Taxonomy and speciation

From: Philip A.E. Jonkers (
Date: Tue Nov 20 2001 - 01:06:20 GMT

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    From: "Philip A.E. Jonkers" <>
    Organization: UC Berkeley
    Subject: Taxonomy and speciation
    Date: Mon, 19 Nov 2001 17:06:20 -0800
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    Dear all,

    Since we are so fond of biological evolution too, I thought it might be
    worth-while to inform you on the next matter.
    As I'm reading Darwin's Dangerous Idea, I've come with the following
    interpretation on speciation, i.e. the birth of a new species. I sent
    an email to Dennett himself in which I layed out my ideas. Here is the
    part of that email that captures the essentials.

    Please read and see what you make of it, if you are interested I can
    give you Dennett's reply too. But I don't want to bias you so I'll do
    that after your responses.



    Before elaborating on speciation let's consider taxonomy in general first.
    We humans have derived great practical use in attributing names to whatever
    phenomenon we have encountered over history. These name-tags function as
    short-hand syntactic pointers to the semantics of the items they are
    meant to signify. For example, when someone talks about a "dog" to me,
    I automatically imagine a small carnivorous lively mammal making excellent
    companions and warning systems by their serving nature and their
    innately present high degree of vigilance, etc...
    These tags, once accepted by the masses, facilitate rapid and easier
    communication by making superfluous the use of elaborate and time-consuming
    descriptions. Small wonder we humans became quite adapt in universally
    applying this necessary rather than merely convenient tool of labeling.

    This process of tagging we indiscriminately applied also to the living
    nature. If we would be at ease with the faulty preconception
    that, for religious reasons, species are to be considered being immutable,
    no problems emerge: attributing fixed names to presumed fixed species
    goes without problems. However, as Darwin competently made plausible in his
    `Origin' this is of course not how nature really works. Every living being in
    nature evolves, organisms incessantly change.
    Thus our tradition of taxonomy, though being well-designed for labeling
    fixed entities, falls somewhat short when trying to label dynamically
    evolving entities. To put it boldly, species do not exist anywhere but
    in our own heads. They actually are memes which were created through
    our eagerness to conveniently label everything we encounter.
    Speciation does not occur in nature in an intrinsic manner (that is,
    independent of observers). Being no real part of nature it comes as no
    that it is quite impossible to determine when exactly a case of speciation
    occurred. We have decided to tag creatures with such and such names,
    based on the historical and religious assumption that they were fixed.
    When found that they were evolving instead we ran into trouble because
    it is practically impossible to determinable when exactly a case of
    speciation occurred. The notion of speciation as actually occurring in nature
    is a fallacious artifact due to a forced attempt to mend our view of nature
    by incorporating evolution-theory into the traditional worldview of
    taxonomy that is based on the idea of fixed species. If the concept of
    speciation is to bear any sense in the contemporary evolutionary
    conception of nature it can do so only if it were to be used
    with a very casual and loose definition.

    In short, I contend that speciation occurs nowhere in nature but in our heads
    and actually is an artifact of a somewhat misplaced application
    of our deeply ingrained tradition of taxonomy to organize the presumed
    non-evolving realm of organisms.


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