Real taxa

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Thu Sep 30 07:25:52 CDT 2004

Actually, I think the point raised by Stephan is a valid one. When
discussing this issue of the "reality" of species, I sometimes put it in the
context of intelligent alien beings visiting our planet, and asking whether
they would draw the same lines that we do.  In many (the majority?) of the
cases, I suspect that they would draw similar lines (e.g., between extant
humans and our closest extant non-human relatives).  But just because a
distinction seems real, doesn't mean that it is objectively real (e.g.,
would the aliens draw taxonomic lines between what we now characterize as
different races of humans in the same way that we humans draw species-level
lines between populations that interbreed when given the opportunity even
though they otherwise maintain consistently distinct morphotypes?)

Other times I've seen the argument made that different human societies have
(seemingly independently) arrived at similar taxonomic classifications of
the biological world.  But while this seems to bear our in the "obvious"
taxa, there are always (often many) exceptions (e.g., there are often
several Hawaiian names for individual fish species of cultural importance,
whereas there is often a single Hawaiian name to refer to many different
species of culturally less important taxa).

Stephan has provided a different flavor of this "independent" test for
"taxon reality".  In some (many?) cases, I think the non-human
species-recognition phenomenon does, indeed, represent solid evidence of a
"reality" of taxonomic distinction among forms.  I'll need to think about it
more in terms of specific examples and specific exceptions, but my hunch is
that there will be good congruence in many cases, but not in others (as we
do for the independent human classifications).  What makes this interesting
to me, though, is that what may represent "obvious" distinctions among taxa
to non-human organisms, may be subtle (virtually imperceptible) to humans.
Also, I'm intrigued by the idea that in at least some of these non-human
species-recognition cases (e.g., pollinators), the act of
species-recognition may actually drive the speciation process (sort of a
self-fulfilling taxonomy!)


> -----Original Message-----
> From: Taxacom Discussion List [mailto:TAXACOM at LISTSERV.NHM.KU.EDU]On
> Behalf Of pierre deleporte
> Sent: Thursday, September 30, 2004 5:22 AM
> Subject: Re: Real taxa
> A 15:26 30/09/2004 +0100, Stephan Helfer wrote:
> >  Providing we
> >accept, for the purpose of this argument, that there are real units out
> >there
> You mean "real classes" out there ? "Real concepts" out there, and not in
> the brain of a thinking being ?
> >  and that things which are measurably alike are in essence
> You mean "essence" ? Which kind ?
> >  alike
> >(i.e. two snow flakes are essentially the same,
> "Essentially" ? In which respect, and for which observer ?
> >Other organisms share this perception of likeness: Many pollinators
> >appear to have concepts of "kind";
> Bumblebees have concepts ? You mean that ?
> >  similarly, parasitic and mutualistic
> >fungi, animals and plants have concepts of "kind"
> Fungi too, by the way...
> >In consequence, if we accept the reality of these organisms, our own
> >concept of taxa can be either challenged or supported. Many rust fungi,
> >for instance, only infect a single "species" (as humans understand it)
> >of plants; thus confirming our concept of similarity.
> I don't ask fungi to validate my concepts of similarity, sorry...
> >   in making taxonomic decisions in order to gain a livelihood...
> And fungi make decisions. Likely not of the same kind as ours I guess...
> Decidedly, I don't buy the "essence" of your argument at all.  ;-)
> Best,
> Pierre
> Pierre Deleporte
> CNRS UMR 6552 - Station Biologique de Paimpont
> F-35380 Paimpont   FRANCE
> Téléphone : 02 99 61 81 66
> Télécopie : 02 99 61 81 88

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