Rejecting “the given” in systematics


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How morphology and systematics come together through morphological analysis, homology hypotheses and phylogenetic analysis is a topic of continuing debate. Some contemporary approaches reject biological evaluation of morphological characters and fall back on an atheoretical and putatively objective (but, in fact, phenetic) approach that defers to the test of congruence for homology assessment. We note persistent trends toward an uncritical empiricism (where evidence is believed to be immediately “given” in putatively theory-free observation) and instrumentalism (where hypotheses of primary homology become mere instruments with little or no empirical foundation for choosing among competing phylogenetic hypotheses). We suggest that this situation is partly a consequence of the fact that the test of congruence and the related concept of total evidence have been inappropriately tied to a Popperian philosophy in modern systematics. Total evidence is a classical principle of inductive inference and does not imply a deductive test of homology. The test of congruence by itself is based philosophically on a coherence theory of truth (coherentism in epistemology), which is unconcerned with empirical foundation. We therefore argue that coherence of character statements (congruence of characters) is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition to support or refute hypotheses of homology or phylogenetic relationship. There should be at least some causal grounding for homology hypotheses beyond mere congruence. Such causal grounding may be achieved, for example, through empirical investigations of comparative anatomy, developmental biology, functional morphology and secondary structure.

© The Willi Hennig Society 2006.