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Not the fly on the wall: can systematists cope with uncertainty?

6pm on Wednesday 2 July 2008, Linnean Society, London

Prof. Joseph Felsenstein Joseph Felsenstein
Professor of Genome Sciences and of Biology
Adjunct Professor of Computer Science and of Statistics
Department of Genome Sciences
University of Washington
Seattle, USA.



In reconstruction of molecular phylogenies, biologists have largely shifted their emphasis from inferring a single phylogeny to being comfortable with statistical descriptions of the uncertainty about it, whether by using bootstrapping, jackknifing, or Bayesian posteriors. Similar developments for morphological and behavioral characters have been slower in coming, as there have been fewer defensible statistical models available. The spread of statistical approaches to the comparative method is changing that. I will describe some new developments in statistical models for discrete as well as continuous morphological characters. They can infer correlations of character change across a phylogeny. However these inferences must necessarily be very noisy and uncertain. How will systematists and other evolutionary biologists cope with this uncertainty, if they cannot look forward to further molecular sequencing reducing it? Can we make use of the information without ignoring its uncertainties or overreacting to them? If we cannot hope for an exact account of actually what happened in evolution, is despair inevitable?

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Recorded on Wednesday 2 July 2008 at the Linnean Society, London. The Systematics Association gratefully acknowledges the Linnean Society for recording the event.

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