[Taxacom] Are species real? Doesn't matter.

Steve Manning sdmanning at asub.edu
Thu May 31 16:01:41 CDT 2007

At 02:52 PM 5/31/2007, Richard Jensen wrote:
>As I read through these posts, I couldn't help but wonder if those of
>you responding view species as classes, rather than individuals. The
>species as individual argument, sensu Ghiselin and Hull, is based on
>species being real entities with spatio-temporal constraints.
>My view is that species are real, but the best we can do with our names
>is to designate hypotheses about what these real entities are [e.g.,
>Homo sapiens is, hypothetically, a real entity, a product of a natural
>process (evolution); and, it appears to be a pretty good hypothesis
>given that there are few instances of questionable human beings - I
>know, certain deans and administrators are probably beneath being human,
>but they're a special case]. Because these are hypotheses, we must
>accumulate evidence to test our hypotheses and reject them when when the
>evidence indicates that we were mistaken.

Continuing to use Homo sapiens as an example, what evidence should be 
used to test the hypothesis that this species is "real" and what 
would constitute evidence sufficient to decide that this hypothesis 
must be rejected? (i.e., was mistaken?).  And, if this is a problem 
to determine for Homo sapiens, is it not likely to be a greater 
problem with less familiar species?


>And, there are competing
>hypotheses as to what constitutes a given species. Until such time as we
>can develop a consensus about the status of each named species, it is
>important that we be aware of each hypothesis so we can disentangle the
>historical treatments of each named species.
>Dick J
>Richard Jensen, Professor
>Department of Biology
>Saint Mary's College
>Notre Dame, IN 46556
>Tel: 574-284-4674
>Richard Pyle wrote:
> > Hi Richard,
> >
> > Thanks for commenting.  Actually, my recent post was more about seeking
> > recent literature on species concepts and application of binomials and
> > trinomials.  I only mentioned the "species are/aren't real" issue
> > tangentially.  The topic has been discussed in much greater detail on this
> > list in years past.
> >
> > The comparison with physicists and the Platonist/Cartesian perspectives is
> > useful, I think, and I'd not seen that comparison made before.  Maybe I
> > should also sort through the literature surrounding the Physicists' debates
> > on this issue as well.
> >
> >
> >> I think we have the nominalism/realism divide here in
> >> taxonomy, with alpha taxonomists worrying and arguing over
> >> their interpretations, preferring to always cite alternative
> >> concepts, while databasers (e.g.
> >> EoL) deal with what they prefer to consider real things, one of each.
> >> Oh, sure, we are all scientific realists of a sort, but
> >> differ in what we worry about.
> >>
> >
> > Hmmmm...I wonder where I fit in.  I am certainly at the "alpha" end of the
> > taxonomist spectrum; but I am also a hard-core databaser (including
> > involvement with EoL).  The databaser in me does indeed want to deal with
> > "real" things, but the alpha taxonomist in me knows that those real things
> > cannot be "species".  In fact, I am increasingly convinced that they cannot
> > be "names" either -- not because they aren't "real" (after all, we have
> > Codes to sort them out), but because there are too many different "flavors"
> > of how different biologists think of a "name".  My current 
> belief, as I have
> > articulated on another recent thread on this list, is that the 
> closest thing
> > we have to a "real" entity of practical database management value for
> > taxonomy is the "usage instance". That is, a massive index 
> tracking how text
> > stings have been used as names for organisms within the context of various
> > forms of documentation (e.g., publications -- see
> > http://wiki.tdwg.org/twiki/bin/view/GUID/UsageInstanceProposal).  With
> > access to such a "BIG Index", the important information concerning "name"
> > and "species" can be algorithmically derived (regardless of whether the
> > algorithm is processed in a human brain -- as all biologists have always
> > done when assessing taxa -- or in a computer).
> >
> > While I was writing the above, Doug Yanega responded:
> >
> >
> >> It matters to more than just practicing taxonomists and
> >> "databasers", and I think you are downplaying how vastly
> >> asymmetrical the dichotomy is here; there are far, FAR more
> >> people in the world whose need for taxonomic information
> >> requires it to be as consistent, objective, and unambiguous
> >> as possible.
> >>
> >
> > I agree (except for the "objective" bit; consistent and unambiguous, for
> > sure) -- and I see this need being easily fulfilled through a "layer"
> > interface between the "BIG Index" and the end consumer.  ITIS, Species2000,
> > FishBase, and others currently perform this function.
> >
> >
> >> For one of the simplest such observations, and
> >> one close at hand, is the fact that every specimen in every
> >> museum in the world that has been identified to species is
> >> filed under a single name.
> >>
> >
> > [Note: I wrote the following 3 paragraphs when I thought by "filed" you
> > meant "data managed".  I now realize you meant physically stored, but since
> > I wrote the stuff below already, and it does have some relevance, 
> I'll leave
> > it in.]
> >
> > Ummm...mostly, yes.  But I think that is changing, or will change.  Very
> > early on in my career as a technician in a museum collection, I started
> > wrestling with cases where specimens could either be labeled as one species
> > (following one expert), or another species (following another expert).
> > Indeed, it was this very issue that first led me into the whole
> > names/concepts thing many years ago. I am in the process of completely
> > overhauling the management of specimen collections data at our Museum, and
> > will be solving both the species concept issue and the specimen
> > identification issue through the same silver bullet (as you might 
> guess: the
> > usage instance).  Instead of maintaining a single list of 
> taxonomic names as
> > our "taxonomic authority", we will instead maintain a potentially much
> > larger index of usage instances.  To serve the needs of the many data
> > consumers who need a consistent/unambiguous list of species, our 
> institution
> > will play the role of "meta authority" and select one specific usage
> > instance for each Code-governed "name" that we feel "got it right". Through
> > this collection of "Accepted Usages", we can very easily derive not only a
> > taxonomic authority/checklist in the traditional sense, but also 
> accommodate
> > the translation of existing specimen identifications into "accepted"
> > taxonomy (sensu our Museum) on the fly.  What this means is that we will
> > maintain specimen identifications as they are, in the form of a usage
> > instance ("Smith identified this specimen to be Aus bus L."), which can be
> > instantaneously translated into "Xus bus (L.)" through our Museum's
> > taxonomic "meta authority" service.
> >
> > In many cases, specimens have multiple identifications through history.
> > Some of these are "real" determination events, where an expert examined the
> > specimen and declared it to belong to a particular species; and in other
> > cases, nobody every examined the specimen, but the identification was
> > updated merely to reflect changing prevailing taxonomy. My ambition is to
> > track all of the "real" determination events for each specimen as
> > functionally equal, and then select one of them (usually the most 
> recent) as
> > the "current identification" -- in much the same way that we select one
> > usage instance of a taxon name as the "current" usage sensu us. I 
> would like
> > the end the practice of creating artificial "re-identifications" simply for
> > the sake of maintaining current taxonomy, and fulfill that need through the
> > dynamic taxonomic meta-authority service.
> >
> > The point is, specimen data can be found (searched) or rendered (specimen
> > labels, web pages, etc.) in a way that serves the needs for a 
> consistent and
> > unambiguous single name for each specimen, even though the actual database
> > management scheme does not treat the specimens as having "identified to
> > species ... filed under a single name".
> >
> >
> >> I have yet to see an institution
> >> that maintains specimens in multiple places in their
> >> collection if there are multiple alternative opinions as to
> >> what name should be applied.
> >>
> >
> > Where a specimen is physically stored is a completely separate issue from
> > how the information is managed.  All that matters in terms of physical
> > storage is that the specimen can be located when needed.  Traditionally,
> > this has been accomplished by arranging the specimens taxonomically -- and
> > with good reason.  Obviously, a specimen cannot be on two separate shelves
> > at the same time (which I now gather is your original point).  But a
> > well-designed database system will obviate the need to informatically brand
> > each specimen under a single name in order to make it easy to access the
> > specimen.  Keeping track of where the physical specimen is located on a
> > shelf becomes less of an example for a need for consistent taxonomy, than a
> > need for creative and careful data management.
> >
> >
> >> It is also true that there are
> >> probably no two institutions in existence who have the same
> >> names applied to ALL of the taxa that they have in common;
> >> that is why a "rosetta stone" taxonomic resource is essential
> >> to the future of collections-based research - so multiple
> >> collections can compare their holdings and accurately assess
> >> where they overlap and where they differ, without being
> >> thrown off by idiosyncrasies introduced by alternative
> >> classifications.
> >>
> >
> > Wholehearted agreement!
> >
> >
> >> If you wish to draw analogies, then why not use quantum
> >> physics? It's fine for some people to think about an electron
> >> as a cloud of energy whose location and definition in
> >> space/time is probabilistic, but for most people, they need
> >> to treat it as a particle.
> >>
> >
> > In the time it took me to write this WAY-too-long post, Richard Zander
> > already replied with:
> >
> >
> >> Sure specimens have different names in collections. Maybe they
> >> are under one name as a filing aid, but for difficult groups
> >> each may have annotation labels with all kinds of names.
> >>
> >
> > ...which very nicely distills the point it took me pages and pages to
> > muddle.
> >
> > Aloha,
> > Rich
> >
> >
> >
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> > Taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
> > http://mailman.nhm.ku.edu/mailman/listinfo/taxacom
> >
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Dr. Steve Manning
Arkansas State University--Beebe
Mathematics and Science
Professor of Biology
P.O. Box 1000
Beebe, AR  72012
Phone: 501-882-8203
Fax: 501-882-4437

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