Evolving Thoughts

Envall troll has his own blog

Once upon a time, I made mention, simply a mention, of a paper by one Matts Envall, which I said I would later comment on. I did so because a friend of mine, Malte Ebach, told me about him and the paper. I have yet to appropriately thank Malte. My gratitude involves a water balloon, I think.

This alone was the trigger for Envall to come along to my blog and start comment bombing. I have in my spam folder over 350 comments, most of which are cut and paste. Independently of his views, of which more anon, his behaviour – spamming, using fake email addresses and changing IP numbers to avoid bans, insulting anyone who he thought was wrong – was unacceptable, so I warned him, and then banned him. He remains the only person I have banned form this blog; even creationists are permitted to comment. Fortunately Moveable Type 4 has the requisite ways to filter trolls.

Envall is on a mission. He thinks that cladism is an ideology the way Randroids think Stalinism is an ideology – malign, evil, morally bankrupt and not even aesthetically attractive. The One True Way to classify is Linnaeus’s. Cladistics is anti-evolution, anti-truth and anti-God. Okay, I made that last one up, but it may as well be. If he spots someone like me, then he will try to bully his way into getting heard, to the extent, I am told, of bothering editors until they publish his rather incoherent “arguments” (I wouldn’t mind if there were actual arguments, but they are just a series of assertions without the slightest argumentation).

But, in the interests of fairness, he now has his own bully pulpit and I recommend anyone who cares to go visit. Learn about the Evils Of Cladism and its Disciples. Yep, he actually uses that word – he even calls me a “disciple” of Gary Nelson. Which is highly ironic, since I disagree with Gary on one or two points of emphasis, and when I first contacted him about being my advisor, I told him I was an “orthodox neo-Darwinian”. Gary’s response was “Let’s leave labels aside and just deal with the material”, which I did. If I have come to similar views to Gary or anyone else, it is because I got there on my own mental train. For example, I think pattern cladism has a much more limited point than Gary or Malte do. I tend to be more gene centric than many of my developmentalist friends. I am more selectionist than most of my friends in the business, too. But Envall won’t let any of that sully the prophecy, I bet.

This is the last time I will ever mention or even acknowledge the existence of Envall. He’s a silly little boy who wants everyone to think just like him in a war of attrition, and he’s not worth the effort. Your mileage may vary though, so have fun.


  1. #1 jeff
    February 18, 2009

    Once upon a time I had a software business, which attracted a unique, persistent, and perplexing customer (from Denmark) very much like Matts. Take my word for it, there’s little you can do. You must suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

  2. #2 John S. Wilkins
    February 18, 2009

    I would, if only there was a way I could make money off him…

  3. #3 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 18, 2009

    Dude, do you think I would find the cladism-anticladism battles entertaining enough that it would be worth my while to try to figure out what cladism is?

  4. #4 Bob O'H
    February 18, 2009

    I though the cladism-anticladism had died down, as both sides have become so entrenched they don’t even swear at each other any more. So they’re both being swept aside by the Bayesians. Which is not, and has never been, controversial. Oh no.

  5. #5 Sam C
    February 18, 2009

    Are the Wars of the Clades still going on?

    When I first encountered cladistics in the mid-1980s, it seemed to bring a nice clarity of thought, especially on highlighting the useful difference between advanced and primitive character states, but at the cost of signing up to be A True Believer. I found it uncomfortable that cladists seemed to be suggesting that we should ignore the biology and the genetics, just look at the character states.

    But the nay-sayers then didn’t seem to be offering much positive in return, other than using the methods of exploratory data analysis excessively and inappropriately. And they too seemed to be ignoring the genetics. And it seemed obvious to me that relatedness would generally be more interesting than superficial similarity.

    I’m rather surprised to hear that there’s still a lot of squabbling going on, now that we have DNA sequencing to sort out a lot of issues (or to at least expose the issues that aren’t sorted out).

    It was all rather distasteful; in biology, I think one needs a box with a range of tools in it and the knowledge to select the appropriate tool. Sometimes multivariate analysis is the biz, sometimes analysis of binary characters. Is that so difficult? Or must one tool fit all circumstances?

    I’m glad I never went beyond doing a course in taxonomy; it’s useful, but it’s best to have other people doing it!

  6. #6 Roberto Keller
    February 18, 2009

    From the About page in his blog:”My hobby is to disclose that cladism is inconsistent (that is, self-contradictory) and empirically wrong.”

    Wow, just wow. And I thought that collecting ceramic dogs was already a distasteful hobby.

  7. #7 Ben Breuer
    February 18, 2009

    Slightly off-topic: Is there a reasonable definition for biological character, or does it depend more on biologists’ use? (Suffice it to say, I’m not experienced in any way in cladistics, so if somebody like Hennig defined “character” I wouldn’t know.)

    I’m asking partly to see how the biological terminology maps onto characteristics of cultural products. (Expansion of my dissertation topic.)

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    February 19, 2009

    At some point, I think, cladism went through a phase similar to DNA phylogeny. It got a lot of truthiness stuck to it and many of the practitioners became obnoxious. Everyone who is interested in cladism should read that book by Funk, an anthology assembled early in modern cladism’s history that you get a sense of the basic philosophical approach, which is really key.

    Some cladists are still stuck in the “cladism is truth” modality.

    Well, it is truth, but not because it is cladism and not because of very many of the specific methodologies. And everyone has forgotten that the reason cladism=truth is because of the original definition, which was not mechanistic, but rather, that cladism is the idea that the only good phylogeny is a true phylogeny. This is a sentence that while critically important many modern cladists can’t understand at all because they think a “phylogeny” is not cladistic.

    OK, going over there now to read About John Wilkin’s Blog.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    February 19, 2009

    Wow, that guy’s funny. Well, it’s a link farm, John, this can only be good for you in the long run.

  10. #10 Wes
    February 19, 2009

    Cladistics (i.e., cladism) equalizes time and space, thereby denying that time can be relative to space, which it, none the less, is. It means that the fact that time is relative falsifies cladistics (i.e., cladism). Cladistics (i.e., cladism is thus wrong (by the scientific measure).


    In a historical light, however, it will be compared with nazism. Its rational basis is just as absent, and its oppression is just as present. It is also the power of the stupid. When, I don’t say if, it is defeated, there will be “räfst and rättarting” as we say in Sweden. Things will be put in their proper places.


    This is a dilemma for cladists if they aim at finding the true phylogeny, but a dilemma for the rest of us if they don’t. If cladists are persons that only aim at a career with a good position as a professor somewhere and a good wage, then cladism is not a dilemma for them (rather the opposite, that is, golden pants), but a dilemma for the rest of us.


    Cladistics (i.e., cladism) is wrong, that is, does not agree with facts. It is as wrong as nazism, racism, nationalism, communism, utopianism, capitalism, egoism, islamism, christianism are. It is just as wrong as all proactive -isms are. Our problem is not to change the world, change occurs by necessity, but reacting against unwanted change. Reacting may appear to require proaction in some instances, but such proaction is impossible since we don’t know when its needed until it is too late. On the contrary, proactive -isms are among those things we have to react against. Science is neither a reaction nor a proaction. It is a way to discuss reality as it is, that is, as facts say it is. Cladism abandons science entering the world of proaction and reaction, and it means that it is just as wrong as all other such -isms are. It does not agree with facts.

    At this point, I think I’ll just give up and score the guy 0.3 TimeCubes.

  11. #11 Thony C.
    February 19, 2009

    The game is up Wilkins! Now that The Great Matt has subjected the whole of Evolving Thought to a penetrating and devastating analysis and dissected it with his razor sharp hyper logic there is nothing left for you to do but shut up shop as the now disillusioned readers abandon this cruelly exposed degenerate pit of cladistic iniquity.

  12. #12 Susan Silberstein
    February 19, 2009

    Randroids, you say? Splitter! The only true Libertarian Stalin haters are the Rose Wilder Laneists.

  13. #13 Michael Fugate
    February 19, 2009

    Is this a Sweden (Linne) vs German (Hennig) thing for Mats?

  14. #14 Jim Thomerson
    February 23, 2009

    It is unfortunate that when cladisim came to the USA (via Gary Nelson, according to the story I heard)that it attracted strong and dogmatic advocates, such as the late Donn Rosen, who preached it as fundamentalist truth. This turned me and and many others off, and delayed the general acceptance of the idea more than it advanced it, in my opinion. It was often referred to as the “cladistic religion” in the same sense as creationists refer to evolution as a religion. It was a turbulent time and a lot of bad science and hurt feelings were generated. It was not until the mid-90’s that I published my first phylogenetic tree, which is not supported by later DNA studies.

  15. #15 PZ Myers
    February 24, 2009

    Man, that guy loves you, truly and deeply and obsessively. Very stalkerish.

    You’ve finally hit the big time, John.

  16. #16 David Marjanović, OM
    March 4, 2009

    What I don’t get is why anyone considers the science of phylogenetics an ideology, an -ism.

    I though the cladism-anticladism had died down, as both sides have become so entrenched they don’t even swear at each other any more.

    Nah. In many fields the anticladists have either learned where their misunderstandings lied, or died out.

    So they’re both being swept aside by the Bayesians.

    Bayesian analysis is of course cladistics, too. It just makes slightly more complicated assumptions than Hennig did.

    I’m rather surprised to hear that there’s still a lot of squabbling going on, now that we have DNA sequencing to sort out a lot of issues (or to at least expose the issues that aren’t sorted out).

    When you sequence DNA, and then align the sequences, you get a data matrix. What do you do to get from a data matrix to a phylogenetic hypothesis?

    That’s right. Molecular phylogenetics is cladistics.

    I don’t quite understand the rest of your comment. For example, phylogenetics and taxonomy are in principle orthogonal… the outcome of a cladistic analysis is a well-tested phylogenetic hypothesis, not a classification.

    Is there a reasonable definition for biological character

    No, and that’s part of the reason why phenetics is extinct*. There is a reasonable definition for “phylogenetically informative character”, however: you can test if a character contains phylogenetic signal. The simplest way is to take a tree you consider halfway plausible, map the character on it, and count the steps; then make, say, 10,000 trees, map the character on all of them, and count the steps on each tree (all that is implemented in Mesquite, for example); if the character requires fewer steps on the original tree than on 95 % of the random trees, it carries phylogenetic signal at the 95 % confidence level. Used, for example, in Laurin 2004 (Syst. Biol.).

    * Except among those few people who still do neighbor-joining because they don’t know what it does.

  17. #17 David Marjanović
    March 4, 2009

    (There’s also a method for detecting phylogenetic signal that doesn’t require a tree, and evaluates all characters in a matrix at once. Problem is, there’s no ready-made computer program for it, and it’s really scary computationally, so it’s only been used twice, both times by Robin O’Keefe, once in his thesis and once in a Syst. Biol. paper with Peter Wagner in September 2001.)

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