Higher categories

Don.Colless at CSIRO.AU Don.Colless at CSIRO.AU
Mon Feb 10 14:16:17 CST 2003

A current thread has been debating the utility or other wise of NAMED higher
categories. The dividing lines are no doubt vague, involving names with
"open texture", using multiple, implicit criteria; but this is true of much
of our language. In any case, it has always seemed to me that the (obligate)
category of Family often represents just about the upper level of
differentiation (phenetic gap) recognised in common language by the layman;
mosquitoes, blowflies, ants, bees, grasshoppers, hawks, gulls, dogs, cats,
gumtrees, orchids, etc. This can drift up to Suborder or Order - moths,
butterflies, caddis flies, beetles (perhaps; folk do recognise scarabs and
Christmas beetles); or down towards subfamily (hoverflies) or even genus
(bullants, horses). Such drift is probably driven by special familiarity
(horses, bullants), or more usually by expert taxonomists needing
"categorial space". The level of Genus is interesting, as pretty well
entirely devised by the experts ; but again, it seems to me that it normally
represents the first decent "moat" (phenetic  gap) as species are clustered
upward. Above the Order, categories are almost entirely for convenience of

Our traditional system has areas of imprecision that no doubt irritate a
certain type of mind; but it is just this kind of flexibility that makes
language the remarkable tool that it is. And let's not forget that our
classifications are just that: a language, expressing a theory of the world.

Don Colless
Div of Entomology, CSIRO, Canberra,
don.colless at csiro.au <mailto:don.colless at csiro.au>
Tuz li munz est miens envirun

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