origin of classification.
p_stevens at NOCMSMGW.HARVARD.EDU
Mon Mar 27 09:18:11 CST 1995
ON THE ORIGINS OF BIOLOGICAL CLASSIFICATIONS
Perhaps the best recent study on ethnobiological classification is that by
Brent Berlin (1992), 'Ethnobiological classification: Principles of
categorisation of plants and animals in traditional societies', Princeton U.
Another useful semipopular artice is by S. J. Gould, 'A quahog is a quahog',
Nat. Hist. 88: 18-26. 1979. ("Quahog" should apparently be pronounced
It seems to me that there are a couple of issues to bear in mind when reading
The Ernst Mayr story, like the biological species concept itself, is to a
certain extent irrelevant for systematists. The "folk species", or Scott
Atran's more accurate, if cumbersome, "generic-specieme", is something that
is applied in a particular locality; systematists usually make their
judgements on material from many localities (and collected over a period of
many years). Be this as it may, generic speciemes are converted into a folk
hierarchy, and here people like berlin compare the folk hierarchy (its
general structure, as well as the content of individual taxa) with that of
"expert" classification - in this case, usually evolutionary classifications.
An appeal is also made to "nature", especially if folk and experts agree. At
a time when classifications are changing rapidly, it suggests that this
comparison is of little use.
It will also be interesting to take into account finding from cognitive
psychology, which bear on any "innate" urge to classify. Workers there have
tried to see if very small children classify animate objects in the same way
as they classify inanimate objects, animals in the same way as plants, and
carefully distinguish identification from classification from what might be
called prediction. They have come up with such at first sight paradoxical
findings that a subject may give an object one name, yet say it is most
similar to something else - very similar to the practice in (botanical)
evolutionary systematics known as McVaugh's rule (briefly: an intermediate
between two taxa goes in the larger, more heterogeneous, "ancestral" taxon).
Importantly, there is much talk of psychological essentialism, which is a
concept developed in the course of an attempt to understand the relationships
between the "inside" and "oustside" of things being classified; to what
extent do even very young subjects function as if there are
(underlying/internal) differences between members of two groups.
Finally, there are all sorts of intrinsic memory constraints, such as
possible upper bounds for the sizes of ordinary classifications (E. Hunn,
1994, Place names, population density, and the magic number 500, Current
Anthropology 35: 81-85), and also the way in which we go about memorising
things (in -very- small chunks, apparently. There is a lot of literature of
memorisation on everything from number sequences to restaurant orders in
which people seem to be committing things to memory in similar ways). This
kind of "constraint" surely underlies some of the recent heated discussion on
And not to mention categorical perception, in which subjects see/hear
categories that do not exist in the stimulus itself, that is, outside the
perceptions of most members of a species or even higher clade.
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