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

Richard Jensen rjensen at saintmarys.edu
Mon Jan 26 09:57:24 CST 2009


If a species exists in the world, but no human is there to observe it, 
is it real?

I am not vain enough to believe that all other species exist solely 
because we humans are here to make observations about our surroundings. 
Trees falling in forests make noise whether anyone is there or not - the 
physical disturbances created by the falling tree, which our brain 
perceives as noise, still exist. Unless, of course, you believe that 
nothing exists until or unless it is perceived by a sentient being. If 
that's the case, then the light coming from a star one million light 
years away didn't exist until it was sensed. But if it didn't exist 
until it was sensed, then how did it make the journey? I find it 
terribly ego-centric to think that nothing else exists except in the 
context of human perception.

Back to something Rich Pyle wrote:

"I think the practice of identifying individual organisms to species 
concepts is mostly independent of whether those concepts represent 
human-defined constructs, or "natural" units that exist in nature 
independantly of human interpretations."

Exactly what is a "natural" unit that exists in nature independently of 
human interpretations? Does an atom of gold qualify? How about a planet? 
Unit implies something that can be individuated, most typically as a 
consequence of connections, however defined, between its constituent 
parts. You have suggested that populations may be natural units, but the 
very concept of population is linked to one or more of the many 
available species definitions. If the point is that species are not 
natural, then we have to know what "natural" means. Care to give it a shot?

Cheers,

Dick J



Richard Jensen, Professor
Department of Biology
Saint Mary’s College
Notre Dame, IN 46556
Tel: 574-284-4674



Richard Pyle wrote:
>> How do others think of species?
>>     
>
> I do not think that species are any more "real" than subspecies, genera, and
> families. I believe all of these things are abstract notions representing
> aggregate sets of individual organisms, defined and labelled by humans in a
> way that allows us to communicate with each other with some degree of
> efficiency (though certainly not perfect efficiency).
>
> Having said that, I think it is highly practical in many cases to treat
> units of "species" as though they were cohesive, singular, "real" entities
> that exist in nature (within a given slice of geologic time) independantly
> of human interpretations, because doing so also facilitates communication.
> This is particularly true in cases characterized by realtively broad
> periods/populations of phenetic and/or genetic stasis, homogeneity and
> consistency, punctuated by relatively small periods/populations of phenetic
> and/or genetic divergence, heterogeneity and spectral forms. I think the
> dangers and problems (nomenclatural instability, poorly supported
> hypotheses, confusing and conflicting lines of evidence) are most evident
> when people attempt to apply assumptions based on the "reality" of species
> to cases that are not so characterized. 
>
> Thus, I do not believe that species are "real", but I believe there are
> contexts in which is it useful to think of them as such.
>
> I think the practice of identifying individual organisms to species concepts
> is mostly independent of whether those concepts represent human-defined
> constructs, or "natural" units that exist in nature independantly of human
> interpretations. Analagous to my view of species, I think that morphological
> and genetic characters are properties of organisms, but in many cases it is
> highly practical to treat them as though they are properties of "species",
> given the same caveats described above.
>
> Aloha,
> Rich
>
> Richard L. Pyle, PhD
> Database Coordinator for Natural Sciences
>   and Associate Zoologist in Ichthyology
> Department of Natural Sciences, Bishop Museum
> 1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
> Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
> email: deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
> http://hbs.bishopmuseum.org/staff/pylerichard.html
>
>
>
>
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