Understanding Evolution

Phylogenetic systematics, a.k.a. evolutionary trees :

Reconstructing trees: Parsimony

We just mentioned that the principle of parsimony is often useful in reconstructing evolutionary trees.

What is parsimony?
The parsimony principle is basic to all science and tells us to choose the simplest scientific explanation that fits the evidence. In terms of tree-building, that means that, all other things being equal, the best hypothesis is the one that requires the fewest evolutionary changes.

For example, we could compare these two hypotheses about vertebrate relationships using the parsimony principle:

Hypothesis requiring six evolutionary changes

Hypothesis requiring seven evolutionary changes

Hypothesis 1 requires six evolutionary changes and Hypothesis 2 requires seven evolutionary changes, with a bony skeleton evolving independently, twice. Although both fit the available data, the parsimony principle says that Hypothesis 1 is better — since it does not hypothesize unnecessarily complicated changes.

This principle was implicit in the tree-building process we went through earlier with the vertebrate phylogeny. However, in most cases, the data are more complex than those used in our example and may point to several different phylogenetic hypotheses. In those cases, the parsimony principle can help us choose between them.


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