standardized taxonomy

JOSEPH E. LAFERRIERE josephl at AZTEC.ASU.EDU
Sun Sep 6 05:25:07 CDT 1998


Peter: Perhaps I should have used the word "cabinet" instead of
"room." In using "room" I was employing the same patented
flair for the dramatic that got me branded as a "court jester"
year before last.
  To continue the panda analogy, let us assume for a minute that
the panda specimens are already in a cabinet rather than in a
box in the closet labelled "unknown family." There have, after all,
been biologists studying pandas for many years. I say that if
you are 50% or even 60% sure that it is in the wrong cabinet,
leave it where it is. I want to be 95% sure before I move it, i.e.
that ambiguities have been more or less resolved before making
major changes in the system. I am not suggesting that traditional
classifications should be engraved in stone and never changed.
I am saying that there should be a general consensus on an issue
that changes should be made.
   I am a botanist and have worked in several large herbaria. Some
of them are still organized on the Engler classification system.
I know of no botanist today who thinks Engler was correct about
everything. But it works. If I visit Harvard, I know the composites
are family #280, at the end of the list, and I can find them. It is
an outdated taxonomy, but it works. Don't change it until you're
sure you have something better. A few decades ago, some herbaria
converted to the Cronquist system. This, too, is falling by the
wayside.
   Curtis: No, species in nature are not grouped hierarchically.
What systematists look for is evidence of similar traits in
different species bases on common ancestry. How we group them in
families, orders, genera, etc., is a human decision. Cats and lions
have similarities because they have common ancestry. Therefore
we humans decide they are in the same family. However, neither the
cat nor the lion will recognize this, nor any other species
except Homo sapiens. If a cat and a lion see each other, they do not
think "Ooh, a relative! Hey, cousin! How's Aunt Tiger?" No. The cat
will think "Eeeek!!!" while the lion will think "Food!" and no more.
And the decision or what to call a family and what to call an order
is a human decision. Moving back to plants, everyone agrees
that the composites are derived from a common ancestor. No disagreement
there. Some of the descendants of that common common ancestor
themselves became patriarchs of their own lineages (e.g. thistles).
But does this group of composites represent one family with 12
tribes or one order with 12 families? That is a strictly human decision.
The plants care about this even less than the cat.

--
Dr. Joseph E. Laferriere
"Computito ergo sum ...  I link therefore I am."




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