Journal of Molecular Evolution

, Volume 42, Issue 2, pp 294–307 | Cite as

Phylogenetic analysis using parsimony and likelihood methods

  • Ziheng Yang


The assumptions underlying the maximum-parsimony (MP) method of phylogenetic tree reconstruction were intuitively examined by studying the way the method works. Computer simulations were performed to corroborate the intuitive examination. Parsimony appears to involve very stringent assumptions concerning the process of sequence evolution, such as constancy of substitution rates between nucleotides, constancy of rates across nucleotide sites, and equal branch lengths in the tree. For practical data analysis, the requirement of equal branch lengths means similar substitution rates among lineages (the existence of an approximate molecular clock), relatively long interior branches, and also few species in the data. However, a small amount of evolution is neither a necessary nor a sufficient requirement of the method. The difficulties involved in the application of current statistical estimation theory to tree reconstruction were discussed, and it was suggested that the approach proposed by Felsenstein (1981,J. Mol. Evol. 17: 368–376) for topology estimation, as well as its many variations and extensions, differs fundamentally from the maximum likelihood estimation of a conventional statistical parameter. Evidence was presented showing that the Felsenstein approach does not share the asymptotic efficiency of the maximum likelihood estimator of a statistical parameter. Computer simulations were performed to study the probability that MP recovers the true tree under a hierarchy of models of nucleotide substitution; its performance relative to the likelihood method was especially noted. The results appeared to support the intuitive examination of the assumptions underlying MP. When a simple model of nucleotide substitution was assumed to generate data, the probability that MP recovers the true topology could be as high as, or even higher than, that for the likelihood method. When the assumed model became more complex and realistic, e.g., when substitution rates were allowed to differ between nucleotides or across sites, the probability that MP recovers the true topology, and especially its performance relative to that of the likelihood method, generally deteriorates. As the complexity of the process of nucleotide substitution in real sequences is well recognized, the likelihood method appears preferable to parsimony. However, the development of a statistical methodology for the efficient estimation of the tree topology remains a difficult open problem.

Key words

Maximum likelihood Maximum parsimony Molecular evolution Molecular systematics Phylogeny Computer simulation 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag New York Inc. 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ziheng Yang
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.College of Animal Science and TechnologyBeijing Agricultural UniversityBeijingChina
  2. 2.Institute of Molecular Evolutionary GeneticsThe Pennsylvania State University, 328 Mueller LaboratoryUniversity ParkUSA

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