Confusion in Science & Cladistics

Ken Kinman kinman at HOTMAIL.COM
Wed Aug 23 18:53:31 CDT 2000

     It's sad fact that a certain percentage of the population doesn't have
any desire to really understand science, not because elementary concepts
like molecule and DNA are difficult to learn, but because (consciously or
not) for many it is a slippery slope that would eventually force them to
confront their misconceptions (and that can be very uncomfortable,
especially when religion beliefs are thrown into the mix).  Many still want
to enjoy the benefits of science (medicine, information, cheap food,
entertainment), but will bitterly complain about having to pay for the
research needed to produce those benefits.  Of course, there is a tiny
minority that shun modern life in general, and those few perhaps have earned
the right to complain since they are less hypocritical.  Others will
continue to bite the hands that feed them, and then naively wonder why
science isn't solving their problems fast enough.
     But there is confusion among the more educated as well, especially when
it comes to cladistic taxonomy.  I can usually get across the idea that
birds are considered a clade within dinosaurian reptiles, and that is why
the strict cladists no longer want to classify birds as a separate class.
But then I am questioned about the fact that mammals evolved from reptiles
too, and I have to explain that cladists no longer consider therapsids or
pelycosaurs (or even mesosaurs) to be reptiles.  When they realize the goal
posts are getting moved, and the terminology is being arbitrarily changed,
that doesn't sit well with them, and I can't blame them one bit.
      Even among professional biologists, phylogenetic (purely cladistic)
taxonomy causes much confusion.  One of my favorites is Ornithosuchia which
was not cladistically anchored to genus _Ornithosuchus_.  Therefore Family
Ornithosuchidae (ornithosuchids) are now classified in Pseudosuchia, not
Ornithosuchia.  In other words, ornithosuchids are not ornithosuchians,
thanks to one of those quirks of phylogenetic taxonomy (and this is just one
example).  And it gets even worse when the cladists can't agree among
themselves, and start giving different cladistic definitions for the same
name.  Maniraptora Gauthier (1986) is different from Maniraptora Sereno
(1991?).  Pseudosuchia of Zittel (1890) and of Gauthier (1986) includes many
more forms than does Pseudosuchia of Benton (1988).
      This is why I prefer to characterize taxa whenever possible, not
"define" them.  Better to characterize mammals by their ear and jaw bones,
than to cladistically anchor them on monotremes (whose fossil record and
origins are very poorly known).  And don't complain that it is arbitrary,
because cladists are just substituting new forms of arbitrariness for the
old.  Cutting a continuous tree life is unavoidably arbitrary, and pure
cladism is not the best way to minimize arbitrarianess.  It is my prediction
that the Phylocode will not even be followed by all cladists, much less by
the rest of biology.  And if all this ends up causing confusion among
professional biologists, imagine how it will affect our credibility even
among amateur biologists and well-educated non-biologists.
      Creationism is feeding off of the confusion from three decades of war
between cladists and eclecticists.  It's not only grist for their sophistry
mill, but adversely affects the productivity of the evolutionary sciences
directly.  If you don't like the Kinman System, then come up with an
alternative cladisto-eclectic system.  Pure phylogenetic taxonomy is
inherently unstable for a number of different reasons, but I guess the
cladists need to get this Phylocode thing out of their systems, and
eventually figure this out for themselves.   In the meantime, the confusion
is going to get worse before it gets better.  I just hope it doesn't cast a
cloud over cladistic "analysis", which is a wonderful scientific tool when
used properly.
                      -----Ken Kinman
>From: John Grehan <jrg13 at PSU.EDU>
>Reply-To: John Grehan <jrg13 at PSU.EDU>
>Date: Wed, 23 Aug 2000 12:20:29 -0500
>In relation to my comments about there already being confusion about
>and evolution exploited by Creationists in the US I noticed reference to a
>1999 NSF
>survey concluding that while US Americans have a high confidence and
>in science and technology, their understanding of basic scientific facts
>principles remains quite low. There was a poor understanding of some common
>basic scientific terms including moleculres, Internet, and DNA. Only 21%
>able to explain what it means to study something scientifically. Its this
>latter point
>that relates to my inference that this is really a critical problem behind
>evolution/creation issue in the US (other political and religeous
>considerations aside).
>The trouble with such reports is the lack of comparison with other
>John Grehan
Get Your Private, Free E-mail from MSN Hotmail at

More information about the Taxacom mailing list