Re: Taxonomy and speciation

From: Philip A.E. Jonkers (
Date: Mon Nov 26 2001 - 01:33:14 GMT

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    From: "Philip A.E. Jonkers" <>
    Organization: UC Berkeley
    Subject: Re: Taxonomy and speciation
    Date: Sun, 25 Nov 2001 17:33:14 -0800
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    On Friday 23 November 2001 01:31 am, you wrote:
    > From: "Philip A.E. Jonkers" <>
    > >Reply-To:
    > >To:
    > >Subject: Taxonomy and speciation
    > >Date: Mon, 19 Nov 2001 17:06:20 -0800
    > >
    > >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.
    > So...maybe Darwin should have titled his book _Origin of Name-Tags_?

    LOL. On a serious not however: mind you it is only a new category
    of name-tags, the concept of name-tags of course existed long before.
    The title might be: "On the origin of yet another category of name-tags".
    But that would be too long and non-specific. No, on second thought,
    "On the origin of species" has the most appealing ring to it. Let's stick to
    that after all.

    > >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.
    > Or _Origin of Name Tags Existing Solely in Our Heads_?

    Name-tags do of course (they are memes, after all, (sorry Derek....)),
    I don't think that the concept of origin of name-tags is present
    in most of our heads.

    > >They actually are memes which were created through
    > >our eagerness to conveniently label everything we encounter.
    > Ironically isn't the "meme" concept just a convenient label for a notion
    > you are applying to the problematic concept of species in biology? You seem
    > to have no qualms using the term "meme", assuming that memes exist yet
    > species are fictitious.

    I contend species to exist as much as memes since I consider the former
    to be a subset of the latter. If memes exist in heads than species may do so
    too just as easily. The emergence of a new species happens in the heads
    of those authorities deciding to christen a new group of organisms
    sufficiently wandered off from neighboring branches of the tree of life to.

    > >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.
    > There may be tremendous difficulties in application of the concepts of
    > species and speciation (and I humbly defer to Wilkins for his expertise in
    > this matter), but your pragmatic hypernominalism may be misguided. Though
    > essentialism may be equally misguided, there could realistically species
    > out there, just very difficult to capture in our heads due to limitations.

    "Pragmatic hypernominalism", I like that... thanks! Within the paradigm I'm
    proposing you just gave a "contradictio in terminis" (pretty one too, huh?).
    Could you specify your assertion with stone cold facts, i.e. examples from
    mother Nature?

    > >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.
    > There are many fuzzy edges in biology. Get used to it. Try looking at the
    > evolution of individuality for instance. In some cases how would you
    > ascribe individuality to loosely organized aggregates such as with slime
    > molds? Are the cellular units themselves individuals or the collection when
    > they form a slug?

    How can individuals evolve other than kloning asexual organisms waiting
    for the occasional mutation to occur? I mean, sexual reproduction meant
    a quantum boost in one the 3 essentials of evolution: variation. This
    entailed however that each individual perished after exactly only one
    generation already. I take it that you are referring to amoebes and
    creatures like that. It seems that amoebes and such are either
    extremely social one-celled organisms or one or a few
    of extremely plastic size.

    > You're not always gonna get the exacting clarity one strives for in
    > physics.

    Don't worry, Physics is no ball-game either all the time, go ask any
    solid-state physicist... Not to mention the `beauty' of the Standard Model
    with `only' 32 parameters to be determined by experiment. Now how's that
    for a clean theory-from-scratch? Or the hectic period in the 1940-1970 when
    it was fashionable to surgically remove infinities during the renormalization
    craze in quantum-electrodynamics. We all have our past, you know...


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