- The Paleontological Society
Fossils, Phylogeny, and Form: An Analytical Approach. Edited by Jonathan M. Adrain, Gregory D. Edgecombe, and Bruce S. Lieberman. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Press, New York. 2001. 402 pages. Cloth $130.00.
Morphological Characters and Contemporary Systematics
Circumscribing morphological characters in contemporary systematics research, and doing this with efficiency on a large scale, is a topic of paramount importance to practicing systematists. The enormous infusion of data from the relatively young field of molecular systematics has transformed the entire landscape of systematics research because thousands of molecular sequence characters can be generated quickly, efficiently, and with little ambiguity. This facilitates the rapid growth of enormous molecular sequence data matrices. Although most morphological systematists employ modern methods of phylogenetic analysis, the mechanics of collecting morphological data (which present a variety of complex problems) have not been transformed to keep pace with the developments in molecular systematics. Morphological data remain difficult to collect, hard to convert to discrete characters, and poorly archived. There remains, for example, no morphological equivalent of GenBank, the public-access molecular sequence database that systematists use to deposit and retrieve raw data. Without equivalent infrastructural support, many morphological systematists find themselves recollecting data that have been published only as text descriptions and often publishing their own work without thoroughly documenting their characters through labeled illustrations. Morphological systematics thereby advances relatively slowly.
That morphological data (and by this I mean any phenotypic character) should be included in phylogenetic analysis is not in serious dispute. The need to include such data is subsumed by arguments that more data are better than fewer data (Kluge 1989; Nixon and Carpenter 1996) when reconstructing phylogeny, and each year combined analyses of fossils, extant taxa, and molecular and phenotypic data appear. However, until morphological matrices can come to include the hundreds or thousands of characters necessary to describe an organism's phenotype, collected …