Beyond Belief: The Steady Resurrection of Phenetics

David M. Williams, Malte C. Ebach and Quentin D. Wheeler

in Beyond Cladistics

Published by University of California Press

Published in print October 2010 | ISBN: 9780520267725
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520947993 | DOI:
Beyond Belief: The Steady Resurrection of Phenetics

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In his account of the history of numerical taxonomy, P. H. A. Sneath argued that Hennigian cladistics is a side issue that has not proven its value, and that numerical taxonomy is “the greatest advance in systematics since Charles Darwin or perhaps since Carl Linnaeus.” Phenetics and cladistics might very well be viewed as contrasting methodologies, situated within the larger phenomenon of numerical taxonomy. Comparing phenetics with cladistics can be rendered simple, relating to a concept of “naturalness”: phenetics discovers taxa (classification) via the parameter “overall similarity” derived from an assessment of “similarities,” cladistics discovers taxa (classification) via the parameter “relationship,” expressed in its simplest form as A(BC), derived from an assessment of particular homologies. A significant event in the development of numerical taxonomy was the publication of J. Felsenstein's book Inferring Phylogenies. Felsenstein's forty intervening years — the “statistical, computational, and algorithmic work” — amounts to the dismissal of classification and homology, reinventing and remodeling phenetics and christening it bioinformatics, thereby reducing the subject of systematics to a set of methodologies, a mere technique.

Keywords: P. H. A. Sneath; phenetics; cladistics; numerical taxonomy; naturalness; classification; homology; bioinformatics; systematics

Chapter.  9772 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Evolutionary Biology

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