Is evolutionary biology becoming too politically correct? A reflection on the scala naturae, phylogenetically basal clades, anatomically plesiomorphic taxa, and ‘lower’ animals

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ABSTRACT

The notion of scala naturae dates back to thinkers such as Aristotle, who placed plants below animals and ranked the latter along a graded scale of complexity from ‘lower’ to ‘higher’ animals, such as humans. In the last decades, evolutionary biologists have tended to move from one extreme (i.e. the idea of scala naturae or the existence of a general evolutionary trend in complexity from ‘lower’ to “higher” taxa, with Homo sapiens as the end stage) to the other, opposite, extreme (i.e. to avoid using terms such as ‘phylogenetically basal’ and ‘anatomically plesiomorphic’ taxa, which are seen as the undesired vestige of old teleological theories). The latter view tries to avoid any possible connotations with the original anthropocentric idea of a scala naturae crowned by man and, in that sense, it can be regarded as a more politically correct view. In the past years and months there has been renewed interest in these topics, which have been discussed in various papers and monographs that tend to subscribe, in general, to the points defended in the more politically correct view. Importantly, most evolutionary and phylogenetic studies of tetrapods and other vertebrates, and therefore most discussions on the scala naturae and related issues have been based on hard tissue and, more recently, on molecular data. Here we provide the first discussion of these topics based on a comparative myological study of all the major vertebrate clades and of myological cladistic and Bayesian phylogenetic analyses of bony fish and tetrapods, including Primates. We specifically (i) contradict the notions of a scala naturae or evolutionary progressive trends leading to more complexity in ‘higher’ animals and culminating in Homo sapiens, and (ii) stress that the refutation of these old notions does not necessarily mean that one should not keep using the terms ‘phylogenetically basal’ and particularly ‘anatomically plesiomorphic’ to refer to groups such as the urodeles within the Tetrapoda, or the strepsirrhines and lemurs within the Primates, for instance. This review will contribute to improving our understanding of these broad evolutionary issues and of the evolution of the vertebrate Bauplans, and hopefully will stimulate future phylogenetic, evolutionary and developmental studies of these clades.

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