Are species real?

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Tue Apr 11 12:39:18 CDT 2006

> 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.

Agreed on all points above.

> 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.  

The point is this: When you draw an arbitrary line through time (say, 2006, or the 20th ceuntury, or the Holocene), that line will intersect some assembalges that seem unambiguously delineated from all other assemblages (e.g., Homo sapiens), and some assemblages for which there is a great deal of ambiguity about where species lines should be drawn.  Perhaps the frequency of the former is vastly greater than the frequency of the latter, in which case the latter can be written off as a minor "edge effect", a narrow "fuzzy" halo around a small number of cases in a context otherwise dominated by objectively discernable species.  However, from my perspective, in many groups it seems that abiguity is the norm.  That is, most groups are, if not dominated then at least non-trivially populated with, examples where reasonable lumpers and splitters will disagree as to whether we're looking at two sister species, or two geographic variations of the same species.

If the cut-and-dried, no-ambiguity cases are far and away the norm, then we can probably settle on a practical notion of "real" and think of species as being correctly or incorectly treated as different species; with only a few rare exceptions.  But I don't think that's the case -- I think a larger proportion of biodiversity (than most people realize) at any given cross-section of time falls into the "fuzzy" zone, such that what many may think of as the exceptions, actually end up being the rule.  If that's the case, then the notion of "real" has little place in conversations about where to deliniate species boundaries.


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