I'm a researcher in another field who has wandered into a problem with applications to biology. I hope to sell my results by making the following statement:

Given two species X and Y, it is "easier" for biologists to decide whether or not X is an evolutionary ancestor of Y, than it is for them to determine the distance between X and Y in the (unknown) evolutionary tree.

Question 1: Is this statement true in any meaningful sense? Is it cheaper, less time-consuming, or more accurate to measure ancestry than to measure distance? Or are the two tasks roughly the same?

Question 2: A reference request - what papers/textbooks could I read/cite to back up this statement?

Thank you!

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In short, extant species are not ancestors of one another because, even if they are sister taxa, each has its own separate evolutionary history since they diverged. So, no to question 1. $\endgroup$
    – kmm
    Aug 9, 2015 at 18:42
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Do you consider both X and Y to be extant species, or could X be a fossil? It might not make a difference theoretically (see the comment from @kmm), but in practice fossil species are sometimes viewed as representatives of ancestor species to extant species (or to more recent fossil species). $\endgroup$ Aug 10, 2015 at 14:48

1 Answer 1


If you take two modern species (let's denote them with A and B) you can't really say that A is an ancestor of B or vice-versa, but you can say that they are related to some extent, that is they have a common ancestor that lived X years ago. But then all eukaryotes are believed to have a common ancestor that lived an eon ago. Hence the notion of phylogenetic relatedness is relative by definition. That means that all species are related, but when you take a bunch of them you can try to reconstruct the order of speciation. This can be achieved by calculating distances (e.g. genetic sequence distances, morphological distances) and applying an evolutionary model. A brief summary is that you NEED to have a sort of distance to investigate ancestry in the first place and then you clearly NEED more than 2 species for your phylogenetic constructs to make any sense.

Since I find that your statement makes little sense, obviously I can't find a reference to bake your words. But I can give you an exhaustive list of good phylogenetics textbooks for your erudition.


I believe that one thing is worth a remark. In fact it is easier to correctly reconstruct the order of speciation events than it is to precisely estimate any sort of evolutionary distance, because the distances we have are models. Simply put they approximate the number of evolutionary events that have happened since the last common ancestor of some species (or better to say the last common set of genomic and/or phenotypic traits, because speciation is a lot more than simple trait-wise divergence). From this point of view you might say that it's easier to estimate ancestry than it is to estimate distance, but then you will be over-simplifying things to such an extent, that you will drop the fact that there is no way you can speak about ancestry without having some distance estimations in the first place. The precision of distance estimations is a separate topic. So your statement will make a lot more sense if you modify it accordingly.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .