[Taxacom] [tdwg] Semantic Web: What is a species?

Richard Pyle deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
Sun Jan 25 14:08:28 CST 2009


I've said it many times before on this list elsewhere: 

"A species is what community of taxonomists says it is."

It also happens to be the de-facto operational definition ever since the
notion of "species" first began, all the way through (and including) today.
Until we have another definition that is broadly adopted by the taxonomic
community, then it will remain the de-facto operational definition.

What Darwin said in the 'Origin of Species' is still true today:
"No one definition has as yet satisfied all naturalists; yet every
naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of a species."

And, by the way, here's how Darwin, in his characteristically overly verbose
way, had to say on the matter:

"Hence, in determining whether a form should be ranked as a species or a
variety, the opinion of naturalists having sound judgement and wide
experience seems the only guide to follow. We must, however, in many cases,
decide by a majority of naturalists, for few well-marked and well-known
varieties can be named which have not been ranked as species by at least
some competent judges."

In other words, "A species is what community of taxonomists says it is."

Aloha,
Rich

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Bob Morris [mailto:morris.bob at gmail.com] 
> Sent: Sunday, January 25, 2009 7:28 AM
> To: Richard Pyle
> Cc: tdwg at lists.tdwg.org; Taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
> Subject: Re: [tdwg] Semantic Web: What is a species?
> 
> Ah, Rich, might I understand your position to be akin to that 
> of the U.S. Supreme Court Justice the Honorable Potter 
> Stewart whose concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 
> U.S. 184 (1964) contains the famous words, refering to "obscenity":
> 
> "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of 
> material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand 
> description; and perhaps I could never succeed in 
> intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the 
> motion picture involved in this case is not that."
> 
> :-)
> 
> Bob Morris
> 
> 
> On Sun, Jan 25, 2009 at 6:44 AM, Richard Pyle 
> <deepreef at bishopmuseum.org> wrote:
> >
> > First, I think the comment that I *most* agree with is the 
> one made by 
> > Gurcharan Singh, that these conversations are endless (and will 
> > probably always be so).  There are two reasons I can never seem to 
> > miss an opportunity to dive in and pontificate (Jim C., 
> that's your cue...):
> >
> > 1) I usually have a slightly different perspective at the end these 
> > conversations, than I had at the beginning (always a good 
> thing); and
> >
> > 2) I enjoy the intellectual challenge of trying to make the 
> same basic 
> > points each time using a different tact, and coming from a 
> different 
> > perspective.
> >
> > Now, Pete:
> >
> >> When a medical entomologist states that a species X, breeds in 
> >> shallow
> > ephemeral pools and
> >> has a preference for human blood meals do they mean
> >>
> >> The taxonomic hypothesis A. o. has these properties or
> >>
> >> the "natural" unit currently called A. o. has these properties ?
> >
> > Frankly, I don't think most medical entomologists think that deeply 
> > about it.  In fact, I don't think most taxonomists even 
> think that deeply about.
> > I suspect most biologists/scientists/laymen think of 
> species as "things"
> > that exist in nature, and that these "things" have certain 
> properties 
> > that are consistent enough to allow predictions and such. 
> And I would 
> > wager that, in the vast majority of cases, they would do so 
> with good 
> > success. That doesn't make species "real" in my mind (or 
> even any more 
> > "real" than other taxonomic units -- in fact I think 
> populations are 
> > probably more demonstrably "real" than species). It just makes the 
> > notion of "species as real" a practical one (as if we 
> didn't already 
> > know that, after centuries of people thinking in those terms).
> >
> >> I think they mean the second and would benefit if the 
> statements made
> > about that natural unit
> >> could stay linked to the natural unit species concept over time.
> >>
> >> Unfortunately under the "species is the taxonomic 
> hypothesis" system 
> >> they
> > don't.
> >>
> >> Does this help clarify the distinction I am trying to make?
> >
> > I'm not sure -- partly because I've never quite understood 
> what people 
> > mean by "species are hypotheses".  By my reckoning, it's only an 
> > hypothesis if it's testable & falsifiable.  As such, it only makes 
> > sense in the context of "species are real entities in 
> nature, and we 
> > can test whether our circumscriptions (aka taxon concepts) 
> match those 
> > real entities".  So I've always thought of "species are hypotheses" 
> > and "species are real, natural entities" as being two sides 
> of the same coin.
> >
> > So I guess I don't understand the distinction you're 
> drawing between 
> > the two.
> >
> > Aloha,
> > Rich
> >
> >
> > _______________________________________________
> > tdwg mailing list
> > tdwg at lists.tdwg.org
> > http://lists.tdwg.org/mailman/listinfo/tdwg
> >
> 
> 
> 
> --
> Robert A. Morris
> Professor of Computer Science
> UMASS-Boston
> ram at cs.umb.edu
> http://bdei.cs.umb.edu/
> http://www.cs.umb.edu/~ram
> http://www.cs.umb.edu/~ram/calendar.html
> phone (+1)617 287 6466






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