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The threefold parallelism of Agassiz and Haeckel, and polarity determination in phylogenetic systematics

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Abstract

A “parallel” exists between the threefold parallelism of Agassiz and Haeckel and the three valid methods of polarity determination in phylogenetic systematics. The structural gradation among taxa within a linear hierarchy, ontogenetic recapitulation, and geological succession of the threefold parallelism resemble outgroup comparison, the ontogenetic method, and the paleontological method, respectively, which are methods of polarity determination in phylogenetic systematics. The parallel involves expected congruence among similar components of the distribution of character states among organisms. The threefold parallelism is a manifestation of a world view based on linear hierarchies, whereas polarity determination is part of the methodology of phylogenetic systematics which assumes that organisms are grouped into a nested hierarchy. The threefold parallelism facilitated the ranking of previously established taxa into linear hierarchies consisting mostly of paraphyletic groups. In contrast, methods of polarity determination identify apomorphies that determine and diagnose monophyletic taxa (clades) in the nested genealogical hierarchy. Taxa in linear hierarchies are defined by sets of character states, whereas clades are defined by common ancestry. Although the threefold parallelism was ostensibly abandoned with the rejection of Haeckel's biogenetic law, some of its components continue to facilitate the progressive scenarios that are common in evolutionary thought. Although a general view of progression in organismal history may be invalid, the progressive or directional sequence of character state changes that results in the characterization of a particular clade has considerable heuristic value. Agassiz's ostensibly nested hierarchy and other pre-Darwinian classifications do not provide support for the view that the natural system can be discovered without recourse to the principle of common descent.

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Bryant, H.N. The threefold parallelism of Agassiz and Haeckel, and polarity determination in phylogenetic systematics. Biol Philos 10, 197–217 (1995). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00852245

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Key words

  • Louis Agassiz
  • Ernst Haeckel
  • linear hierarchy
  • nested hierarchy
  • pattern cladistics
  • phylogenetic systematics
  • polarity determination
  • progression
  • threefold parallelism