Feb 122009

I just saw a very interesting piece by Ben Zimmer, whose post details 144 words for which Darwin has the earliest recorded use in English (and he compares to Lincoln, who has one). One of these words is “phylogeny”. I was a little surprised because surely Haeckel invented the term phylogeny. Indeed he did, but on reflection he obviously didn’t write in english. The 6th edition of the Origin of Species (1872) includes this paragraph

“Professor Haeckel in his “Generelle Morphologie” and in another works, has recently brought his great knowledge and abilities to bear on what he calls phylogeny, or the lines of descent of all organic beings. In drawing up the several series he trusts chiefly to embryological characters, but receives aid from homologous and rudimentary organs, as well as from the successive periods at which the various forms of life are believed to have first appeared in our geological formations. He has thus boldly made a great beginning, and shows us how classification will in the future be treated.”

It seems that Haeckel first used the phrase in 1866 in “Generelle Morphologie der Organismen” as cited by Darwin above. Is the 6th edition the first one to include this quote? I’m not sure.

I think that 144 novel words indicates that, yes Darwin was inventive, but more than that he was also very well read, and did not confine himself to english sources.

Aug 222008

There has been discussion and research for decades into support values for phylogenetic nodes and the relative quality of different phylogenies as a whole. Here is a new and impressive (although clearly subjective) criteria for confidence in a phylogenetic tree- “I am so confident in this tree I have had it tattooed onto my body”!!!
The Loom has been posting pictures in the Science Tattoo Emporium for a while now and I noticed that there are 4 phylogeny tattoos. So ask yourself, how confident are you in that tree you just built? Confident enough to show it to a colleague? Confident enough to publish it? Or confident enough to live with it forever?

But what if further analysis, or data collection, shows it to be wrong? This happens frequently, even with apparently very good quality trees. Do you then say to your grandchildren “yes this tattoo is how we saw eukaryotic phylogeny in 2004. Its wrong of course, pass me that pen and I’ll fix it to show you where the basal amoebae really fall“.

Some trees of course don’t really have to be right, such as Darwin’s first tree diagram, or Haeckel’s Tree of Life, they are just beautiful and important.
Others, such as the one pictured at the top of the blog, are more specific, depicting the “5 kingdoms” or this one on the evolutionary history of HIV. Truly impressive, but after some thought, maybe not for me.

Jun 292008

Just watched Spain win the Euro2008 football final in the Ernst Haeckel stadium, Austria. I was really pleased that Haeckel, evolutionary biologist and artist, originator of the term “phylogeny” and many other key concepts, has been honoured with a football stadium in his name. Sadly a bit of Googling has revealed that it is the Ernst Happel stadium (1950s Austrian player and coach) and that I should listen more closely. With hindsight maybe it was a bit optimistic that the (German not Austrian) illustrator of the tree of life would be honoured this way, but maybe one day…