Darwin-L Message Log 4:9 (December 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

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<4:9>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Sat Dec  4 23:35:49 1993

Date: Sun, 05 Dec 1993 00:42:16 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Ancestral and derived states: interdisciplinary historical notes
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

Here are some notes on the history of the distinction between ancestral and
derived character states in systematics and philology.  I had intended to
organize this material a bit better, but haven't had the time yet.  This
topic might in fact be a very nice one for a short historical paper.  With
that possibility in mind I'd be grateful for any additional references
anyone may know that discuss the history of these ideas, particularly in


In contemporary systematics, the distinction between ancestral and derived
character states is often traced to Hennig (1966), and while it is very
true that this distinction didn't really catch fire until the 1960s, there
are several few earlier examples of its use.  Robin Craw has written a very
nice paper (1992) that traces some of these earlier uses, as well as
Hennig's modern influence.  (It was Hennig who coined the terms "apomorphy"
and "plesiomorphy".)  The most thorough exposition of the ancestral/derived
distinction I have seen in the early systematic literature comes from Peter
Chalmers Mitchell; Craw discusses him, and I have also commented on his work
(O'Hara, 1988).  Here's a sample from one of Mitchell's later works:

  "Characters have to be judged as well as counted, if it be intended to use
  them for estimating the relative degree of affinity between animal types.
  No anatomist doubts but that Man retains many primitive characters;
  Anthropoid Apes, Old-World Monkeys, American Monkeys, Tarsius, and Lemurs
  also retain many primitive | characters.  It is reasonable to assume that
  the common ancestors of all these animals possessed all the primitive
  characters retained by any of them.  And so it is not surprising to find
  any primitive character in any descendant of a common stock, but there is
  no reason to suppose that, because any two have retained the same primitive
  character, they should for that reason be judged more nearly related than
  either may be with some other descendant of the common stock.  Primitive
  characters may be useful for the description or definition of a group --
  they have no value for assigning degrees of affinity.  These considerations
  ought to be commonplaces in zoological argument, but they are often
  forgotten, and I think they have been entirely forgotten by Professor
  Wood-Jones in the imposing list of common characters that he has drawn up
  for Man and Tarsius.  Fortunately they have been remembered by Mr. Pocock,
  and Professors Hill and Elliot Smith, and the considerations they adduce
  have disposed of Professor Wood-Jones's argument that Tarsius has special
  relation to the ancestry of Man.  It may not be a Lemur, but it is no
  nearer to Man than to other Primates."  (Mitchell, 1919:496-497)


In stemmatics (the reconstruction of manuscript genealogy) a derived
character state is simply an "error", or more precisely an "indicative
error", and the ancestral state is the sought-for "original reading".  In
historical linguistics a derived state is often called an "innovation", and
an ancestral state a "retention". Here are a couple of extracts that
comment on the ancestral/derived distinction in philology:

  "Some of these interdisciplinary influences [among the historical
  sciences], which are part of general intellectual history, were
  acknowledged explicitly, as when August Schleicher proclaimed himself a
  Darwinist of sorts (Hoenigswald 1963; Koerner 1978).  Other influences --
  probably far more genuine -- existed within the personalities of the
  practicioners in the form of well-assimilated modes of thinking, too
  deeply ingrained even to be specifically discussed, as when the same
  Schleicher transferred the principle of the exclusively shared copying
  error from manuscript work to linguistics, where it surfaced as the
  principle of shared innovation." (Hoenigswald, 1990:442)

  "In 1884 came K. Brugmann's work in which we have the most influential
  (cf. Dyen 1953, 1978), though not the first, statement of the requirement
  that account be taken not of shared properties (which could, after all,
  be retained properties) but of shared innovations -- a requirement, as
  we have seen...with its own historical interest, doctrinal as well as
  practical.  It has sometimes been held (Watkins 1966; Markey 1976) that
  signigicant retentions should be accorded the same standing.  We must,
  however, remember that retentions and innovations are not independent
  phenomena but converses.  An innovation is a non-retention, and while
  shared retentions are compatible with a subgrouping, innovations are
  indicative of one."  (Hoenigswald, 1990:443)

References Cited

Craw, Robin.  1992.  Margins of cladistics: identity, difference and place
in the emergence of phylogenetic systemaitcs, 1864-1975.  Pp. 65-107 in:
Trees of Life: Essays in Philosophy of Biology (Paul Griffiths, ed.).
Australasian Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 11.

Dyen, Isidore.  1953.  Review of Malgache et Manjaan by Otto Ch. Dahl.
Language, 29:577-590.

Dyen, Isidore.  1978.  Subgrouping and reconstruction.  Pp. 33-52 in:
Linguistic and Literary Studies in Honor of Archibald A. Hill (M. A.
Jazayeri, E. Polome, & W. Winter, eds.).  Vol. II.  The Hague: Mouton.

Hennig, Willi.  1966.  Phylogenetic Systematics.  Urbana: University of
Illinois Press.  (Original edition in German, 1950.)

Hoenigswald, Henry M.  1963.  On the history of the comparative method.
Anthropological Linguistics, 5:1-11.

Hoenigswald, Henry M.  1990.  Language families and subgroupings, tree model
and wave theory, and reconstruction of protolanguages.  Pp. 441-454 in:
Research Guide on Language Change (Edgar C. Polome, ed.).  Trends in
Linguistics, Studies and Monographs, 48.  Berlin & New York: Mouton de

Koerner, E. F. Konrad.  1978.  Toward a historiography of linguistics: 19th
and 20th century paradigms.  In: toward a Historiography of Linguistics:
Selected Essays.  Amsterdam Studies in the theory and History of Linguistic
Science, III.  Studies in the History of Linguistics, vol. 19.  Amsterdam:

Markey, Thomas L.  Germanic Dialect Grouping and the Position of Ingvaeonic.
Innsbrucker Beitrage zur Sprachwissenschaft 15.  Innsbruck: Institut fur
Sprachwissenschaft der Universitat Innsbruck.

Mitchell, Peter Chalmers.  1919.  [Discussion on the zoological position and
affinities of Tarsius.]  Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London,

O'Hara, Robert J.  1988.  Diagrammatic classifications of birds, 1819-1901:
views of the natural system in 19th-century British ornithology.  Pp. 2746-
2759 in: Acta XIX Congressus Internationalis Ornithologici (Henri Ouellet,
ed.).  Ottawa: National Museum of Natural Sciences.

Watkins, Calvert.  1966.  Italo-Celtic revisited.  Pp. 29-50 in: Ancient
Indo-European Dialects (Henrik Brinbaum & Jaan Puhvel, eds.).  Berkeley:
University of California Press.

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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