Re: Taxonomy and speciation

From: John Wilkins (
Date: Tue Nov 20 2001 - 05:00:57 GMT

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    Subject: Re: Taxonomy and speciation
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    My PhD thesis in progress is on species concepts and speciation.

    You'll find that this argument was first put by John Locke (Essay, Bk 3,
    ch 5, particularly sect 9) and that it has its current appearance in
    Jody Hey's recent book _Genes, Categories and Species: The evolutionary
    and cognitive causes of the species problem_, Oxford UP 2001.

    However, I think that the main thing to remember about sexual organisms
    at least is that they *self*-classify. We also self-classify and so we
    can recognise many taxa that do the same thing in much the same manner.
    It just gets messy at the edges. This self-delimitation is an objective
    property or fact about the organisms themselves, not just about the
    taxonomic proclivities of humans.

    I'd be interested to see what Dennett has to say, but I doubt he'd be
    swayed by this argument particularly. OTOH, Dennett is always a bit left
    field, so he just might.

    For the record, I believe that if self-classification (or environmental
    classification in the case of asexuals) is an objective feature of
    organisms, then so cladogenesis is an objective feature of evolutionary

    On Tuesday, November 20, 2001, at 12:06 PM, Philip A.E. Jonkers wrote:

    > 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.
    > Philip.
    > ....
    > 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
    > surprise
    > 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.
    > Philip.

    John S Wilkins
    PhD candidate, species concepts
    History and Philosophy of Science, jointly with Botany
    The University of Melbourne, Australia

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