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Keywords:

  • character;
  • homology;
  • ontogeny;
  • phylogeny;
  • similarity;
  • snakes;
  • turtles;
  • tetrapods

Recent debates concerning conflicting hypotheses of higher-level phylogeny such as the sister-group relationships of tetrapods, turtles, birds and snakes, serve as examples in the analysis of the nature of morphological evidence as it is currently used in phylogeny reconstruction. We note a recent shift of emphasis towards ever-larger data matrices, which may come at the cost of detailed character analysis and argumentation. Because the assessment of morphological characters necessarily entails a conceptual element of abstraction, there is also a threat that preconceived notions of phylogeny influence character analysis. Because the test of congruence does not address character analysis in itself, we argue that character hypotheses, i.e. primary conjectures of homology, need to be testable, and potentially refutable, in their own right. We demonstrate the use of classical criteria of homology (topological relations and/or connectivity, in conjunction with the subsidiary criteria of special similarity and intermediate forms) in the test, and refutation, of morphological characters. Rejection of the classical criteria of homology in the test of morphological character hypotheses requires the formulation of alternative methods of test and potential falsification of morphological characters that have so far not been proposed. © 2002 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2002, 75, 59–82.