RE: Taxonomy and speciation

From: Vincent Campbell (
Date: Tue Nov 20 2001 - 18:49:33 GMT

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    From: Vincent Campbell <>
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    Subject: RE: Taxonomy and speciation
    Date: Tue, 20 Nov 2001 18:49:33 -0000
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    Avoiding the biological issues here, perhaps I could briefly offer some
    comments coming broadly from a linguistic field (not mine but closer to what
    I do than the biology side of your argument).

    Your allusion to the term 'dog' reminds me of Wittgenstein's stuff, and
    subsequently about the kinds of concerns in semiotics about the non-fixed
    nature of meaning.

    Now it strikes me that the concept of species fits into the kind of
    distinction between paradigmatic and syntagmatic meaning. In other words,
    the concept of species is, in absolute terms, as you say in our heads in
    that syntagmatically- or over time- one species is always seguing into the
    next and the line is not necessarily clear (I saw a TV show last night about
    the recent finds of a bipedal hominid from 6 million years ago, putting
    human ancestry back much further than previously thought, for example [as an
    aside to the debate about selves and consciousness, I noted one of the
    experts on that programme actually said that bipedalism was arguably the
    most important differentiation from human ancestors and other primate
    ancestors- when you go back a long way, anyway]).

    On the other hand, paradigmatically- at any particular point in time, one
    can surely see the existence of species- a distinct group of organisms that
    share characteristics, both physiological and behavioural etc. etc.

    In other words perhaps what's reflected in the concept of species is our
    chronological bias to now- what's happening now, but in the sense of helping
    to classify things around us, the idea of species is useful?

    If this all sounds weird, or silly, please ignore, I'm writing after a long
    day's teaching- that hasn't finished yet as I'm teaching a evening degree
    class for the next couple of hours.


    > ----------
    > From: Philip A.E. Jonkers
    > Reply To:
    > Sent: Tuesday, November 20, 2001 1:06 am
    > To:
    > Subject: Taxonomy and speciation
    > 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.
    > ===============================================================
    > This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    > Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
    > For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)
    > see:

    This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
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