Rankless English orthography

Byron J. Adams bjadams at UFL.EDU
Fri Mar 10 10:00:05 CST 2000

C.J. Marshall said:

>          Just for the record: buying into the "historical individual"
> business is not the same as adopting a rankless system of
> taxonomy.  Personally, I don't agree with either perspective.  I don't
> think higher taxa are "individuals" - historical or otherwise- but that's
> metaphysical (interesting? yes...debatable? certainly...but ultimately
> metaphysical).  Independent of what produces monophyletic clades, we can
> empirically demonstrate them since they are sets of organisms based on
> maximally parsimonious character distributions (e.g., congruent
> characters)- this is not metaphysical...it's scientific.

    I agree with Tom that taxa "higher" than species can be viewed as
self-delimiting individuals (and thus _real_ in an ontological sense, but
there are also problems with this notion).

    However, I disagree with the implication that this is unknowable via
scientific observation.  To the contrary, I think we create a false
dichotomy when we set up metaphysics against "science."  When we do, we
often end up failing to distinguish operationalism ("science" as depicted
above) from metaphysics and ontology (as CJM rightly points out).  However,
the usual result is that instead of making a clear distinction between the
two, and viewing them as complimentary, we either conflate them, or force
them to be completely incompatible with one another.

    The former error (confusing epistemology with ontology) is the primary
reason the "species problem" and efforts toward objective "higher"
classifications has persisted so perniciously.  The latter problem (refusing
to integrate epistemology with ontology and metaphysics) exacerbates the
problem because we end up looking for things ("operational science", sensu
the above post) without a clear picture of what it is we're looking for in
the first place (reality).

     Where did our disdain for metaphysics come from?  In a philosophical
sense, and as it relates to our work as scientists, metaphysics is the study
of the fundamental nature of reality.  Somewhere along the line it became
synonymous with the supernatural -- UFO's, ESP, pyramid power and healing
crystals.  I would argue that the reason taxonomists are often seen as
abiding in this realm (that we do art, not science) is well deserved
precisely because of CJM's point - we construct hierarchies that are not
based on evidence or logic but opinion, convenience and authority.  But I'll
go one step further and say that we won't overcome this problem until we
take up metaphysics again (this time in its historical, as opposed to
pejorative connotation).

Byron J. Adams
University of Florida
Dept. of Entomology and Nematology
Natural Area Drive
PO Box 110620
Gainesville, FL 32611-0260

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