The role of fossils in phylogeny reconstruction: Why is it so difficult to integrate paleobiological and neontological evolutionary biology? [Book Review]

Biology and Philosophy 19 (5):687-720 (2004)
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Why has it been so difficult to integrate paleontology and mainstream evolutionary biology? Two common answers are: (1) the two fields have fundamentally different aims, and (2) the tensions arise out of disciplinary squabbles for funding and prestige. This paper examines the role of fossil data in phylogeny reconstruction in order to assess these two explanations. I argue that while cladistics has provided a framework within which to integrate fossil character data, the stratigraphic (temporal) component of fossil data has been harder to integrate. A close examination of how fossil data have been used in phylogeny reconstruction suggests that neither explanation is adequate. While some of the tensions between the fields may be intellectual turf wars, the second explanation downplays the genuine difficulty of combining the distinctive data of the two fields. Furthermore, it is simply not the case that the two fields pursue completely distinct aims. Systematists do disagree about precisely how to represent phylogeny (e.g., minimalist cladograms or trees with varying levels of detail) but given that every tree presupposes a pattern of branching (a cladogram), these aims are not completely distinct. The central problem has been developing methods that allow scientists to incorporate the distinctive bodies of data generated by these two fields. Further case studies will be required to determine if this explanation holds for other areas of interaction between paleontology and neontology.



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Todd Grantham
College of Charleston

Citations of this work

Conceptualizing the (dis)unity of science.Todd A. Grantham - 2004 - Philosophy of Science 71 (2):133-155.
Dimensions of integration in interdisciplinary explanations of the origin of evolutionary novelty.Alan C. Love & Gary L. Lugar - 2013 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (4):537-550.
When integration fails: Prokaryote phylogeny and the tree of life.Maureen A. O’Malley - 2013 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (4a):551-562.

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