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Are monophyly and synapomorphy the same or different? Revisiting the role of morphology in phylogenetics

by Leandro C S Assis, Olivier Rieppel
Cladistics ()

Abstract

Species are groups of organisms, marked out by reproductive (replicative) properties. Monophyletic taxa are groups of species, marked out by synapomorphies. In Nelson?s analysis, monophyly and synapomorphy are identical relations. Monophyly and synapomorphy, however, are not equivalent relations. Monophyly is epistemically not accessible, whereas synapomorphy is epistemically accessible through character analysis. Monophyly originates with speciation, the two sister-species that come into being through the splitting of the ancestral species lineage forming a monophyletic taxon at the lowest level of inclusiveness. Synapomorphy provides the empirical evidence for monophyly, inferred from character analysis in the context of a three-taxon statement. If synapomorphy and monophyly were equivalent, phylogenetic systematists should find a single tree, instead of multiple equally parsimonious trees. Understanding synapomorphy as the relevant evidence for phylogenetic inference reveals a category mistake in contemporary phylogenetics: the treatment of morphological characters mapped onto molecular trees as synapomorphies and homoplasies. The mapping of morphological characters onto nodes of a molecular tree results in an empirically empty procedure for synapomorphy discovery. Morphological synapomorphies and homoplasies can only be discovered by morphological and combined analyses. The use of morphology in phylogenetic inference in general is defended by examples from Laurales and Squamata in particular. To make empirical evidence scientifically relevant in order to search for concordance, or dis-concordance, of phylogenetic signal, is certainly more fruitful for phylogenetics than the uncritical mapping of morphological traits on a molecular scaffold

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