, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 121-137
Date: 12 Feb 2008

Understanding Evolutionary Trees

Abstract

Charles Darwin sketched his first evolutionary tree in 1837, and trees have remained a central metaphor in evolutionary biology up to the present. Today, phylogenetics—the science of constructing and evaluating hypotheses about historical patterns of descent in the form of evolutionary trees—has become pervasive within and increasingly outside evolutionary biology. Fostering skills in “tree thinking” is therefore a critical component of biological education. Conversely, misconceptions about evolutionary trees can be very detrimental to one’s understanding of the patterns and processes that have occurred in the history of life. This paper provides a basic introduction to evolutionary trees, including some guidelines for how and how not to read them. Ten of the most common misconceptions about evolutionary trees and their implications for understanding evolution are addressed.