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Biology LibreTexts

2.1: Introduction

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  • Evolution is the product of a thousand stories. Individual organisms are born, reproduce, and die. The net result of these individual life stories over broad spans of time is evolution. At first glance, it might seem impossible to model this process over more than one or two generations. And yet scientific progress relies on creating simple models and confronting them with data. How can we evaluate models that consider evolution over millions of generations?

    There is a solution: we can rely on the properties of large numbers to create simple models that represent, in broad brushstrokes, the types of changes that take place over evolutionary time. We can then compare these models to data in ways that will allow us to gain insights into evolution.

    This book is about constructing and testing mathematical models of evolution. In my view the best comparative approaches have two features. First, the most useful methods emphasize parameter estimation over test statistics and P-values. Ideal methods fit models that we care about and estimate parameters that have a clear biological interpretation. To be useful, methods must also recognize and quantify uncertainty in our parameter estimates. Second, many useful methods involve model selection, the process of using data to objectively select the best model from a set of possibilities. When we use a model selection approach, we take advantage of the fact that patterns in empirical data sets will reject some models as implausible and support the predictions of others. This sort of approach can be a nice way to connect the results of a statistical analysis to a particular biological question.

    In this chapter, I will first give a brief overview of standard hypothesis testing in the context of phylogenetic comparative methods. However, standard hypothesis testing can be limited in complex, real-world situations, such as those encountered commonly in comparative biology. I will then review two other statistical approaches, maximum likelihood and Bayesian analysis, that are often more useful for comparative methods. This latter discussion will cover both parameter estimation and model selection.

    All of the basic statistical approaches presented here will be applied to evolutionary problems in later chapters. It can be hard to understand abstract statistical concepts without examples. So, throughout this part of the chapter, I will refer back to a simple example.

    A common simple example in statistics involves flipping coins. To fit with the theme of this book, however, I will change this to flipping a lizard (needless to say, do not try this at home!). Suppose you have a lizard with two sides, “heads” and “tails.” You want to flip the lizard to help make decisions in your life. However, you do not know if this is a fair lizard, where the probability of obtaining heads is 0.5, or not. Perhaps, for example, lizards have a cat-like ability to right themselves when flipped. As an experiment, you flip the lizard 100 times, and obtain heads 63 of those times. Thus, 63 heads out of 100 lizard flips is your data; we will use model comparisons to try to see what these data tell us about models of lizard flipping.