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Am Nat. 2011 Jun;177(6):709-27. doi: 10.1086/660020.

Seeing the forest for the trees: the limitations of phylogenies in comparative biology. (American Society of Naturalists Address).

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Museum of Comparative Zoology and Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA.


The past 30 years have seen a revolution in comparative biology. Before that time, systematics was not at the forefront of the biological sciences, and few scientists considered phylogenetic relationships when investigating evolutionary questions. By contrast, systematic biology is now one of the most vigorous disciplines in biology, and the use of phylogenies not only is requisite in macroevolutionary studies but also has been applied to a wide range of topics and fields that no one could possibly have envisioned 30 years ago. My message is simple: phylogenies are fundamental to comparative biology, but they are not the be-all and end-all. Phylogenies are powerful tools for understanding the past, but like any tool, they have their limitations. In addition, phylogenies are much more informative about pattern than they are about process. The best way to fully understand the past-both pattern and process-is to integrate phylogenies with other types of historical data as well as with direct studies of evolutionary process.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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