standardized taxonomy

Curtis Clark jcclark at CSUPOMONA.EDU
Sat Sep 5 10:24:59 CDT 1998

At 05:50 AM 9/5/98 -0700, JOSEPH E. LAFERRIERE wrote:
>   One must remember that taxonomic hierarchy does not exist in
>nature. It is a human construct for human convenience. The decision
>was made in the late 19th Century to make taxonomic categories
>reflect evolutionary history. I have no quarrel with that at all.
>But it remains a human invention to fit human needs.

I've given a lot of thought to this, and it's clear to me that there *is* a
hierarchy of species in nature (the result of an evolutionary process that
is, especially among macroscopic organisms, largely divergent, leading to
nested clades). It is precisely because biodiversity is hierarchic that we
are still using a system of classification that is nearly 250 years
old--it's a reasonably good match. At one time, chemical elements were
classified hierarchically, but it was discovered that the arrangement of
their properties was periodic instead of hierarchic. There are still
hierarchic classifications of ecological communities and of rocks, but
their shortcomings are quite apparent.

It is because we seek to discover the patterns in organismic diversity that
systematics is a science: if we were only making a data-keeping system for
others to use, we would be librarians (another honored profession, but one
with different aims). The users of our classifications know that they want
stability and simplicity. They don't as often know that they want
predictive value--the ability to infer things about organisms from their
places in classification. If we were "merely" cataloguing biodiversity, our
focus on relationship (whatever it means to us) and debates about such
things a paraphyly would be a waste of time. But to our users it matters,
in a myriad of ways, whether a species is a beetle, or a bird, or a
brittlebush. Certainly our system of classification is not perfect, will
never be perfect, because that is the way of science. We can hope to make
it useful, but it is important to remember that usefulness is much more
than just stability.

Curtis Clark
Biological Sciences Department             Voice: (909) 869-4062
California State Polytechnic University      FAX: (909) 869-4078
Pomona CA 91768-4032  USA                  jcclark at

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