The Linguistic Problem of Morphology

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The overwhelming morphological diversity, the long history of anatomical research, and the various disparate traditions of taxon-centered morphological communities resulted in the Linguistic Problem of Morphology (LPM) (Vogt 2008, 2009; Vogt et al. 2010):

  • lack of a commonly accepted, standardized, taxon-independent morphological terminology that is free of homology assumptions (i.e. insufficient concept and nomenclatural standards);
  • lack of a commonly accepted standardized and formalized method for describing anatomical entities (i.e. insufficient content and format standards); and
  • lack of a rationale for the delimitation of morphological units.

LPM can lead to identical coding of anatomically differing traits in a phylogenetic character matrix. LPM hampers the cooperation of morphologists of different taxonomic backgrounds, sometimes forcing them to trace back change of meaning of a specific term by different authors in different time periods, thereby significantly slowing down scientific progress. LPM impedes the accessibility of morphological data to non-morphologists, often leaving the impression that morphological research is more prone to subjectivity than other biological disciplines, therewith weakening the reputation of morphology within the biological community (Vogt et al. 2010). Ultimately, LMP prevents morphology from taking part in eScience (Vogt et al. 2013).

Fortunately, the need for developing a taxon-independent morphological terminology that is free of implicit homology assumptions and the need to change the way in which anatomical entities should be described has been recognized and involves the use of ontologies (Vogt 2008, 2009, 2011; Dahdul et al. 2010; Yoder et al. 2010; Vogt et al. 2010, 2013; Serna et al. 2011; Deans et al. 2012; Mungall et al. 2012).