The Tree of Life

Charles Darwin's sketch from 1837 captured how organisms evolve. Illustrating the relationships of common ancestors, Darwin rendered branching forms to model life's expanding diversity.

OEB History

Stewards of a legacy

The Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology is heir to a long tradition established at Harvard more than a century ago by Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray. Our inheritance includes superb resources embodied in our Cambridge laboratories, the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts, and the Concord Field Station in Bedford, Massachusetts, as well as unexcelled museum collections that document life's history and diversity. Additionally, Harvard is unusual among American universities in dedicating more than thirty faculty positions to the study of organisms and ecosystems.

Asa Gray

As professor of natural history at Harvard from 1842, Asa Gray was the teacher of many eminent botanists. Through his voluminous writings in periodicals and his well-known textbooks, he helped popularize the study of botany. He helped to revise the taxonomic procedure of Linnaeus on the basis of a more natural classification.

Louis Agassiz

In 1848, Louis Agassiz accepted a professorship at Harvard. He immediately set about organizing and acquiring funding for a great museum of natural history. In 1859 his dream came true with the founding of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which opened its doors in 1860.


The driving idea

All of life evolved -- and chiefly by natural selection. Life has immensely complex diversity that can be understood and managed only by the understanding of its long genetic history and the special features of each species. That, in essence, is the central concern of organismic and evolutionary biology.

A frontier of scientific vision

We seek to develop new knowledge in four key areas of organismic and evolutionary biology:

  • Biological Diversity and the History of Life
  • The Integrated Biology of Organisms
  • Integration of Molecular and Organismic Evolution
  • The Biological Component of Biogeochemistry.

These areas are fundamental to biology and where our physical, biological, and human resources, as well as actual and potential interactions with other departments and schools at Harvard, dictate that we can and should provide leadership.