Are species real?

Scott Lyell Gardner slg at UNL.EDU
Tue Apr 11 22:31:19 CDT 2006

During a field expedition on mammals and their parasites in the Beni of
Bolivia in 1985, (American Museum and Museum of Southwestern Biology)
the local Chimane were able to identify as distinct and different,
almost every species of rodent, bat, and marsupial that we collected.
They lived with the fauna and they knew the forest.  They were
splitters.  This was an interesting application of the idea of species
for a graduate student.  Equally interesting was the fact that the
invading campesinos, or colonists from other parts of Bolivia,
recognized very few species, even though they hunted and farmed to
survive.  To the colonists, animals were either small "bicho's" or
domestic animals.  So, they were lumpers.  One culture retained the
data, because of the way they lived.  The other had long ago lost
contact with nature and was living in a different way.

Scott Gardner

Robin Leech wrote:

> Try referring to Ernst Mayr's work in New Guinea on birds.  The locals
> there recognized (not sure of the number, but it was something like
> 139 species) recognized 139 species, Mayr recognized 140 species.
> Two more diverse cultures one cannot find: New Guinean and
> European.
> Robin Leech
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: "Karl Magnacca" <kmagnacca at WESLEYAN.EDU>
> Sent: Tuesday, April 11, 2006 1:47 PM
> Subject: Re: Are species real?
>>> 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
>> "human".
>> Karl Magnacca

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Scott Lyell Gardner, Ph.D.
Director, Harold W. Manter Laboratory of Parasitology
University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Lincoln, Nebraska 68588-0514

e-mail:   slg at
ASP Page:

Phone:    402-472-3334
Fax:      402-472-8949

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