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Novartis Found Symp. 1999;222:24-33; discussion 33-46.

Homoplasy, homology and the problem of 'sameness' in biology.

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  • Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley 94720-3160, USA.


The reality of evolution requires some concept of 'sameness'. That which evolves changes its state to some degree, however minute or grand, although parts remain 'the same'. Yet homology, our word for sameness, while universal in the sense of being necessarily true, can only ever be partial with respect to features that change. Determining what is equivalent to what among taxa, and from what something has evolved, remain real problems, but the word homology is not helpful in these problematic contexts. Henning saw this clearly when he coined new terms with technical meanings for phylogenetic studies. Analysis in phylogenetic systematics remains contentious and relatively subjective, especially as new information accumulates or as one changes one's mind about characters. This pragmatic decision making should not be called homology assessment. Homology as a concept anticipated evolution. Homology dates to pre-evolutionary times and represents late 18th and early 19th century idealism. Our attempts to recycle words in science leads to difficulty, and we should eschew giving precise modern definitions to terms that originally arose in entirely different contexts. Rather than continue to refine our homology concept we should focus on issues that have high relevance to modern evolutionary biology, in particular homoplasy--derived similarity--whose biological bases require elucidation.

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