Cladistics is an approach to biological classification in which organisms are categorized in groups ("clades") based on the most recent common ancestor. Hypothesized relationships are typically based on shared derived characteristics (synapomorphies) that can be traced to the most recent common ancestor and are not present in more distant groups and ancestors. A key feature of a clade is that a common ancestor and all its descendants are part of the clade. Importantly, all descendants stay in their overarching ancestral clade. For example, if within a strict cladistic framework the terms animals, bilateria/worms, fishes/vertebrata, or monkeys/anthropoidea were used, these terms would include humans. Many of these terms are normally used paraphyletically, outside of cladistics, e.g. as a 'grade'. Radiation results in the generation of new subclades by bifurcation, but in practice sexual hybridization may blur very closely related groupings.
Originally conceived, if only in essence, by Willi Hennig in a book published in 1950, cladistics did not flourish until its translation into English in 1966 (Lewin 1997). Today, cladistics is the most popular method for constructing phylogenies from morphological data.
The cladistic method interprets each character state transformation implied by the distribution of shared character states among taxa (or other terminals) as a potential piece of evidence for grouping. The outcome of a cladistic analysis is a cladogram a tree-shaped diagram (dendrogram) that is interpreted to represent the best hypothesis of phylogenetic relationships. Although traditionally such cladograms were generated largely on the basis of morphological characters and originally calculated by hand, genetic sequencing data and computational phylogenetics are now commonly used in phylogenetic analyses, and the parsimony criterion has been abandoned by many phylogeneticists in favor of more "sophisticated" but less parsimonious evolutionary models of character state transformation. Cladists contend that these models are unjustified.
The cladogram to the right represents the current universally accepted hypothesis that all primates, including strepsirrhines like the lemurs and lorises, had a common ancestor all of whose descendants were primates, and so form a clade; the name Primates is therefore recognized for this clade. Within the primates, all anthropoids (monkeys, apes and humans) are hypothesized to have had a common ancestor all of whose descendants were anthropoids, so they form the clade called Anthropoidea. The "prosimians", on the other hand, form a paraphyletic taxon. The name Prosimii is not used in phylogenetic nomenclature, which names only clades; the "prosimians" are instead divided between the clades Strepsirhini and Haplorhini, where the latter contains Tarsiiformes and Anthropoidea.
A character state is homoplastic or "an instance of homoplasy" if it is shared by two or more organisms but is absent from their common ancestor or from a later ancestor in the lineage leading to one of the organisms. It is therefore inferred to have evolved by convergence or reversal. Both mammals and birds are able to maintain a high constant body temperature (i.e., they are warm-blooded). However, the accepted cladogram explaining their significant features indicates that their common ancestor is in a group lacking this character state, so the state must have evolved independently in the two clades. Warm-bloodedness is separately a synapomorphy of mammals (or a larger clade) and of birds (or a larger clade), but it is not a synapomorphy of any group including both these clades. Hennig's Auxiliary Principle states that shared character states should be considered evidence of grouping unless they are contradicted by the weight of other evidence; thus, homoplasy of some feature among members of a group may only be inferred after a phylogenetic hypothesis for that group has been established.
It can be difficult to decide whether a character state is in fact the same and thus can be classified as a synapomorphy, which may identify a monophyletic group, or whether it only appears to be the same and is thus a homoplasy, which cannot identify such a group. There is a danger of circular reasoning: assumptions about the shape of a phylogenetic tree are used to justify decisions about character states, which are then used as evidence for the shape of the tree. Phylogenetics uses various forms of parsimony to decide such questions; the conclusions reached often depend on the dataset and the methods. Such is the nature of empirical science, and for this reason, most cladists refer to their cladograms as hypotheses of relationship. Cladograms that are supported by a large number and variety of different kinds of characters are viewed as more robust than those based on more limited evidence.
Cladistics, either generally or in specific applications, has been criticized from its beginnings. Decisions as to whether particular character states are homologous, a precondition of their being synapomorphies, have been challenged as involving circular reasoning and subjective judgements. Transformed cladistics arose in the late 1970s in an attempt to resolve some of these problems by removing phylogeny from cladistic analysis, but it has remained unpopular.
In organisms with sexual reproduction, incomplete lineage sorting may result in inconsistent phylogenetic trees, depending on which genes are assessed. It is also possible that multiple surviving lineages are generated while interbreeding is still significantly occurring (polytomy). Interbreeding is possible over periods of about 10 million years. Typically speciation occurs over only about 1 million years, which makes it less likely multiple long surviving lineages developed "simultaneously". Even so, interbreeding can result in a lineage being overwhelmed and absorbed by a related more numerous lineage. Simulation studies suggest that phylogenetic trees are most accurately recovered from data that is morphologically coherent (i.e. where closely related organisms share the highest proportion of characters). This relationships is weaker in data generated under selection, potentially due to convergent evolution.
The comparisons used to acquire data on which cladograms can be based are not limited to the field of biology. Any group of individuals or classes that are hypothesized to have a common ancestor, and to which a set of common characteristics may or may not apply, can be compared pairwise. Cladograms can be used to depict the hypothetical descent relationships within groups of items in many different academic realms. The only requirement is that the items have characteristics that can be identified and measured.
Textual criticism or stemmatics: Cladistic methods have been used to reconstruct the phylogeny of manuscripts of the same work (and reconstruct the lost original) using distinctive copying errors as apomorphies. This differs from traditional historical-comparative linguistics in enabling the editor to evaluate and place in genetic relationship large groups of manuscripts with large numbers of variants that would be impossible to handle manually. It also enables parsimony analysis of contaminated traditions of transmission that would be impossible to evaluate manually in a reasonable period of time.