[Taxacom] Species Concepts and Nomenclature Question (Was: Replies Re: Economist leader addressed to taxonomists)

Richard Pyle deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
Wed May 23 21:15:50 CDT 2007

Thanks to Geoff for forwarding the link to the rebuttal letters to the
Economist article, and a very special thanks to the authors of both letters
for their eloquence!  I thought both letters were very effective at
capturing the shortcomings of the original article, and also helped
communicate a more accurate representation of our (taxonomists') role in
modern civilization.  Nice job!

One line in the letter from the Ruedas & Brown letter did catch my eye, and
affords me an opportunity to post a question to this list that I've been
meaning to send for some time now (hence the new subject line).

The quote that caught my eye was this one:  

"...our concepts of what constitutes a species have been brought up to date
from "whatever a competent taxonomist decides it is" to a more objectively
measured view."

The authors follow this by explaining that early taxonomists were not aware
of, or in some cases did not believe the evolutionary context of
relationships among taxa (i.e., phylogeny) -- and on this point I certainly
agree. However, this evolutionary context does not, as far as I can see,
address the point of the paragraph (i.e., the "statement that the explosion
of new biological diversity is a simple arbitrary elevation of subspecies to
species").  Except, perhaps, for the biological species concept, I don't see
how our increase in understanding of evolutionary processes in any way helps
us to distinguish whether two closely-related but consistently diagnosable
populations should be regarded as full species, or as subspecies (or
"geographic variants"). In fact, quite the opposite.  The more I learn about
recent advancements in our understanding of evolutionary speciation, the
murkier (and more arbitrary) the distinction between "species" and
"subspecies" becomes. Even more than before, it seems that the distinction
between labeling things as distinct species vs. distinct subspecies is
"whatever a competent taxonomist decides it is" (and personally, I see
nothing wrong with this, as this has been for the past quarter of a
millenium -- and continues to be -- the de-facto definition of "species").

Now...on to my question for this list.  Years ago I used to closely follow
the species concept debates and related philosophical discussions about
nomenclature; but I have lost touch with this area of scientific discussion.
For various reasons, I want to get caught back up again on this issue. I
plan to do the usual searches at the library and Google/etc.; but I was
wondering if anyone on this list could point me to any recent publications
that might help characterize where we (as a community) currently stand on
species concepts, and the application of Linnaean nomenclature thereto.

Do the debates rage on?  If not, did most everyone converge on a species
concept, or did they just get tired of arguing about it?  In other words,
has a consensus emerged, or is there still a diversity of opinions on the
matter?  Of particular interest to me are publications addressing the
question of when/how to use trinomials (subspecies) as opposed to
recognizing full species when applying nomenclature.  I'm primarily
interested in zoological contexts (broadly  -- insects, various vertebrates,
marine invertebrates, etc.), but am also interested if there have been any
recent publications dealing with these issues in the botanical context.

I am, of course, always interested in the opinions of list members, but what
I really want to do is catch up on the last 10-15 years of published
literature on the subject -- so publication citations (particularly for
review articles and others with extensive bibliographies) would be the most
helpful for me. I'm also interested in citations for example publications
that either elevated subspecies to full species (e.g., the Sulawesi macaques
alluded to in the Ruedas & Brown letter), or sunk full species into
subspecies status.

Many thanks in advance!



> -----Original Message-----
> From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu 
> [mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Geoff Read
> Sent: Wednesday, May 23, 2007 12:32 PM
> To: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
> Subject: [Taxacom] Replies Re: Economist leader addressed to 
> taxonomists
> FYI. Economist have put two letters up on the website last 
> night. Ruedas & Brown, and Yanega.
> http://www.economist.com/debate/theinbox/
> Geoff
> -- 
>    Geoff Read <g.read at niwa.co.nz>
>     http://www.annelida.net/
>     http://www.niwascience.co.nz/ncabb/
> _______________________________________________
> Taxacom mailing list
> Taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
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