Taxacom S/N Ratio (2)

Peter Rauch peterr at VIOLET.BERKELEY.EDU
Wed Feb 15 08:09:26 CST 1995

Date:         Tue, 14 Feb 1995 14:24:24 -0500
From: "Byron Butler (GD 1995)" <bbutler at MINERVA.CIS.YALE.EDU>
Subject:      Splitting/lumping
To: Multiple recipients of list BIRDCHAT

On Tue, 14 Feb 1995, Ronald Orenstein wrote:

> I certainly agree that there have been swings of fashion relating to
> splitting vs. lumping.  But that does not mean that every split or lump is
> based on taxonomic whim; a good many (particularly splits) have been based
> on new information, including DNA studies, behavioural studies and others.
> Particularly, we are now realizing that many species we have considered to
> be single populations actually treat each other as biological species in
> areas of overlap (e.g., eastern and western Warbling Vireos). Surely you
> would not suggest that taxonomy be "frozen" so that new knowledge can
> never be factored in?
The above quote came from the "ESA and hemlines" thread.
Basically, my view is in accord with yours, Ron. However, from just this
above paragraph I don't see a convincing argument that recent taxonomic
decisions and revisions are based on new information rather than just
whim. Many fine-grained discriminations between taxa made in the
pre-BSC period were given specific or subspecific recognition on
biological principles that were sound then and are just as sound today.
Whether we split or lump these taxa today depends more on the philosophical
underpinnings of systematics than on new information. And, much of the
new information you speak about only corroberates earlier decisions
rather provide new revelations.

Could it be that the swinging of the systematic pendulum is generated by
adherance to the notion that species are real biological entities
when, indeed, they may not be? Are we trying to force square pegs into
round holes?  I don't have the answer to this question, though I've given
it some thought. It is not an easy problem, perhaps because we still do
not understand nature well enough? We still have over a dozen viable
competing species concepts and there has never been a time when there has
been a consensus on which species definition is most likely to be
correct. This should be a most visible red flag, yet while almost all
whole organismal biologists invest some time comparing species concepts
few question the validity of the species as a true entity. Most biologists
just assume that species are real and go forward. Ornithologists further
assume that the BSC is correct (it does work well for most all bird
species). Yet, that we should have so much trouble defining what a
species is should indicate to us that the concept itself may be flawed.

I know that at least one other person on BirdChat has raised this issue
rather recently, but I don't recall that there was much of a discussion
then. I would like to hear the views of others on this matter, especially
from those who may have participated in recent seminars questioning whether
the species is a real biological entity. What does the latest literature
say? Are species real?

Byron K, Butler, Guilford, CT

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