Evolutionary taxonomy

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Evolutionary taxonomy, evolutionary systematics or Darwinian classification is a branch of biological classification that seeks to classify organisms using a combination of phylogenetic relationship and degree of evolutionary changes. This type of taxonomy considers taxa rather than single species, so that groups of species give rise to new groups.[1] The concept found its current form in the modern evolutionary synthesis of the early 1940s.

Evolutionary taxonomy differs from strict pre-Darwinian Linnaean taxonomy (producing orderly lists only), in that it builds phylogenetic trees. While in phylogenetic nomenclature each taxon must consist of a single ancestral node and all its descendants, evolutionary taxonomy allows for groups to be excluded from their parent taxa (e.g. dinosaurs are not considered to include birds, but to have given rise to them), thus permitting paraphyletic taxa.[2]

Origin of evolutionary taxonomy[edit]

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's 1815 diagram showing branching in the course of invertebrate evolution

Evolutionary taxonomy arose as a result of the influence of the theory of evolution on Linnaean taxonomy. The idea of translating Linnaean taxonomy into a sort of dendrogram of the Animal and Plant Kingdoms was formulated toward the end of the 18th century, well before Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species was published.[3] Among early works exploring the idea of a transmutation of species was Erasmus Darwin's 1796 Zoönomia and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's 1809 Philosophie Zoologique.[4] The idea was popularised in the English-speaking world by the speculative but widely read Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously by Robert Chambers in 1844.[5]

Following the appearance of On the Origin of Species, Tree of Life representations became popular in scientific works. In On the Origin of Species, the ancestor remained largely a hypothetical species; Darwin was primarily occupied with showing the principle, carefully refraining from speculating on relationships between living or fossil organisms and using theoretical examples only.[4] In contrast, Chambers had proposed specific hypotheses, the evolution of placental mammals from marsupials, for example.[6]

Following Darwin's publication, Thomas Henry Huxley used the fossils of Archaeopteryx and Hesperornis to argue that the birds are descendants of the dinosaurs.[7] Thus, a group of extant animals could be tied to a fossil group. The resulting description, that of dinosaurs "giving rise to" or being "the ancestors of" birds, exhibits the essential hallmark of evolutionary taxonomic thinking.

The past three decades have seen a dramatic increase in the use of DNA sequences for reconstructing phylogeny and a parallel shift in emphasis from evolutionary taxonomy towards Hennig’s ‘phylogenetic systematics’.[4]

Today, with the advent of modern genomics, scientists in every branch of biology make use of molecular phylogeny to guide their research. One common method is multiple sequence alignment.

Cavalier-Smith,[4] G. G. Simpson and Ernst Mayr.[8] are some representative evolutionary taxonomists.

The Tree of Life[edit]

Evolution of the vertebrates at class level, width of spindles indicating number of families. Spindle diagrams are often used in evolutionary taxonomy.

As more and more fossil groups were found and recognized in the late 19th and early 20th century, palaeontologists worked to understand the history of animals through the ages by linking together known groups.[9] The Tree of life was slowly being mapped out, with fossil groups taking up their position in the tree as understanding increased.

These groups still retained their formal Linnaean taxonomic ranks. Some of them are paraphyletic in that, although every organism in the group is linked to a common ancestor by an unbroken chain of intermediate ancestors within the group, some other descendants of that ancestor lie outside the group. The evolution and distribution of the various taxa through time is commonly shown as a spindle diagram (often called a Romerogram after the American palaeontologist Alfred Romer) where various spindles branch off from each other, with each spindle representing a taxon. The width of the spindles are meant to imply the abundance (often number of families) plotted against time.[10]

Vertebrate palaeontology had mapped out the evolutionary sequence of vertebrates as currently understood fairly well by the closing of the 19th century, followed by a reasonable understanding of the evolutionary sequence of the plant kingdom by the early 20th century. The tying together of the various trees into a grand Tree of Life only really became possible with advancements in microbiology and biochemistry in the period between the World Wars.

Terminological difference[edit]

The two approaches, evolutionary taxonomy and the phylogenetic systematics derived from Willi Hennig, differ in the use of the word "monophyletic". For evolutionary systematicists, "monophyletic" means only that a group is derived from a single common ancestor. In phylogenetic nomenclature, there is an added caveat that the ancestral species and all descendants should be included in the group.[2] The term "holophyletic" has been proposed for the latter meaning. As an example, amphibians are monophyletic under evolutionary taxonomy, since they have arisen from fishes only once. Under phylogenetic taxonomy, amphibians do not constitute a monophyletic group in that the amniotes (reptiles, birds and mammals) have evolved from an amphibian ancestor and yet are not considered amphibians. Such paraphyletic groups are rejected in phylogenetic nomenclature.


  1. ^ Mayr, Ernst & Bock, W.J. (2002), Classifications and other ordering systems, J. Zool. Syst. Evol. Research 40 (4): 169–94, doi:10.1046/j.1439-0469.2002.00211.x 
  2. ^ a b Grant, V. (2003), Incongruence between cladistic and taxonomic systems, American Journal of Botany 90 (9): 1263, doi:10.3732/ajb.90.9.1263 
  3. ^ Archibald, J. David (2009). "Edward Hitchcock's Pre-Darwinian (1840) 'Tree of Life'" (PDF). Journal of the History of Biology 42 (3): 561–592. doi:10.1007/s10739-008-9163-y. PMID 20027787. 
  4. ^ a b c d Cavalier-Smith, Thomas (2010). "Deep phylogeny, ancestral groups and the four ages of life". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 365: 111–132. doi:10.1098/rstb.2009.0161. PMC 2842702. PMID 20008390. 
  5. ^ Secord, James A. (2000), Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0-226-74410-0 
  6. ^ Chambers, Robert (1844). Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. London: John Churchill. p. 122. Retrieved May 10, 2013. 
  7. ^ Huxley, T.H. (1876): Lectures on Evolution. New York Tribune. Extra. no 36. In Collected Essays IV: pp 46-138 original text w/ figures
  8. ^ Mahner, Martin; Bunge, Mario. Foundations of Biophilosophy. Springer, p. 251.
  9. ^ Rudwick, M. J. S. (1985), The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology, University of Chicago Press, p. 24, ISBN 0-226-73103-0 
  10. ^ White, T. & Kazlev, M. A. "Phylogeny and Systematics : Glossary - Romerogram". http://palaeos.com/index.html. Retrieved 21 January 2013.