Thursday, June 23, 2011

On the Use of Terms 'Phylogenetic Comparative Methods' and 'Neontologist'

Some boring discussion of terminology.

I've heard the phrase "Phylogenetic Comparative Methods" or "Comparative Methods" get used for everything from just analyses for assessing evolutionary correlations (independent contrasts or phylogenetic general least squares), to all phylogeny-based analyses of trait evolution, to even include birth-death modelling of lineage diversification and phylogenetic community analyses. I'm actually a bit surprised that things in the past, like Pete Wagner's work on evolutionary rates, hasn't been subsumed under this phrase yet. I think using this phrase so vaguely, to refer to anything in which a phylogeny is somehow involved, contributes to some confusion among newcomers and increasingly removes any ability of ours to refer to a cohesive distinction among analytical methods.

It would be better and clearer if we used PCM to only refer to studies of evolutionary correlation. That's what comparative methods meant, prior to Felsenstein (1985), from what I understand. If I can be so forward, why not the term 'macroevolutionary analysis'? Of course, that term would also include many of the analyses done in evolutionary paleobiology, but well, as I was stating earlier, these methods largely differ in data used, not the question addressed. Maybe we can differentiate with 'phylogenetic macroevolutionary analysis' if we really want.

To finally shut my trap on things that Evolution 2011 has made me think about, I'd like to mention that the meeting caused me to have mixed feelings about the use of the word neontologist. I never really used it until I came to Chicago, it has become a useful addition to my lexicon to make the distinction between those using fossil data and those not using fossil data. However, biologists don't know they are 'neontologists' and in trying to explain why we would give such a label when I accidentally say it, I feel like I am just perpetuating bad feelings from several decades ago. But if neontologist is a poor word, than maybe paleontologist is too. Hrm.