Saturday, March 08, 2008

Phylogenetic wallpaper

Amira told me about her vision for what would be a phylogenetic wallpaper: that is, one that lists all organisms cladistically around the wall, showing the evolutionary relationships (and degree of closeness) of everything.

Sounds great - if you're that way inclined, which I am too. I said to Amira that you'd need one that could update - pretty much on the fly - because our understanding of evolutionary relationships is changing all the time. Whereas in the past, taxonomy was based largely on morphology - physical relatedness - this is being broken down by molecular analysis, which is showing up much of our morphological classifications to be "mere" cases of convergent evolution.
Visual technology is such that we're not too far away from being able to "paper" a room with very thin, bendable computer displays. The result would be garish but fascinating. Garish because the technology's not good enough to make it easy on the eyes. Fascinating in that at the fringes you'd be seeing more or less constant movement, ripples of change that reflect ongoing corrections in the tree of life. Then every so often there would be a major cracking like an earthquake, as a fundamental adjustment is made.

Sometimes there are hazes, where differences of opinion result in toggles between different states.

Tomorrow, Amira, I'll go into some of those hazes. A recent article on linkages between arthropods and nematodes, vertebrates and echinoderms, speaks to some top-level cladistic relationships - but these are not without contention.

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