Retzlaff, N; Stadler, PF

Evolutionary processes have been described not only in biology but also for a wide range of human cultural activities including languages and law. In contrast to the evolution of DNA or protein sequences, the detailed mechanisms giving rise to the observed evolution-like processes are not or only partially known. The absence of a mechanistic model of evolution implies that it remains unknown how the distances between different taxa have to be quantified. Considering distortions of metric distances, we first show that poor choices of the distance measure can lead to incorrect phylogenetic trees. Based on the well-known fact that phylogenetic inference requires additive metrics, we then show that the correct phylogeny can be computed from a distance matrix D if there is a monotonic, subadditive function zeta such that zeta(-1) (D) is additive. The required metric-preserving transformation zeta can be computed as the solution of an optimization problem. This result shows that the problem of phylogeny reconstruction is well defined even if a detailed mechanistic model of the evolutionary process remains elusive.