Real Species

Roger Hyam roger at HYAM.NET
Thu Apr 15 09:14:49 CDT 2004

I have thought long and hard about species concepts but for some reason
it always bores the pants off other taxonomist after an hour or six. I
can distill my thoughts into the following points. ( Could write them
more scientifically but then it would bet boring again)

1) It would be really convenient (for us) if nature divided itself up
into discrete units that we could then classify. This makes me
suspicious. The benefits to us are so high that we must really want it
to be so. Lets go and look for the evidence to support our view!

2) What's in it for the plants? Sure sometimes they like to speciate but
why should they always do it? Why not just stay in a big mess of
morphological variation without clear breeding barriers or resolvable
phylogenies. If your environment is dynamic it may sometimes be the best
way to be.

3) There are estimates that there are 300,000 plant species (including
the algae and bryophytes). If this is so why can't we agree on what they
are - even after 250 years of trying (since L.).  300k entities and a
couple of million names is really fairly trivial in terms of modern IT.
We could have a nice little database with them all in and then spend our
time arguing about how they are related. But we don't. Why not? Either
they are very hard to find (which would be odd if they were just waiting
to be discovered) or we are totally incompetent!

4) Cladistic type people generally like the idea of everything being in
a discrete species and phenetic type people don't. This smells like a
political/clique dogmatism that has messed up a lot of modern taxonomy.

5) Are the two arguments mutually exclusive? "Species are really" and
"Species are artificial" are both true in that some taxa are nice and
play ball whilst other taxa are just a mess and can't easily be divided
into species.

The answer is probably "Most species are real but you can't divide the
whole of diversity into species using a consistent set of criteria"

Anyhow I am off to get some data to test this hypothesis. Any one fancy
funding me to do it?

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