In defense of living fossils


Lately there has been a wave of criticism of the concept of living fossils. First, recent research has challenged the status of paradigmatic living fossil taxa, such as coelacanths, cycads, and tuataras. Critics have also complained that the living fossil concept is vague and/or ambiguous, and that it is responsible for misconceptions about evolution. This paper defends a particular phylogenetic conception of living fossils, or taxa that (a) exhibit deep prehistoric morphological stability; (b) contain few extant species; and (c) make a high contribution to phylogenetic diversity. The paper shows how this conception of living fossils can make sense of recent research on contested cases. The phylogenetic living fossil concept has both theoretical and practical importance: theoretical, because it picks out an important explanatory target for evolutionary theory; and practical, because it picks out taxa that we might wish to prioritize for conservation. The best way to defend the concept of living fossils is to get clearer about the reasons for defending living fossil taxa.

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  1. 1.

    See also this educational video from the PBS Eons series, which declares that living fossils aren’t really “a thing”:

  2. 2.

    For present purposes, this simple intuitive example suffices. However, if we wanted to make this more precise, we should begin by constructing phylogenetic trees for the species on islands A and B. We’d then need a quantitative measure of evolutionary distinctiveness, so that we can assign each species an index. Most scientists start out by counting the nodes (branching points) between each species and the root of the tree (where the root is the nearest ancestor that all of them have in common.) From there, things get more complicated, and there is much debate about what other information, such as branch length, should be included in a measure of evolutionary distinctiveness (Vellend et al. 2011).

  3. 3.

    I thank Adrian Currie for raising this issue.


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Early work on this project was supported by a visiting fellowship at the KLI in Klosterneuburg, Austria, in the fall of 2015. I am also grateful to Fulbright Canada for support during the spring of 2017, which enabled me to spend a semester at the University of Calgary. I shared an early version of this paper with an audience in Calgary in January 2017, and am grateful to the philosophers there for invaluable feedback: Soohyun Ahn, Megan Delahanty, David Dick, Marc Ereshefsky, Alison McConwell, Mark Migotti, Celso Neto, Ken Waters, and others. I am also deeply grateful to the Calgary philosophy department for being such a wonderful and welcoming place to work on this Project. The paper has benefitted immensely from comments from two anonymous referees for this journal, and from Adrian Currie’s philosophical and editorial help and advice.

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Correspondence to Derek D. Turner.

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Turner, D.D. In defense of living fossils. Biol Philos 34, 23 (2019).

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  • Coelacanth
  • Cycad
  • Horseshoe crab
  • Living fossil
  • Phylogenetic diversity
  • Stasis
  • Tuatara