Phylogeny as population history

Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology 5:e402 (2013)
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Abstract

The project of this paper is to understand what a phylogenetic tree represents and to discuss some of the implications that this has for the practice of systematics. At least the first part of this task, if not both parts, might appear trivial—or perhaps better suited for a single page in a textbook rather than a scholarly research paper. But this would be a mistake. While the task of interpreting phylogenetic trees is often treated in a trivial way, their interpretation is tied to foundational conceptual questions at the heart of systematics—questions whose answers are hotly disputed. I have previously argued that widely shared ideas about the meaning and interpretation of phylogenetic trees are inconsistent with species concepts other than some genealogical version of a phylogenetic species concept (Velasco 2008). Here I rely on a similar approach and concentrate on the implications of the necessary conditions underlying the inferences that we make using phylogenetic trees. I argue that common practices for the interpretation and use of trees are in conflict and that unacceptable principles about species as units of phylogeny must be given up. According to the view that I will develop, all phylogenetic trees depict the history of populations. The branches on trees represent collections of population lineages through time and the splits represent population lineage splits. This is true regardless of whether the tips of the trees are themselves populations, or are species or higher taxa. Although this conclusion might be paired naturally with a view that species must be monophyletic groups, this population-centric view of trees is independent of that view of species. If we still want to have species that are paraphyletic groups of populations, this is permissible as long as we also do not treat species as the units of phylogeny. This population-centric view opposes a species-centric view of phylogeny and might be called a “rank-free” approach since it entails that we do not need to determine which groups are species (which is partly a ranking question) in order to build a tree. This conclusion and the argument for it are meant to be consistent with, but not require, acceptance of the conclusions of Velasco (2008) regarding species

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