Traits and/or states

SKÁLA Zdeněk skala at INCOMA.CZ
Fri Oct 31 10:42:07 CST 2003

The character/state distinction seems to be (to me, at least) reasonable not only from the purely practical point of view.
What we call 'character' and 'state' in the phylogenetic analysis are indeed both high-level constructs, not observations (not speaking about all the problems with the process of "observation"). The character/state distinction is a way how to hierarchize such constructs; we can treat this hierarchic relation as a subject/predicate, variable/value or whatever but the language we are using can hardly change the merit. I have personally found nothing in your message (nor in your presentation referenced below) what would contradict this generally accepted opinion. Perhaps you could explain your position in more detail?

Best regards!
Zdenek Skala
skala at

-----Original Message-----
From: Kirk Fitzhugh [mailto:kfitzhug at NHM.ORG]
Sent: Thursday, October 30, 2003 7:30 PM
Subject: Re: Traits and/or states

At 09:05 AM 10/30/03 -0600, you wrote:
>At 04:36 PM 10/30/03 +0200, Matt Buys wrote:
>>Is there a difference between states and traits and if so, what would
>>that be?
>A "trait" (character) is a feature of an organism in general, e.g., flower
>color.  A state is the specific expression of that character in a given
>individual, e.g., red, yellow, or white.

 From an epistemological standpoint, the distinctions between "character"
and "state," or "states" and "traits" are not correct. All objects are
perceived by way of their properties. To conceptualize or communicate
perceptions, we infer subject-predicate relations, such as "The petals of
this flower are red." But, there is no generic "character" such as "petal
color" to which we assign a "state." It is senseless (no pun intended) to
demarcate a "character" as something separate from what is called a "state"
of that "character." If I say I observe a flower with red petals, then I
have mentioned, in the form of a predicate, a property/character/trait,
etc., of petals, which is the subject. In the parlance of cladistics, for
instance, a data matrix is not composed of columns as "characters" and
cells as "states." Rather, each cell summarizes observed subject-predicate
relations among a group of individuals; the columns simply indicate the
different subjects for which these relations have been observed.

I have a slide show at the url listed below which discusses character coding.



J. Kirk Fitzhugh, Ph.D.
Associate Curator of Polychaetes
Invertebrate Zoology Section
Research & Collections Branch
Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History
900 Exposition Blvd
Los Angeles CA 90007

Phone:   213-763-3233
FAX:     213-746-2999
e-mail:  kfitzhug at

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