, dies, creates and destroys everything. Time is motion. We all obey time, and this charming timeline about us and everything else gets that point across beautifully.

And how about this clock?

This clock image expresses the concept of transformation in time

As space-time processes, we live in a continual dialogue with time. This clock image shows how the use of graphical elements like repetition and shadings of color can communicate ideas about change, transformation and adaptation.

The clock shows how the use of graphical elements like repetition and shadings of color can communicate change, transformation and adaptation.

Depending on the context, the clock graphic could represent the literal passage of time, nothing more. But drop the image into the history of an individual or a company, or a description of a manufacturing process, or an account of the evolution of an idea, for example, and the image takes on new meanings.

Beyond that, a skilled artist could re-work this or any other timeline graphic in all sorts of ways. The artist, who lives in a time stream, as we all do, is also one of time’s agents and, as such, behaves as a sort of time proxy and serves as an entity who has the power to alter things—in this case, a graphic image. In his drawings, M. C. Escher joyfully plays with just such self-referential notions.

The next timeline is a tongue-in-cheek image that purports to show how humans evolved from a more primitive life form—from ape to human in this example. As any biologist knows, however, such a representation is technically incorrect. Rather, it seems that humans and apes share a common ancestor, which means we are not the descendants of apes, but more like their kissin’ kin.

Human Evolution: From Simpler Life Forms to More Complex Life Forms

This timeline shows the emergence of more complex life forms from simpler ones

The previous image is like the first two images in that on a larger scale it says something about the essence of life, which includes concepts of emergence, adaptation and transformation. On a smaller, more specific scale the image says: If you are here reading this, then you can thank a very long line of ancestors (a line so long that it stretches, unbroken, beyond an ape-like ancestor, all the way back to single-celled bacteria so primitive they didn’t even have a nucleus).

You may have seen an adaptation of the previous image, one in which the final figure was a pair of high heels, representing woman. I don’t recall the context in which that image appeared, but the high heels completely changed the meaning by implying that the most advanced form of life was the human female. Or maybe the sort of female who wears heels.

The next and final timeline in this post shows another view of the transformation of human life, from extinct ancestral hominin forms to related hominids to … us–Homo sapiens, at the top of the left branch. Although incomplete, the evolutionary tree in the graphic shows a distinct bifurcation, with a right branch leading to the genus Pan (chimpanzees), our closest primate relatives.

This image is much more detailed than the previous one, and more scientifically accurate as well. It includes a timeline (on the left side) that shows a scale of millions of years. The image makes clear that as life flows along in time, it changes in myriad and unpredictable ways, and it is only after the fact that we can map out the transformations on a timeline and assign values to them.

Human Evolution: Tree of Life and Knowledge

The Tree of Life and Knowledge is a timeline with many branches

Together, these four images show just a few of the many ways you can use timelines to get across concepts about emergence, change, adaptation and transformation. Whether you are looking at life in general, or some aspect of it, timelines are useful tools to communicate your ideas.

For more about timelines, you might like to read the following posts in my blog:

Chronological Order: Show Me the Timeline!

Benefits of Chronological Order

How to Establish Chronological Order in a Paragraph

How to “Tell Time” in a Letter

How to Describe Chronological Order

How to Show Chronological Order

If you would like to learn more about the timelines of your own personal ancestry, visit The Genographic Project.

Now it’s your turn: Do you use timelines in your work? What is your subject matter? Do you think timelines are useful in communicating with your audience? Please share your thoughts about timelines.  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas


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