August 31, 2020
Language change and biological evolution are sufficiently similar that biologists and linguists often face similar challenges in reconstructing paths of historical change connecting different species or languages. Tracing evolutionary change over time requires us to consider how shared features have been modified in different lineages since they shared a common ancestor, and this means we have to be able to establish meaningful comparability between traits. In some cases, we may wish to understand how the same ancestral trait has been modified in each lineage in response to different pressures. But in other cases, we may wish to ask whether particular traits often arise in response to certain circumstances. Biologists must therefore consider different reasons for similarities between species, and choose to compare those traits that are relevant to the story they want to tell. To reconstruct histories of change, we need to compare homologous traits (those similar due to shared ancestry). But comparing analogous traits (independently derived but similar traits) highlights how separate evolutionary lineages can find similar solutions to common problems. I will illustrate the importance of comparability in constructing evolutionary explanations using one of the more obscure yet fascinating examples of Charles Darwin’s scientific researches, his multi-volume taxonomic treatise on barnacles. Darwin faced the challenge of how to explain the evolutionary trajectory of unique and highly modified traits that appear to have no equivalents in related taxa. He did this by tracing the development of unique traits within growing individuals, looking for variation in these strange adaptations between individuals, and comparing them across species that varied in their degree of modification from their ancestor. Using meticulous observations to establish comparability, even in such an incomparable animal as the barnacle, he could reconstruct plausible evolutionary explanations for even the most bizarrely modified traits, such as the presence of parasitic males and the invention of the cement that sticks barnacles to rocks, boats and whales. Nowadays, scientists increasingly rely on DNA evidence to trace evolutionary paths, which brings both advantages and challenges in establishing comparability. Even if you, like most people, are not particularly interested in barnacles, Darwin’s underappreciated taxonomic work is a surprisingly good place to go to if you want to think about the issue of comparability and why it matters to understanding evolution.