Patterson, Colin

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(b. Hammersmith, London, United Kingdom, 13 October 1933; d. Chelsea, London, 9 March 1998), zoology, ichthyology, paleontology, systematics, evolution, cladistics.

Patterson was the major player in the cladistic reform of paleontology of the 1970s. From his perspective in 1997, the process “began in the late 1960s, accelerated in the 1970s, and was virtually complete by the eighties” (p.4). This was the period in which the traditional method in paleontology, the search for ancestors, was abandoned in favor of the search for the sister group—for evidence of the nearest relative, either fossilized and extinct, or currently alive in the geological Recent. It was a period of controversy over basic principles, over different paradigms, and scientific revolution, in the sense of Thomas Kuhn. Patterson’s success in this endeavor stemmed from his empirical studies of fossil and Recent fishes, his employment in the British Museum (Natural History) with its human and material resources, and his open nature, curiosity, and lack of pretension—his “intellectual honesty” as Niels Bonde put it in 1999 (p. 258).

Career Patterson was born in London in 1933, the only child of Maurice William Patterson (1908–1991), branch manager of the Midland Bank, and Norah Joan Elliott (1907–1984), a secretary. In 1942 wartime evacuation put him in the Hill Place School, Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucester. In 1947 he attended Tonbridge School, Kent. After national service in the Royal Engineers, he attended Imperial College, London, on a state scholarship (1955–1957), obtained first-class honors in zoology, and received the Forbes Medal for the best performance in final examinations in biology. On 9 April 1955 he married Rachel Caridwen Richards (b. 1932), artist and elder daughter of artists Ceri Giraldus Richards CBE, D Litt, F.R.C.A., and Frances Clayton ARCA. Two daughters were born, Sarah and Jane.

In 1957 Patterson was appointed assistant lecturer at Guy’s Hospital Medical School, and following his friend Brian Gardiner began PhD study at University College with Kenneth A. Kermack. His research was on Mesozoic fishes, specimens of which he borrowed from the British Museum and from the Geological Survey Museum, and prepared and studied in the laboratory of George Eric Howard Foxon, head of the Biology Department of the Medical School. After three years he received the PhD from London University in 1961, and in June 1962 was appointed senior scientific officer in the Department of Palaeontology of the British Museum (Natural History), where he remained, nominally retiring in October 1993, continuing as honorary research fellow until his death.

He was regularly promoted, and shortly before retirement was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London in March 1993. He was active in the Linnean Society of London, serving terms as councilor (1970–1973, 1979–1984), zoological editor (1977–1982), vice president (1980–1981), and editorial secretary (1982–1985); posthumously in 1998 he received the Annual Medal for Zoology (the society’s highest award), accepted by daughter Sarah Patterson.

Other honors and awards came from the Zoological Society of London (Scientific Medal, 1972, to a zoologist of forty years or younger, in recognition of scientific merit), the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (Honorary Foreign Member, 1985), the Willi Hennig Society (Fellow Honoris Causa), and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (Romer-Simpson Medal, 1997, for sustained and outstanding scholarly excellence). He was research associate in ichthyology of the American Museum of Natural History from 1968; Agassiz Visiting Lecturer, Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in 1970; visiting scientist, University of Michigan, in 1987. He served on advisory panels on biology in Sweden (Swedish Natural Sciences Research Council) and France (Ministry of Education). His final official appointment, in 1997, was to the Science Board of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

His research continued in retirement, and he was mortally stricken by a heart attack while bicycling from home to the Natural History Museum—the new name, use of which he resisted, dating from the Museums and Galleries Act of 1992. He was survived by his wife and daughters.

Fishes Critical to his PhD study were methods developed by Harry Ashley Toombs, technical assistant to Errol Ivor White, keeper of palaeontology at the British Museum (Natural History) and future examiner of Patterson’s thesis. To Patterson, Toombs “revolutionized the study of small fossil vertebrates” (1987b, p. 192). The material assigned by White for Patterson’s PhD—fossil fishes of the English Chalk—proved ideal for Toombs’s methods of acid preparation. In Patterson’s words:

I spent months dunking lumps of chalk in and out of 2% acetic acid, and soon discovered that once you had dissolved the chalk away you got something almost like a Recent skeleton: I could find all the details of the braincase …, same thing with the jaws, palate, paired fin girdles…. I could describe these things in such excruciating detail. (1995, p. 4)

This rich source of information naturally led to detailed comparison with Recent fishes, those alive today, and collaboration with Peter Humphry Greenwood of the Department of Zoology of the museum. In September 1963 Greenwood, with Donn Eric Rosen (American Museum of Natural History, New York) and Stanley H. Weitzman (National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.), were recruited by George Sprague Myers, Stanford University, to rework the classification of Recent teleostean fishes, including some twenty thousand species, with “provisional” results published in 1966. Patterson was drawn into this wide-ranging project and began extensive “Recent-fossil” collaborations with Rosen, and later with G. David Johnson (National Museum of Natural History), resulting in significant publications dealing with the whole range of teleostean diversity—roughly equivalent to that of the assemblage of land vertebrates, including birds, and its extensive fossil record. His informative reviews and overviews of his various research projects were models of clarity, highly appreciated by the scientific community.

A colleague close to Patterson commented on his prodigious memory. From 1962 onwards he would once a week peruse all the individual libraries in the Natural History Museum—combing the journals and new books as they appeared and reading every paper he considered relevant. This ever-increasing memory bank, coupled with his innate curiosity, not only provided him with the information for his own inductive reasoning but also allowed him to advise his colleagues on their numerous scientific problems. (Gardiner, 1998)

Cladistics In 1966 appeared a publication by the senior entomologist of the Swedish Museum of Natural History, Stockholm (Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet), that upset and recast Patterson’s basic frame of reference. Patterson wrote in 1995:

the week …I got back from New York, … I [was told] that there was something new in the Library that might interest me. It was this,…Lars Brundin’s 500-page monograph on chironomid midges, at first sight an unlikely place to find enlightenment. The Museum date stamp—17th April 1967—fixes the week when I first saw it. I don't know if anyone reads Brundin these days, but he was my first introduction to [Willi] Hennig and phylogenetic systematics, what we now call cladistics. The first fifty pages of this are still a wonderfully clear and strong statement of Hennig’s ideas. I was bowled over by it and became an instant convert. (p. 9)

Thus began the long and convoluted discussion about cladistics, which continues into the early twenty-first century in new dimensions provided by amino-acid sequences of proteins, and nucleotide sequences of nucleic acids, DNA and RNA. Patterson likened the whole to an underground rabbit-warren with a single exit. This metaphor reflects his own perception of the general problem and its solution, which begins and ends with Hennig’s concept of paraphyly and its reflection in the traditional literature of paleontology and evolution.

An Internet search on the term paraphyly returns some hundreds of thousands of items. The term was invented by the entomologist Hennig in 1962, and was used first with reference to the relationships between certain insects. He meant it to apply to an artifactual, or mistaken, assemblage of organisms (Zygoptera, or damselflies) whose only characters in common he thought primitive relative to those of a related group (Anisozygoptera-Anisoptera, or dragonflies). A simpler example would be nonvertebrate animals (invertebrates), or nonhuman anthropoids (apes), or non-Greek-speaking humans (“barbarians” in the classical sense). Patterson’s insight is that the ancestral groups of traditional paleontology are all paraphyletic and therefore artifactual, both in theory and in practice:

Evolutionary relationship includes an additional type, ancestor-descendant relationship. And it is this type that fossils are expected to document. When viewed as relationship between two groups, descent means that one (the ancestral group) is paraphyletic—characterized only by lack of homologies rather than their presence. Most fossil-based theories of relationship concern such groups. The superficial attraction of these stories, apparent illumination of the history of life, has bolstered the belief that fossils determine evolutionary relationships. Yet extinct paraphyletic groups seem to me to obscure rather than illuminate relationships, for they exist not in nature but in the minds of evolutionists. Such groups lead to a sterile inversion of problems of relationships, which come to depend not on comparative analysis of what is accessible—the Recent biota—but on juggling what is inaccessible—uncharacterizable abstractions from the fossil record. (1981, pp. 218–219)

In its simplicity, Patterson’s is a logical argument: to state that vertebrates evolved from invertebrates (or humans from apes, or Greeks from barbarians) means only that vertebrates evolved from nonvertebrates (or humans from nonhumans, or Greeks from nonGreeks)—a truism empty of meaning because it specifies no recognizable entity among nonvertebrates (or among nonhumans or non-Greeks). In its complexity, Patterson’s is an empirical claim that the traditional literature of paleontology and evolution actually conforms to this logical simplicity devoid of meaning. Can the claim really be true? Apparently it was true enough to power a wave of change within paleontology, which effectively gave up the search for ancestors, replacing it with “the search for the sister group” as shown by shared characters actually present, not primitive ones such as absences (no vertebrae, no language, no knowledge of Greek). Extinct relatives (sister-groups) of birds, for example, some dinosaurs, are recognized by the presence of feathers. The call for this more general search Patterson saw as the “heart of Brundin’s paper,” such that “much of the hundreds of pages on systematic theory and method published by morphologists during the last 20 years is embroidery on and exploration of Brundin’s message” (1989, p. 472).

This insight did not arise, fully formed, all at once. Initially, Brundin was invited to lecture to the participants in Nobel Symposium 4, “Current Problems of Lower Vertebrate Phylogeny” (June 1967, Stockholm), with Greenwood, Patterson, and Roger Miles in attendance. Eventually this trio from the British Museum organized their own symposium, in the Linnean Society of London, on “Interrelationships of Fishes.” According to Patterson:

our hidden agenda was cladistics, to get as many groups of fishes as possible worked over in the new cladistics framework. The symposium volume came out in 1973 [Patterson et al.]. We didn't manage to raise a complete cast of cladists but I think this was the first multi-author volume, anywhere in biology, in which the overall message is cladistics. It has a certain historical significance. (1995, pp. 11–12)

A flood of literature followed throughout the world, and established cladistics as the “traditional” method of the early 2000s, replacing what is often termed the school of “evolutionary systematics” with its ancestor-descendant sequences of groups, such as fishes-amphibians-reptiles-mammals, all but the last, like invertebrates, paraphyletic in Hennig’s terms.

Controversies Two peripheral controversies may be mentioned. The first followed Patterson’s evening lecture in November 1981 to the Systematics Discussion Group of the American Museum of Natural History, titled “Evolutionism and Creationism,” the text of which was published posthumously in 2002. Previously inspired by Louis Agassiz, Patterson attempted to look at systematics from a nonevolutionary standpoint so as to put in relief the meaning, if any, of evolutionary theory. A creationist in the audience recorded Patterson’s lecture, an inaccurate transcript of which, over Patterson’s objection and to his dismay, was then used to promote creationism in the United States, with reverberations to the present day. Patterson stated:

One of the reasons I started taking a non-evolutionary view was my sudden realization after working, as I thought, on evolution for 20 years, that I knew nothing whatever about it. (2002,p. 15)

The second was provoked in the mid-1970s by Lambert Beverly Halstead Tarlo, chronicled by Steven Schafersman in 1985, and for which Patterson had a kindly last word (1991). It began with Halstead’s (1978) criticism, published in Nature(London), of new British Museum exhibits with explicit cladistic content. This meant, among other things, that although fossils were on display, none was identified as ancestral to humans. Patterson remarked at the time: “Fossils may tell us many things, but one thing they can never disclose is whether they were ancestors of anything else” (1978, p. 133; 1998 reprint, p. 109.

As it developed, cladistics spawned various computer implementations, relying upon data, whether morphological or molecular, organized in the form of a two-way matrix of groups × characters, with entries consisting basically of zeros and ones—the matrix taken from the “numerical taxonomy” of an earlier time. Program output is in the form of one or more tree diagrams of the groups, showing some related more closely than to others—the sister-group relationships of the early cladists. An informative output tree depends upon an optimization criterion and procedure, whereby data can be said to fit one tree better than all other possible trees. For example, birds and their extinct (dinosaur) relatives emerge as a group marked by feathers because a (parsimony) program would minimize the number of origins of feathers.

With experience in his own analyses, both of morphological and molecular data, Patterson was ever skeptical of optimization, of procedure, and of theory in general. In his 1981 lecture he remarked that resulting trees

don't pop out of the data [matrix], so I suppose they come from massaging the data with a theory—or with a computer programme based on a theory; and the theory is evolutionary theory, descent with modification. So what does the tree tell us about—is it telling us something about nature, or something about evolutionary theory— I’ll leave you to decide. (2002, p. 27)

And in a final summary much later in 1997 (p. 9), Patterson remarked in retrospect, on behalf of his scientific community, that “we managed to get rid of one pernicious black box—evolutionary systematics—but we’ve replaced it with another black box—the [data] matrix.”

Before his election to the Royal Society, delayed apparently by controversy for a time damaging to his reputation, Patterson was asked to prepare a biographical memoir of a deceased foreign member, paleontologist Erik Stensiö, of the Swedish Museum of Natural History, for whom Patterson always had the highest regard. He praised Stensiö’s “style,” but his words apply equally to himself and his personal standards—perhaps the only matters of science beyond the motto of the Royal Society—that he held dear and indispensable: “First, encyclopaedic knowledge of the literature in geology, palaeontology, and anatomy; second, minute attention to detail in description; third, and most important, his readiness to treat the fossil not as an object, but as an anatomical specimen which one might dissect in as much detail as a cadaver” (1990, p. 366).


The Natural History Museum in London is in process of organizing an archive with a number for each item. At this time it is not certain whether the archive will remain where it is at present in the Palaeontology Department, or be transferred to a central archive elsewhere in the museum.


“A Review of Mesozoic Acanthopterygian Fishes with Special Reference to Those of the English Chalk.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B, Biological Sciences 247, no. 739 (2 July 1964): 213–482. PhD thesis.

“Are the Teleosts a Polyphyletic Group?” In Problèmes Actuels de Paléontologie (Évolution des Vertébrés). Colloques Internationaux du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique no. 163. Paris: Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1967. First overview by Patterson, reemphasizes systematic value of caudal skeleton in definition of teleost fishes.

With P. Humphry Greenwood and Roger S. Miles, eds. Interrelationships of Fishes. Suppl. no. 1 to the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 53. London: Academic Press, 1973. Cladistics is the “hidden agenda.”

Evolution. London: British Museum (Natural History); Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1978. Subsequent editions in Danish, Dutch, and Japanese; revised in 1998.

“Cladistics. Pattern versus Process in Nature: A Personal View of a Method and a Controversy.” Biologist 27, no. 5 (1980): 234–240. Emphasizes phylogenetic and geographic patterns of cladistics. Reprinted in Evolution Now, edited by John Maynard Smith. London: Macmillan, 1981.

“Significance of Fossils in Determining Evolutionary Relationships.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, edited by Richard F. Johnston, Peter W. Frank, and Charles D. Michener, 12 (1981): 195–223. A cladistic overview, resonating with Louis Agassiz’s view of the relation between paleontology and systematics, and specifically that “Agassiz’s is compatible with a hierarchy of natural (monophyletic) groups” (p. 201).

“Morphological Characters and Homology.” In Problems of Phylogenetic Reconstruction, edited by Kenneth A. Joysey and Adrian E. Friday. Systematics Association Special Volume no. 21. London: Academic Press, 1982. Widely cited paper on homology.

Editor. Molecules and Morphology in Evolution: Conflict or Compromise? Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987a. Proceedings from Third International Congress of Systematic and Evolutionary Biology, University of Sussex, 4–11 July 1985, organized by Patterson. Eight contributions from thirteen contributors of the United Kingdom and United States.

“Harry Ashley Toombs, 1909–1987.” London Naturalist 66 (1987b): 191–193. With list of twenty-three publications.

“Phylogenetic Relations of Major Groups: Conclusions and Prospects.” In The Hierarchy of Life: Molecules and Morphology in Phylogenetic Analysis, Proceedings from Nobel Symposium 70 Held at Alfred Nobel’s Björkborn, Karlskoga, Sweden, August 29–September 2, 1988, edited by Bo Fernholm, Kåre Bremer, and Hans Jörnvall. Amsterdam: Excerpta Medica, 1989. Closes Nobel Symposium, which (p. 486) “summarises the progress we have made towards a tree of life, encompassing the whole in a single hierarchy, a goal hardly attempted since [Ernst] Haeckel.”

“Erik Helge Osvald Stensiö 2 October 1891–11 January 1984.” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 35 (1990): 363–380. Praise for Stensiö’s “style.”

“Beverly Halstead.” Independent, 3 May 1991. Obituary of colleague and old friend from university.

“Adventures in the Fish Trade.” Unpublished address to the Systematics Association. Palaeontology Department archives. Natural History Museum, London, 1995.

“Molecules and Morphology, Ten Years On.” Unpublished address to conference on Molecules and Morphology in Systematics, Paris. Palaeontology Department archives. Natural History Museum, London, 1997.

“Evolutionism and Creationism, American Museum of Natural History, 11/81 (from the script).” Linnean 18 (2002): 15–33. Text used by Patterson for evening lecture at Systematics Discussion Group of AMNH, with editorial comment by Brian G. Gardiner (p. 3), and by Peter L. Forey (“Systematics and Creationism,” pp. 13–14).


Bonde, Niels. “Colin Patterson (1933–1998): A Major Vertebrate Palaeontologist of This Century.” Geologie en Mijnbouw 78 (1999): 255–260. Headings include: An Exceptional Career; Interest in Phylogeny, Classification, and Cladistics; The Cladistics Struggle; and Intellectual Honesty.

Brundin, Lars. “Transantarctic Relationships and Their Significance, as Evidenced by Chironomid Midges.” Kungliga Svenska Vetenskapsakademiens Handlingar, Fjärde Serien, 11, no. 1 (1966). With a fifty-page account of Hennig’s principles, and original critiques of vertebrate paleontology and biogeography that decisively influenced Patterson and colleagues.

Forey, Peter. “Patterson, Colin (1933–1998).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, from the Earliest Times to the Year 2000, in Association with the British Academy, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Informative account with list of newspaper notices: Guardian (26 March 1998, p. 16),

Independent (24 March, p. 22), Times (London) (8 April, p. 19).

——, Brian G. Gardiner, and Christopher J. Humphries. Colin Patterson (1933–1998): A Celebration of His Life: An Edited Volume Arising from Addresses Presented at the Linnean Society of London during the Afternoon of 17 July 1998 with Additional Contributions. Linnean Special Issue no. 2. London: Academic Press, 2000. Memorial volume with seventeen contributors from five countries.

Fortey, Richard A. “Colin Patterson. 13 October 1933–9 March 1998.” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 45 (1999): 367–377. With four-page bibliography of 137 items on microfiche.

Gardiner, Brian. “Colin Patterson.” Independent, 24 March 1998.

Halstead, L. Beverly. “Whither the Natural History Museum?” Nature 275, no. 5682 (26 October 1978): 683. Beginning of controversy over Natural History Museum exhibits.

Ørvig, Tor, ed. Current Problems of Lower Vertebrate Phylogeny: Proceedings of the Fourth Nobel Symposium held in June 1967 at the Swedish Museum of Natural History (Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet) in Stockholm. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1968. Contains paper by Lars Brundin: “Application of Phylogenetic Principles in Systematics and Evolutionary Theory.”

Schaeffer, Bobb, and Brian G. Gardiner. “An Annotated Bibliography of the Work of Colin Patterson.” In Interrelationships of Fishes, edited by Melanie L. J. Stiassny, Lynne R. Parenti, and G. David Johnson. San Diego: Academic Press, 1996. With list of 135 items through 1995; volume dedicated to Patterson’s “remarkable and enduring influence on the field of fish systematics” (p. xii) of thirty-one contributors from seven countries.

Schafersman, Steven D. “Anatomy of a Controversy: Halstead vs. the British Museum (Natural History).” In What Darwin Began: Modern Darwinian and Non-Darwinian Perspectives on Evolution, edited by Laurie Rohde Godfrey. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1985. History of controversy provoked by L. B. Halstead Tarlo.

Gareth Nelson

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