Abstract Morphological structures are likely to undergo more than a single change during the course of evolution. As a result, multistate characters are common in systematic studies and must be dealt with. Particularly interesting is the question of whether or not multistate characters should be treated as ordered (additive) or unordered (non-additive). In accepting a particular hypothesis of order, numerous others are necessarily rejected. We review some of the criteria often used to order character states and the underlying assumptions inherent in these criteria.
The effects that ordered multistate characters can have on phylogenetic reconstruction are examined using 27 data sets. It has been suggested that hypotheses of character state order are more informative then hypotheses of unorder and may restrict the number of equally parsimonious trees as well as increase tree resolution. Our results indicate that ordered characters can produce more, equal or less equally parsimonious trees and can increase, decrease or have no effect on tree resolution. The effect on tree resolution can be a simple gain in resolution or a dramatic change in sister-taxa relationships. In cases where several outgroups are included in the data matrix, hypotheses of order can change character polarities by altering outgroup topology. Ordered characters result in a different topology from unordered characters only when the hierarchy of the cladogram disagrees with the investigator's a priori hypothesis of order. If the best criterion for assessing character evolution is congruence with other characters, the practice of ordering multistate characters is inappropriate.