Rethinking phylogenetic comparative methods

Josef C. Uyeda, Rosana Zenil-Ferguson, Matthew W. Pennell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

149 Scopus citations


As a result of the process of descent with modification, closely related species tend to be similar to one another in a myriad different ways. In statistical terms, this means that traits measured on one species will not be independent of traits measured on others. Since their introduction in the 1980s, phylogenetic comparative methods (PCMs) have been framed as a solution to this problem. In this article, we argue that this way of thinking about PCMs is deeply misleading. Not only has this sowed widespread confusion in the literature about what PCMs are doing but has led us to develop methods that are susceptible to the very thing we sought to build defenses against—unreplicated evolutionary events. Through three Case Studies, we demonstrate that the susceptibility to singular events is indeed a recurring problem in comparative biology that links several seemingly unrelated controversies. In each Case Study, we propose a potential solution to the problem. While the details of our proposed solutions differ, they share a common theme: unifying hypothesis testing with data-driven approaches (which we term “phylogenetic natural history”) to disentangle the impact of singular evolutionary events from that of the factors we are investigating. More broadly, we argue that our field has, at times, been sloppy when weighing evidence in support of causal hypotheses. We suggest that one way to refine our inferences is to re-imagine phylogenies as probabilistic graphical models; adopting this way of thinking will help clarify precisely what we are testing and what evidence supports our claims.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1091-1109
Number of pages19
JournalSystematic Biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press, on behalf of the Society of Systematic Biologists. All rights reserved.


  • Causality
  • Graphical models
  • Macroevolution
  • Phylogenetic natural history

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics


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