The Similarity Trap

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As we try to figure out the evolutionary trees for languages and species, we sometimes get led astray by similar but unrelated words and traits.

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To learn more, start your googling with these keywords:
Cladistics: A method of recreating evolutionary trees based on evidence about relationships.
Etymology: The study of the origin of words and how they have changed throughout history.
Convergent Evolution: A process whereby different species evolve similar traits in order to adapt to similar environments.
Polyphyly: A group containing members with multiple ancestral sources.
Homoplasy: A trait shared by a group of species that is not shared in their common ancestor.
False Cognates: Pairs of words with similar sounds and meanings but unrelated etymologies.

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Credits (and Twitter handles):
Script Writer: David Goldenberg (@dgoldenberg)
Script Editor: Emily Elert (@eelert)
Video Illustrator: Jessika Raisor
Video Director: David Goldenberg, Emily Elert
Video Narrator: Emily Elert
With Contributions From: Henry Reich, Alex Reich, Kate Yoshida, Ever Salazar, Peter Reich
Music by: Nathaniel Schroeder:

Image Credits:

Lappet-faced Vulture (Old World) – Steve Garvie,_Kenya-8.jpg

Turkey vulture (New World) – Flickr User minicooper93402
turkey vulture

Crested Porcupine (Old World) – Flickr user 57777529@N02

North American Porcupine (New World) –

Chinchilla lanigera – Nicolas Guérin

Naked Mole Rat – Roman Klementschitz

Ganges river dolphin – Zahangir Alom, NOAA (Public Domain)

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin – Flickr user 53344659@N05

Orcinus orcas – Robert Pittman, NOAA (Public Domain)

Euphorbia obesa – Frank Vincentz

Astrophytum asterias – David Midgley

Sweet William Dwarf – Nicholas M. Bashour


Atkinson, Q. and Gray, R. (2005). Darimont, C., Fox, C., Bryan, H., and Reimchen, C. (2015). Curious Parallels and Curious Connections — Phylogenetic Thinking in Biology and Historical Linguistics. Systematic Biology. 54:5 (513-526). Retrieved from:

Atkinson, Quentin. (2018). Personal Communication. Department of Evolution and Human Behavior at the University of Auckland.

Bennu, D. (2004). The Evolution of Birds: An Overview of the Avian Tree of Life. Lab Animal. 33 (42-28)). Retrieved from:

De La Fuente, J.(2010). Urban legends: Turkish kayık ‘boat’ and “Eskimo” qayaq ‘kayak’. Studia Linguistica. 127 (7-24). Retrieved from:

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