Send to

Choose Destination
See comment in PubMed Commons below
Bioessays. 2008 Sep;30(9):854-67. doi: 10.1002/bies.20794.

Tree thinking for all biology: the problem with reading phylogenies as ladders of progress.

Author information

Department of Biological Sciences, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Baltimore MD 21250, USA.


Phylogenies are increasingly prominent across all of biology, especially as DNA sequencing makes more and more trees available. However, their utility is compromised by widespread misconceptions about what phylogenies can tell us, and improved "tree thinking" is crucial. The most-serious problem comes from reading trees as ladders from "left to right"--many biologists assume that species-poor lineages that appear "early branching" or "basal" are ancestral--we call this the "primitive lineage fallacy". This mistake causes misleading inferences about changes in individual characteristics and leads to misrepresentation of the evolutionary process. The problem can be rectified by considering that modern phylogenies of present-day species and genes show relationships among evolutionary cousins. Emphasizing that these are extant entities in the 21(st) century will help correct inferences about ancestral characteristics, and will enable us to leave behind 19(th) century notions about the ladder of progress driving evolution.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]
PubMed Commons home

PubMed Commons

How to join PubMed Commons

    Supplemental Content

    Full text links

    Icon for Wiley
    Loading ...
    Support Center