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The repugnant and the mature in phylogenetic inference: atemporal similarity and historical identity

Wiley Blackwell (Blackwell Publishing)
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  • Logic
  • Mathematics


The significance of “being similar” in the inference of species relationships is refuted once again (see also Hennig, 1966, Phylogenetic Systematics, Univ. of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL). Without merit is Rieppel and Kearney's (Biol. J. Linn. Soc., 2002, 75, 59–82) claim that submitting the relational property of topological similarity, their preferred definition of character, to falsifying tests of similarity benefits that kind of inference. Such a priori uses of similarity, in character analysis, are consistent with observational theory, where a character is defined intensionally in terms of immutable properties. However, the induced hypotheses that follow from this theory, not the deductive test that Rieppel and Kearney wanted, remain controversial, because their predictability is a consequence of circular reasoning, and their projectabality fails empirically from incongruent observation reports. Further, a category mistake is made when the abstract, similarity-defined, group of organisms is reified, as a part of history. In addition, Rieppel and Kearney failed to provide a special theory for similarity, which renders similarity scientifically repugnant (Quine, 1969, Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, Columbia Univ. Press, New York). A return to Hennig's (1966) evolutionary concept of evidence, as transformation series, is urged, and from which a testable character hypothesis can be formulated. There is no one operation for determining character states in this system—it can be anything that leads to the testable hypothesis of synapomorphy, as an historical identity relation. Character compatibility and conjunction, but not similarity, provide a priori tests in phylogenetic character analysis. In turn, the phylogenetic system of inference leads to explanations of homology, as historical identities, which exemplifies the goal of achieving a mature state of historical knowledge (not of Quine, 1969). Such maturity obtains from attempts to falsify hypotheses of species relationships with severely tested evidence, not from induction of “the” observation statement that Rieppel and Kearney sought to justify their true belief in a hypothesis of relationships.

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