In his magum opus, Darwin famously evaded saying anything too explicit about the origin of species. Rather, the argument emerged as a consilience of trenchant observation, strategic apology and inspired mistake. A century and a half on, the mystery of mysteries may have inflated to the origin of phyla, but the approach remains very much the same. The only real issue is dealing with the avalanche of accumulating new data – and new kinds of data.

On the Origin of phyla does a superb job of data management and, at one level, serves simply as a review of where...

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