A central task of ancestral character state reconstruction is determining the direction or polarity of evolutionary change between alternative states of a character. The ancestral state is referred to as plesiomorphic or primitive, and the descendent state is referred to as apomorphic or derived. Establishing the polarity of a character state transformation is critical to understanding the functional significance of that event. Phenotypes determined to be primitive simply mean they precede the derived state in time and are not necessarily functionally inferior. It is often, although by no means always, the case that characters evolve from more simple to more complex states, or from the absence of a particular state to the presence of that state.
There are several methods in use to determine character state polarity. The most widely used method is the so-called outgroup criterion, which employs conditions observed in members of clades other than the clade in which the derived state is present. The basic idea of the outgroup criterion is that for a given character with two or more states within a group, the state occurring in related groups is assumed to represent the plesiomorphic state. In other words, the outgroup criterion states that if one character is found in both ingroup and outgroup, this character is then postulated to be the ancestral state (plesiomorphic). Of course, it is always possible that a given outgroup exhibits an independently derived state of a given character, which is why the condition in several outgroup taxa is regarded as a more reliable test of the plesio-morphic condition.
Was this article helpful?