Taxa as hypotheses?

Peter Rauch peterr at VIOLET.BERKELEY.EDU
Sun Mar 19 09:34:23 CST 1995

Cross-posting of Norm MacLeod from paleonet:

Date: Sun, 19 Mar 1995 11:11:29 GMT
To: paleonet at
From: N.MacLeod at (N. MacLeod)
Subject: Taxa as hypotheses?

Perhaps I'm taking Jere's point to literally here but if taxa were
hypotheses (and just hypotheses) there should be some way to objectively
(parsimoniously?) decide which of n possible Linnean-compatible taxonomic
assignments was best, at least given available information.  I know of no
way to do this and I think the highly disputative nature of much of the
taxonomic literature stands as a testament to its impossibility.  Linnean
nomenclature is about communication.  That's all.  Thus, we have statements
like "Genus Z of Prof. Whatshisname includes species that Dr. I.M. Insane
places into three different genera and two different families." and no way,
other than arbitrary convention, of resolving the issue.  In the final
analysis this has nothing to do with evolution, biology, or even science.
It's a short-hand we use that arose as a matter of historical accident and
that we keep using (despite all of its well-known shortcomings) as a result
of tradition and because no one has come up with anything better.  I look
at it one of those frustrating yet, at the same time, endearing curiosities
that seem to insinuate their way into most long-term human activities, and
which suggest that deep-down humans are not wholly logical creatures.

Norm MacLeod

Norman MacLeod
Senior Scientific Officer
N.MacLeod at (Internet)
N.MacLeod at (Janet)

Address: Dept. of Palaeontology, The Natural History Museum,
         Cromwell Road, London, SW7 5BD

Office Phone: 071-938-9006
Dept. FAX:  071-938-9277

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