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Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2008 Dec;39(4):451-68. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2008.09.002.

History, objectivity, and the construction of molecular phylogenies.

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  • 1National University of Mexico and Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Circuito Exterior Ciudad Universitaria, Coyoacán, DF 04510, Mexico.


Despite the promises made by molecular evolutionists since the early 1960s that phylogenies would be readily reconstructed using molecular data, the construction of molecular phylogenies has both retained many methodological problems of the past and brought up new ones of considerable epistemic relevance. The field is driven not only by changes in knowledge about the processes of molecular evolution, but also by an ever-present methodological anxiety manifested in the constant search for an increased objectivity-or in its converse, the avoidance of subjectivity. This paper offers an exhaustive account of the methodological and conceptual difficulties embedded in each of the steps required to elaborate molecular phytogenies. The authors adopt a historical perspective on the field in order to follow the development of practices that seek to increase the objectivity of their methods and representations. These include the adoption and development of explicit criteria for evaluation of evidence, and of procedures associated with methods of statistical inference, quantification and automation. All these are linked to an increasing use of computers in research since the mid 1960s. We will show that the practices of objectivity described are highly dependent on the problems and tools of molecular phylogenetics.

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