Emptiness of phylog. recons

Warren Lamboy warren_lamboy at QMRELAY.MAIL.CORNELL.EDU
Thu Jul 27 11:24:50 CDT 1995

                       Subject:                               Time:10:43
  OFFICE MEMO          Emptiness of phylog. reconst.          Date:26/07/1995

I am very concerned that most of taxonomy/systematics today is concerned with
mathematical/statistical phylogeny reconstruction, and that there have been a
number of papers, particularly those by Rohlf, Sokal, and their coworkers, Nei
and his coworkers, as well as a paper by me, that have shown that the chances
of obtaining the true phylogeny in any particular real data set is very low
(10% or usually less, according to my simulation tests).  Yet many workers are
pressing on, collecting data of many myriad and marvelous types for the
purpose of phylogeny reconstruction (PR).  PR, it seems, often serves as the
main justification for systematic studies.

Doesn't the fact that the results are in most cases so far from the truth
bother anyone but me?  My own observation is that phylogeny reconstruction has
largely pre-empted most other types of taxonomic work, such as being able to
actually IDENTIFY the organisms one is working with.  Certainly, more
classical taxonomic studies have almost no credibility within academia, which
is sad now and probably disastrous in the long run.  Who is being trained to
identify fungi, beetles, flies, ticks, butterflies, bees, salamanders, fish,
flowering plants, mammals, ferns, orchids, and so on?   Am I alone in my
concerns in this area?

In my scientific judgment, the huge amounts of money and time that are being
expended on   phylogeny reconstruction ought better to be directed to other
types of taxonomic studies.  If you told me you were going to fix my plumbing,
write me a book, prepare me a meal, compute my income taxes, prescribe me a
drug, or fly me to my destination in a way that was successful only about 10%
of the time, I might not be so happy to pay you to do that for me.
Especially, if on top of it all, I wouldn't know which 10% of the time the
desired outcome had been achieved.  It's like telling me that I should be
delighted with my broken clock because at least it is correct twice a day.  I
simply feel a great sadness concerning the current state of systematics.

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