, Volume 19, Issue 5, pp 687-720

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

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Abstract

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.