I have decided to conduct a series of interviews of prominent evolutionary biologists who work with trees, and post them on this blog. For the first of these, I interviewed Jack Sullivan, Editor-in-Chief of Systematic Biology and a professor in my department at the University of Idaho (photo at left, in his natural habitat). I asked Jack a few questions about the field of systematics and some related issues. It is probably worth noting that I didn’t have a tape recorder or anything like that with me, so Jack’s answers are paraphrased. Thanks to Jack for being my guinea pig, Jack; if there are errors below they are probably mine.
Question: What are the most exciting recent developments in systematics?
I think there are three. First, there are second-order statistical analyses that can now be applied across a sample of trees from a Bayesian posterior distribution. These include biogeography, comparative methods, and macroevolutionary tests. We used to have to rely on a single tree for our analyses; now we can do the same analyses accounting for phylogenetic uncertainty by sampling from the posterior distribution of trees. Second, the explicit accommodation of incongruence in analyses of multilocus data through the use of the coalescent. I think it will be really cool when we can use these approaches to differentiate between incongruence caused by coalescent stochasticity from that caused by nonvertical transmission such as horizontal gene transfer or hybridization. Third, the development of phylogenomics. I remember a symposium debate at the Evolution meetings when I was a graduate student in the early 1990s. The debate was about total evidence approaches versus other methods. During the debate, someone raised the question of, “If we could sequence every single nucleotide in the genome, would we then get the best possible estimate of the phylogeny?” I think that emerging datasets demonstrate that the answer to this question might be, “not necessarily.”
Question: What is the role of Editor-in-Chief of prominent journals?
It really depends on how heavy-handed you want to be. In our journal, Systematic Biology, content is really meant to be driven by the Society for Systematic Biology (SSB). Because of this, I have tried to be less heavy-handed in the journal’s direction. The direction of the journal should be driven by members of the society as reflected by submissions. There are some topics that I wish we had less submissions (for example, phylocode and DNA barcoding). When papers are submitted and go through review with positive results, I am very reluctant to reject them based on the subject matter.
Question: So you view the editors role as more of a service to the society rather than an opportunity to shape the field?
Both. The editor can shape the field by insisting on maintaining the highly rigorous standards for data analysis that Systematic Biology is known for, especially for empirical papers. Particular things that I require as EIC might differ from my predecessors.
Question: What is the difference between a good and a bad review of a paper?
The primary characteristic of an excellent review is that the reviewer has assumed the role of silent partner - this comes from Dick Olmstead when he was the editor. Reviewers do this because it has been done for them at the journal. We have an incredibly valuable tradition of rigorous yet constructive feedback in reviews.
Question: Do you have any advice for the next generation of systematists?
As early as possible, find your niche that differentiates you from all of your peers that are doing great work. You cannot just do “comparative biology of (fill in the blank)” or “molecular phylogeography of (fill in the blank).” Probably the easiest way to think about this is to imagine yourself on an airplane next to an intelligent layperson. Convey to them what is important about what you do in a manner that is unique. This is critical for the job search - it is a rare situation when the audience [of a job talk] is just phylogeneticists or even evolutionary biologists.
Question: OK now I’m going to ask you about two controversial groups. What is your take on the cladists?
The view that statistics are anathema to systematics is dead. All the vitality in the discipline is in statistical approaches.
Question: And how do you think we should respond to the creationists?
Fighting court battles require very different tactics than changing public opinion. To affect public opinion, there are two things we can do:
1. Publicly deconstruct the false dichotomy between macroevolution and microevolution.
2. Engage in a strong public outreach campaign over the importance of evolution in day to day life.
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