Classification and Species

Warren Lamboy warren_lamboy at QMRELAY.MAIL.CORNELL.EDU
Mon Mar 27 10:58:36 CST 1995

                       Subject:                               Time:11:13
  OFFICE MEMO          Classification and Species Concepts    Date:26/03/1995

Another text that I have found extremely enlightening concerning
classification, especially species concepts (in plants at least) is:

Principles of Tzeltal plant classification:  an introduction to the
botanical ethnography of Mayan-speaking people of highland Chiapas, by
Brent Berlin, Dennis Breedlove, and Peter Raven.

In this text, the point is made that most of the species recognized by
"Western" taxonomists are also recognized by the Tzeltals.  From this I have
heard a number of conclusions drawn (not necessarily by the authors of the
book!):  1) that classification is in some sense "natural",  2) that "Western"
species concepts are reasonable,  3) that the Tzeltals are pretty smart
people--after all, they agree with us scientists!  : )

But actually, from the point of view of classification and species concepts,
an even more important conclusion can be drawn from those instances when the
Tzeltal classification and the "Western" classification do not agree!  In
several instances the Tzeltal "split" a species into two or more "Western"
species or "lump" two or more "Western" species into a single species.
[Unfortunately I have neither the book nor my notes on it in front of me, so I
cannot cite numbers.]  At any rate, the Tzeltal lump "Western" species in
those cases in which the differences between species (that are observed by
Tzeltal and westerner alike) DO NOT MATTER to them.  In those instances where
the Tzeltal split species, the differences observed (such as the edibility of
the fruits on some plants of the species, but the inedibility of fruits on
other plants of the species) DO MATTER.  I contend that we generate and
utilize species concepts based on the same criterion--namely, do the
differences we observe matter or not?  One must then ask the question, matter
for what purpose?  Do the differences matter with respect to whether the
species concept is used to identify food, building materials, or decorations,
or is it used for fitting into a particular mathematical-statistical
analytical method, to create useable pocket field guides, etc?  This is where
the science of classification merges with the art of classification (as stated
by Camp back in 1951).  It is impossible to divorce good classifications from
the use to which those classifications will be put.

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