Blaming the victim (the Linnaean System)

Frederick W. Schueler bckcdb at ISTAR.CA
Thu Feb 6 13:57:53 CST 2003

Ken Kinman wrote:

> The problem with higher categories is that we already have way too many
> of them these days
>  Between the extremes of zero higher categories and huge numbers of
> higher categories,
> this has always seemed like a happy medium to me.

* well, if one could make it stick - but I bet that when you're dealing
wtih folks who call themselves 'system'-atists you're going to have a
lot of trouble convincing them to leave numerous un-named categories (or
branchings) between one named category and another.

and Doug Yanega wrote:

>  Any non-expert in a
> taxonomic group needs - REALLY *needs* - that hierarchical framework
> if they are to ever figure out what something is, or learn how to
> tell what things are. There is no one "master key" of all life on
> Earth that lets you go from random unidentified organism down to
> species. Keys work hierarchically - you go from one key in one
> resource to another more refined key published in an entirely
> different resource, to another, to another, until finally you get
> down to a key that IDs species - and you MUST have labels for those
> steps in the hierarchy, because the information and the tools
> involved in retrieving that information are *necessarily* hierarchic
> and always will be. When one person calls something a family and
> another calls the same taxon a subfamily it's confusing, yes, but it
> doesn't mean the entire hierarchic approach should be thrown out!

* I don't have anything against hierarchy, just the imposition of
arbitrary categories at traditional points on the hierarchy. When I
don't include categories in systematic lists nobody has ever expressed
bewilderment because they need to know if Turtles are an order or a
class (it's the absence of a paraphyletic Reptilia that may bewilder

Your non-expert doesn't go to the hierarchy of category names, he goes
to the hierarchy of names.  I've never seen a library with a shelf
labelled 'keys to genera.' Categories only figure at the lower end of
titles of keys, "A key to the genera of x-iformes of y-bekistan"  - the
higher end is always marked by the *name* of the group being identified.
Say the non-expert has found something he thinks is an Insect - he
doesn't look for "phyla, subphyla, or classes of things" (since we can't
be sure from decade to decade which the Insecta may be) he looks for a
key to the Insects, checks that his specimen fits the diagnosis of the
group, and keys his way down to whatever level that key peters out for
his particular specimen. Then he looks for a key to the, say,
Staphylinidae of his particular region - and so on until he's identified
the creature to the level he wants, or gives up in confusion.

But my real objection to categories is the philosophical one: they don't
really indicate anything, since there are no phenetic/genetic/age
criteria for them, while it is possible to imagine replacements that
would convey some such information.

And to pick up a recent theme, such tags would be falsifiable scientific
statements for the study of which one could seek funding. "Applicant
seeks $35,000 in order to determine if Testudinata is an order or a
class," vs "Applicant seeks $350,000 to improve current concepts of the
age of origin of the Testudinata and their relatedness to other

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