Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fritz Müller and the first phylogenetic tree

I have previously noted that the first empirical phylogenetic tree apparently was published by St George Jackson Mivart in late 1865, a full 6 years after Charles Darwin released On the Origin of Species (Who published the first phylogenetic tree?). Mivart was not necessarily the first to start producing such a tree, but he got into print first. For example, Franz Martin Hilgendorf wrote a PhD thesis in 1863 for which he produced a hand-drawn tree, but he did not actually include the tree itself in the thesis (The dilemma of evolutionary networks and Darwinian trees). Also, Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel claimed to have started work on his series of phylogenetic trees in 1864, but the resulting book, Generelle Morphologie der Organismen, was not published until 1866 (Who published the first phylogenetic tree?).

Another actor in this series of events was Fritz Müller, who can also be considered to have published a tree first, in 1864, albeit a very small one.

Johann Friedrich Theodor Müller (1822–1897)

Müller was born in Germany, but in the 1850s he emigrated to southern Brazil with his brother and their wives. As a naturalist in the Atlantic forest, he studied the insects, crustaceans and plants, and he is chiefly remembered today as the describer of what we now call Müllerian mimicry (the phenotypic resemblance between two or more unpalatable species).

Heinrich Bronn's German translation of the Origin appeared in 1860, and Müller read it and agreed with its central thesis (as did Hilgendorf and Haeckel). Indeed, in 1864 he published a book discussing some of the empirical evidence that he adduced with regard to the Crustacea:
Für Darwin
Verlag von Wilhelm Engelman, Leipzig.
The book has 91 pages and 67 figures, and the Foreword is dated 7th September 1863. Several copies are available in Google Books (here, here, here).

In this book Müller described the development of Crustacea, illustrating that crustaceans and their larvae could be affected by adaptations and natural selection at any growth stage. He discussed in detail how living forms diverged from ancestral ones, based on his study of aerial respiration, larvae morphology, sexual dimorphism, and polymorphism.

Darwin read the book, and began a life-long correspondence with Müller (ultimately some 60 letters having been exchanged between them). Subsequently, Darwin commissioned an English translation of the book, and in 1869 published it with John Murray on commission (ie. taking the risk himself). Darwin printed 1000 copies but it apparently was not a great success:
Facts and Arguments for Darwin
Translated from the German by W.S. Dallas
John Murray, London.
The book has 144 pages and 67 figures, and the Translator's Preface is dated 15th February 1869. A copy is available in the Biodiversity Heritage Library (here).

The following quotes are from this English translation [Note that Müller's unnecessarily convoluted sentences exist in the original German — this writing style is one reason why the book is not as well known as the works of Darwin and Wallace]:
It is not the purpose of the following pages to discuss once more the arguments deduced for and against Darwin's theory of the origin of species, or to weigh them one against the other. Their object is simply to indicate a few facts favourable to this theory ...
When I had read Charles Darwin's book 'On the Origin of Species,' it seemed to me that there was one mode, and that perhaps the most certain, of testing the correctness of the views developed in it, namely, to attempt to apply them as specially as possible to some particular group of animals ...
When I thus began to study our Crustacea more closely from this new stand-point of the Darwinian theory,—when I attempted to bring their arrangements into the form of a genealogical tree, and to form some idea of the probable structure of their ancestors,—I speedily saw (as indeed I expected) that it would require years of preliminary work before the essential problem could be seriously handled ...
But although the satisfactory completion of the "Genealogical tree of the Crustacea" appeared to be an undertaking for which the strength and life of an individual would hardly suffice, even under more favourable circumstances than could be presented by a distant island, far removed from the great market of scientific life, far from libraries and museums—nevertheless its practicability became daily less doubtful in my eyes, and fresh observations daily made me more favourably inclined towards the Darwinian theory.
In determining to state the arguments which I derived from the consideration of our Crustacea in favour of Darwin's views, and which (together with more general considerations and observations in other departments), essentially aided in making the correctness of those views seem more and more palpable to me, I am chiefly influenced by an expression of Darwin's: "Whoever," says he ('Origin of Species' p. 482), "is led to believe that species are mutable, will do a good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction."
So, for the reason stated, Müller did not produce a complete phylogeny in the book. However, of particular interest to us is the figure on page 6 of the original German edition (page 9 of the translation). It turns out to be a pair of three-taxon statements concerning species of Melita (amphipods), as shown in the figure above (original) and below (translation). Müller has this to say:
[There are five] species of Melita ... in which the second pair of feet bears upon one side a small hand of the usual structure, and on the other an enormous clasp-forceps. This want of symmetry is something so unusual among the Amphipoda, and the structure of the clasp-forceps differs so much from what is seen elsewhere in the this order, and agrees so closely in the five species, that one must unhesitatingly regard them as having sprung from common ancestors belonging to them alone among known species.
This is as clear a statement of synapomorphy, and its relationship to constructing a phylogeny, as you could get; and so we could credit Müller with having produced an empirical phylogenetic tree (the one on the left in the figures).

Equally interestingly, Müller then goes on to consider a potentially contradictory character: the secondary flagellum of the anterior antennae, which is missing in one species. This would produce a different three-taxon statement (shown on the right in the figures). He resolves the issue by suggesting that the flagellum might be similar to the situation in other species, where it is "reduced to a scarcely perceptible rudiment—nay, that it is sometimes present in youth and disappears at maturity". This is a clear example of the character conflict that arises when trying to construct an empirical phylogeny; and it was also encountered by Mivart in his studies of primate skeletons (Is this the first network from conflicting datasets?).


Müller did not publish a complete phylogeny, but instead discussed how to produce one, and illustrated the practicality (and necessity) of doing so. In the process, he produced a simple three-taxon statement (which is not even numbered as a figure). Nevertheless, this cladogram is technically the first in print, pre-dating Mivart by a year. Darwin was right to recognize its importance, although he seemed to take a while to bring it to the attention of the English-speaking public. Furthermore, Müller was apparently the first to encounter the empirical difficulty of how to deal with conflicting data, which would produce different phylogenetic trees. This is an issue that is just as important today as it was then.

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