Re-thinking cladistics

J. Kirk Fitzhugh kfitzhug at
Sun Nov 7 14:04:24 EST 2004

I was greatly honored to read Sergio's message. But, the sincerest of thanks 
really need to be extended to Sergio for taking such a strong interest in 
having his students and colleagues in Mexico exposed to the issues of how one 
justifies what they do in phylogenetic systematics.  

 We seem to be in an age of readily available computer programs, where one can 
pick and choose the results they like best, and where too much time is spent 
arguing about classification systems in the absence of any firm philosophical 
reasoning.  Teaching the principles of phylogenetic systematics has become 
more a matter of telling people how to get cladograms, rather than teaching 
them how to judge the merits of the procedures for getting those cladograms, 
or what those cladograms really represent.  

 Sergio has maintained the refreshing attitude that we need to get back to the 
basics of having a philosophical basis upon which to operate as systematists.  
It was such a great honor to have had the opportunity to present a series of 
lectures in Chetumal that addressed so many of the philosophical issues that 
remain unresolved in phylogenetics, or which have just not been properly 


Kirk Fitzhugh

At 07:42 PM 11/3/04 +0000, you wrote:

Dear colleagues,

Do you remember the last time that one of your teachers or colleagues asked 
you to carefully think about your activities? Or about asking you to consider 
some issues apparently lying beyond the strict duties you are expected to do? 
If you do, perhaps you recall that the first impression was one of 
unhappiness, and thought it involves either a waste of time or an unnecessary 
deviation from your main tasks. In fact, most current education activities 
train us to strictly follow main rules without any reflection, discussion, or 
the like. This makes us both good followers and bad thinkers, and we 
eventually tend to loose any interest in any thought-provoking issue. 

Luckily enough, there are still some colleagues who encourage us to rethink 
and consider some issues before being engaged in some technical tools. Of 
course, they will never be popular since their arguments look so unfriendly, 
especially because they mean more work, as it is always the case when you try 
to do things in a different fashion. 

Well, I’m pleased to inform you that we have had during almost three weeks a 
series of lectures by Kirk Fitzhugh on philosophy and cladistics, and did 
survive. As you may know, at least during the last 5 yr, Kirk has been 
studying the logical and philosophical foundations for cladistics, and perhaps 
some of you have visited his slide shows. Since he is the external advisor for 
Maria Ana Tovar, who is making her Ph. D. on sabellids, he came to Chetumal to 
help her with her research, and to share his opinions with us. At the same 
time, he revised his slide shows trying to improve and make them more 
complete. Of course, we had some problems trying to follow some of the 
arguments, indeed, but hopefully the main result will be a better 
understanding of the implications and limits of cladistic methods.

Thus, this a public acknowledge for his interest and motivation to share his
experience, for his painstaking efforts for making more accessible the
difficult language of logic and philosophy, and for making us think about how
cladistics ought to be understood and done.

Best wishes,


J. Kirk Fitzhugh, Ph.D.
Associate Curator of Polychaetes
Invertebrate Zoology Section
Research & Collections Branch
Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History
900 Exposition Blvd
Los Angeles CA 90007

Phone: 213-763-3233
FAX: 213-746-2999
e-mail: kfitzhug at

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