cladism's greatest weakness

Richard Zander rzander at SCIENCEBUFF.ORG
Wed Sep 22 10:12:17 CDT 1999

Tom DiBenedetto wrote:
<> Richard Zander wrote:
> >This is yet another example of the forever-ongoing battle of realists
> >assume that the world is observer-independent and knowledge is objective
> >absolute), and pragmatists (who ignore the question of
> >and act in ways that maximize the usefulness of information, no matter
> >such information is generated).
> Although I agree that realists assume that the world is
> observer-independent , I do not think that the notion of knowledge
> being objective and absolute is part of the realist perspective. I
> consider myself a realist; I assume that there is an objective reality
> which I attempt to describe, but I also understand that knowledge is
> always approximative of that reality, and inherently subjective. To me
> the enterprise of science entails a constant effort to transcend our
> personal subjectivity, by arguing, discussing, and experimenting within
> a rational framework, to arrive at a consensus of educated opinion
> which is, of course, still subjective, but is an agreed-upon
> subjectivity, encompassing many people. In this way we hope to
> asymptote toward the unreachable goal of objective knowledge (rather
> like the way in which we try to measure the area under a curve (the
> real world = the curve) using ever-finer rectangles made up of straight
> lines (straight lines=our ideas).
> I dont know of any realists who assume that knowledge is ever absolute,
> or objective. Only religous types seems to do that.
> >Species at least exist as tools, and are useful even though their
> >circumscriptions are labile over time as new information presents itself.
> >Clades at least exist as tools.
> Clades seem to me to be, at the same time, an empirical finding of
> comparative biology, and a necessary deduction from the theory of
> evolution. To the extent that we can ever attribute confidence to our
> empirical discoveries, and to the extent that we accept the evolution
> of life as a fact, then clades seem to me to be real, to a similar
> extent that we consider electrons, or the orbit of the earth to be
> real.

Tom: Your exposition is well-balanced, sensitive, and straight-forward, and
I've often subscribed to it in moments of weakness. Realism, even the
rational realism you describe, is, however, like teleology in explaining
evolutionary events. It is so easy to say something like: the taxon evolved
such and such a character to better survive - rather than describe a natural
selection scenario. Well, consider: God is in Heaven, the Devil is in Hell,
and everything else is "out there." The first two statements are not
appropriate subjects for scientific analysis or synthesis, so why is the
third? Where is "out there"?

> >Concepts are real. Let's agree on the minimum reality that "things out
> >there" are at least valuable conceptual tools.
> I dont understand this at all. The "things out there" are not
> conceptual tools, they are the reality.  We develop conceptual tools to
> describe and deal with the "things out there".

What do you mean "we"? Some of us deal with what we remember of the past,
with what we expect in the future, and with what we find about us in the
here and now. This results in valuable guidelines for action and new
expectation, a process which I think does not require an "out there" to work

Glad to hear from you again, Tom. Your comments are always on the (arguable)

Richard H. Zander, Curator of Botany
Buffalo Museum of Science
1020 Humboldt Pkwy
Buffalo, NY 14211 USA
email: rzander at
voice: 716-895-5200 x 351

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