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

Curtis Clark jcclark-lists at earthlink.net
Thu Jan 29 20:36:03 CST 2009

On 2009-01-26 12:04, Richard Pyle wrote:
> That's the crux of the question.  But I think a better way to think of it
> is:  If "extra-terrestrial beings of a super-intelligence" arrived on our
> planet and classified all living things, would they come up with the same
> units as we have? Would they come up with a hierarchical classification
> scheme? If so, would they recognize one unit of classification in the
> hierarchy as being "special", moreseo than the others?  Would those units
> correlate well with our "species"? Would they draw stick-figure cladograms
> as representations of evolutionary affinity?  I suspect that in some cases
> there would be good congruency, and in other cases, not so much.
> A parallel test we can do without the extra-terrestrials is to compare
> traditional nomenclatures created by native peoples, independently of
> western science, and see what the correlation is.  In my experience, the
> correlation is reasonably good in some cases, and in other cases ... not so
> much.

Although my general views on this subject are probably well-documented, 
if not well-remembered (e.g., if species aren't real, the study of 
speciation is metaphysics, not science), but this is exactly an issue 
that I have considered in the same light. My understanding of the 
salient studies of traditional nomenclatures is that the places where 
they disagree are with tiny organisms (lumped far more than scientific 
classifications) and organisms of economic importance (split far more 
than scientific classifications). Certainly our own understanding of 
bacterial diversity is still poorer in many cases than our understanding 
of bird diversity, and we have a whole code of nomenclature for 
cultivated plants, so this shouldn't be surprising.

It would be interesting to look at the classifications of non-humans in 
this regard. I worked with some signing chimps once (Booie, Bruno, 
Thelma, and Cindy, if anyone cares), but it never occurred to me to ask 
them about organisms. Since they didn't live in the wild, they might 
well have had the same sort of limited view that less-educated, 
city-dwelling humans have.

As for hierarchy, humans tend to think hierarchically (iirc, chemical 
elements were originally classified in a hierarchy). Fred Schueler wrote 
on this list, “It’s ironic that the anarchy of ‘descent with 
modification by natural selection’ should give rise to the only really 
important or useful natural hierarchical arrangement we know of,” but in 
a sense we lucked out that it was really a hierarchy. It might take 
extraterrestrials who see the world in a different way a while to figure 
it out.

Are species "special"? I think so, but only because they mark the 
boundary between tokogenetic and phylogenetic patterns; I don't see them 
as "more natural". I think extraterrestrials would need some study to 
come to that level of conclusion, whether or not they agreed or disagreed.

Curtis Clark                  http://www.csupomona.edu/~jcclark/
Director, I&IT Web Development                   +1 909 979 6371
University Web Coordinator, Cal Poly Pomona

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