Willi Hennig (1913—1976): His Life, Legacy and the Future of Phylogenetic Systematics


A joint event with the Linnean Society of London, Natural History Museum and the Systematics Association.

Willi Hennig (1913—1976)

Wednesday 27th November 2013

Willi Hennig (1913—1976) arguably exerted the strongest theoretical influence on the practice and course of systematic biology of anyone since Charles Darwin. A dipterist by speciality, Hennig did not simply study flies but considered a whole host of issues pertinent to biological classification, writing on the science of taxonomy and systematics, revising and promoting discussion on topics such as the precise meaning of relationship, the nature of systematic evidence and how these matters impinge on a general understanding of monophyly, homology and our knowledge of the processes of evolution. It would not seem unreasonable to suggest that nearly all comparative biology has been altered because of his contribution. For the most part, those contributions had a major impact in the English-speaking world through his 1966 book Phylogenetic Systematics (reprinted in 1979 and again in 1999), which, oddly enough, at the time of its original publication, was not greeted with enthusiasm by most reviewers, who “generally failed to perceive the possibilities in applying Hennig’s approach…” (Rosen et al. 1979, in the Forward to the first republishing of Phylogenetic Systematics). Phylogenetic Systematics, or cladistics as it is more widely known, slowly but steadily, began to permeate almost every sphere of systematic biology, from prokaryotes to mammals, from those exploring the emerging areas of molecular biology, to those still attempting to gain the evolutionary significance of wing venation in insects.

group of organisms

The Linnean Society has been especially significant in the early dissemination of Hennig’s ideas, sponsoring perhaps the first symposium exploring cladistics with respect to a group of organisms (Interrelationships of Fishes, Academic Press, 1973), assisting and encouraging the first reprinting ofPhylogenetic Systematics and awarding Hennig their Gold medal (Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 6: 375).

In 2013, if Hennig had lived, he would have been 100 years old. This day meeting has been put together with the aim of celebrating that anniversary and has been organised to explore details of the man, his ideas and how they have affected systematic biology – and perhaps of greatest significance, how his ideas and influence will continue to do so. It is also timely that the first in depth biography of Hennig, From Taxonomy to Phylogenetics. Life and Work of Willi Hennig (Brill 2013), has been published this year and its author, Michael Schmitt, will be present to give an overview. This will take place as an evening lecture (18.00 - 19.00 which is open to all.


Andy Brower, Leandro C. S. Assis, Gareth Nelson, Michael Schmitt, Ole Seberg, Pascal Tassy, Charissa Varma, David Williams, Willi Xylander, René Zaragüeta i Bagils, and Quentin Wheeler

To view the programme, please click here

Registration for this event is essential. Please download our registration form

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