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Evolution. 2002 Jan;56(1):1-13.

Adaptive constraints and the phylogenetic comparative method: a computer simulation test.

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Department of Biology, Indiana University, Bloomington 47408, USA.


Recently, the utility of modern phylogenetic comparative methods (PCMs) has been questioned because of the seemingly restrictive assumptions required by these methods. Although most comparative analyses involve traits thought to be undergoing natural or sexual selection, most PCMs require an assumption that the traits be evolving by less directed random processes, such as Brownian motion (BM). In this study, we use computer simulation to generate data under more realistic evolutionary scenarios and consider the statistical abilities of a variety of PCMs to estimate correlation coefficients from these data. We found that correlations estimated without taking phylogeny into account were often quite poor and never substantially better than those produced by the other tested methods. In contrast, most PCMs performed quite well even when their assumptions were violated. Felsenstein's independent contrasts (FIC) method gave the best performance in many cases, even when weak constraints had been acting throughout phenotypic evolution. When strong constraints acted in opposition to variance-generating (i.e., BM) forces, however, FIC correlation coefficients were biased in the direction of those BM forces. In most cases, all other PCMs tested (phylogenetic generalized least squares, phylogenetic mixed model, spatial autoregression, and phylogenetic eigenvector regression) yielded good statistical performance, regardless of the details of the evolutionary model used to generate the data. Actual parameter estimates given by different PCMs for each dataset, however, were occasionally very different from one another, suggesting that the choice among them should depend on the types of traits and evolutionary processes being considered.

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