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14 chapter one

Evolutionary taxonomists argued that experienced taxonomists were
often successful at picking out natural groups, but, inevitably, evolu-
tionary taxonomy suffered from the suspicion that “homology detec-
tion” was at best an inexact science. Moreover, while evolutionary tax-
onomy was a system based on evolutionary relationships, it was not
based only on evolutionary relationships. It also respected the degree
of evolutionary change in a lineage. As evolutionary taxonomists used
the term, “dinosaurs” did not include the living birds, because though
they descend from dinosaurs they are too different from the character-
istic, definitional dinosaurs. Likewise, “reptile” included the ancestral,
ancient reptiles plus some but not all of their descendants. It includes
the crocodiles, tuataras, snakes, lizards, and turtles, but not the mam-
mals and birds. Only the exothermal, egg-laying, scaly descendants are
reptiles, because they alone sufficiently resemble the ancestral reptiles.
But how similar is similar enough? How different is too different? Sus-
picion about these aspects of evolutionary taxonomy gave rise to the
phenetic revolution.

Similarity Is Not Enough

In a paper written in 1940, the botanist J. S. L. Gilmour argued that
taxonomy should not attempt to represent diversity in a way that re-
flected evolutionary history. He was worried by the circularity problem
we noted above, arguing that we should stop trying to identify some
particular subset of characters whose special status would underpin
the taxonomic system. A classification should be based on all the attri-
butes of the individuals under consideration (Gilmour 1940, 472). The
aim was to base classification objectively, on overall similarity, rather
than relying on intuitive or theoretical guesses about the importance
of some characteristics and the unimportance of others. The overall
similarity of groups of organisms would be calculated by summing the
similarities of as many characters as could practicably be measured (see,
for example, Sokal 1985). The resulting theory has come to be known
as “phenetics.”7
However, the project of building a classification system based on
overall similarity is hopeless. If any characteristic at all counts in deter-
mining similarity relations among (say) a house fly, a fruit fly, and a bee,
then they are all equally similar and equally unlike one another. For ev-
ery individual has, and lacks, an infinity of characteristics. Almost all of
these are of no interest at all. For example, the organisms that compose
these three taxa will vary in their average distance from Britney Spears’s
navel the instant she turned eighteen. But this property is of no interest