Are species real?

Karl Magnacca kmagnacca at WESLEYAN.EDU
Tue Apr 11 09:47:26 CDT 2006

> The only "test" I can see for examining whether species might be
> natural, as opposed to artificial, is whether two separate human cultures,
> with no interaction between them, come up with congurent nomenclature to
> describe the organisms in their environments. If species are "natural" one
> would expect a high degree of congruence.  But this test is weak, because
> different cultures have different levels of technology and biological
> insight, and the biological nomenclature is often biased towards cultural
> interactions with various organisms.

Part of that bias being that most cultures are not interested in defining
species as they are in nature (assuming that they are real), and part
being lack of technology necessary.  I doubt, for example, that many
people outside the current "culture of science" tried to separate the
species of scolytid beetles.

> So in this sense, it's easy to think of species as natural and
> "real". But if you look at it from a broader perspective -- unconstrained
> by any particular moment in time -- and consider all antecedents of every
> living organism on Earth, would it be equally unambiguous for all
> individual organisms as to whether or not they were, or were not, Homo
> sapiens?  In this case, I'd wager not.

Ah, but that's changing the rules of the game.  Species are real at any
one point in time (fortunately, evolutionary-scale time works for the most
part); beyond that, as you say, things get sketchy.  Is the common
ancestor of two current species the same as one or the other?  If not,
where did it change?  That doesn't work in any kind of objective way.  And
it gets at why we are condemned to have legions of paleontologists who
think phylogenetic nomenclature is the greatest invention since the rock
hammer, and why we have to listen to endless arguments by ego-driven
paleoanthropologists about whether the latest human-lineage discovery was

Karl Magnacca

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