Phenetics

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In biology, phenetics, also known as taximetrics, is an attempt to classify organisms based on overall similarity, usually in morphology or other observable traits, regardless of their phylogeny or evolutionary relation. It is closely related to numerical taxonomy which is concerned with the use of numerical methods for taxonomic classification.

Phenetics has largely been superseded by cladistics for research into evolutionary relationships among species. However, certain phenetic methods, such as neighbor-joining, have found their way into cladistics, as a reasonable approximation of phylogeny when more advanced methods (such as Bayesian inference) are too computationally expensive.

Phenetic techniques include various forms of clustering and ordination. These are sophisticated ways of reducing the variation displayed by organisms to a manageable level. In practice this means measuring dozens of variables, and then presenting them as two or three dimensional graphs. Much of the technical challenge in phenetics revolves around balancing the loss of information in such a reduction against the ease of interpreting the resulting graphs.

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Difference from cladistics

Phenetic analyses do not distinguish between plesiomorphies - traits that are inherited from an ancestor (and therefore phylogenetically uninformative) - and apomorphies - traits that evolved anew in one or several lineages. Consequently, phenetic analyses are liable to be misled by convergent evolution and adaptive radiation. A typical error occurring in phenetic analysis is that basal evolutionary grades - which retain many plesiomorphies compared to more advanced lineages - appear to be monophyletic.

Consider for example songbirds. These can be divided into two groups - Corvida, which retains ancient characters in phenotype and genotype, and Passerida, which has more modern traits. But only the latter are a group of closest relatives; the former are numerous independent and ancient lineages which are about as distantly related to each other as each single one of them is to the Passerida. In a phenetic analysis, the large degree of overall similarity found among the Corvida will make them appear to be monophyletic too, but their shared traits were present in the ancestors of all songbirds already. It is the loss of these ancestral traits rather than their presence that signifies which songbirds are more closely related to each other than to other songbirds.

But the two methodologies need not be mutually exclusive. In general, phenetics is today recognized to provide too much unreliable information about the evolutionary relationships among taxa to remain a mainstay method. But there is no reason why e.g. species identified using phenetics cannot subsequently be subjected to cladistic analysis, to determine their evolutionary relationships. Phenetic methods can also be superior to cladistics when only the distinctness of related taxa is important, as the computational requirements are lower. On the other hand, whenever information on the evolutionary history of taxa is needed for a study, a researcher of today will generally try to analyze using cladistic methods.

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