Phylogenies, or evolutionary trees, are fundamental to biology. Systematists have laboured since the time of Darwin to discover the tree of life. Recent developments in systematics, such as cladistics and molecular sequencing, have led practitioners to believe that their phylogenies are more testable now than equivalent efforts from the 1960s or earlier. Whole trees, and nodes within trees, may be assessed for their robustness. However, these quantitative approaches cannot be used to demonstrate that one tree is more likely to be correct than another. Congruence assessments may help. Comparison of a sample of 1000 published trees with an essentially independent standard (dates of origin of groups in geological time) shows that the order of branching has improved slightly, but the disparity between estimated times of origination from phylogeny and stratigraphy has, if anything, become worse. Controlled comparisons of phylogenies of four major groups (Agnatha, Sarcopterygii, Sauria and Mammalia) do not show uniform improvement, or decline, of fit to stratigraphy through the twentieth century. Nor do morphological or molecular trees differ uniformly in their performance.