[Taxacom] decline and fall of taxonomy

Michael Heads michael.heads at yahoo.com
Wed Jun 17 18:43:46 CDT 2009

Dear Richard and colleagues,
Linnaeus was a great taxonomist but our taxonomic project began long before his time. In botany I think the key psychological moment was when people changed from writing herbals - treatments of the useful plants in a region -  to writing floras, treatments of all the plants in an area whether they were useful or not. The first flora was by Caesalpino (who also pointed out endemism on ultramafics etc.) in the 16th century. Herbaria, university courses with field trips, botanical gardens etc. all began at this time. There is more to taxonomy than binomial nomenclature!
As for testing, medieval monks tested their hypotheses rigorously and logically (with reference to scripture or other 'authentic' authorities). The real point seems to be - what is a valid test?
As for the falsifiability criterion - how can you 'disprove' a theory other than by using something that is proved? 'Facts' can seem straightforward but are sometimes quite deceptive... 
Michael Heads

Wellington, New Zealand.

My papers on biogeography are at: http://tiny.cc/RiUE0

--- On Thu, 6/18/09, Richard Zander <Richard.Zander at mobot.org> wrote:

From: Richard Zander <Richard.Zander at mobot.org>
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] decline and fall of taxonomy
To: "Peter DeVries" <pete.devries at gmail.com>, "Maarten Christenhusz" <m.christenhusz at nhm.ac.uk>
Cc: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
Date: Thursday, June 18, 2009, 10:13 AM

Interesting point, Peter. Right now description of a new species is more like:
"Here is a description of a new species which is REALLY OBVIOUSLY something different if you were me, studying this group for years."

The observation "they all look alike to me" is familiar and sort of true when you view someone else's group of expertise, but not for your own. The idea that there are more than a hundred different beetles, for instance, is ridiculous.

I think hypotheses of species needn't be proved (nothing is proved in science) but can be supported and the alternative falsified and so on. The key feature is that the hypothesis is useful to mankind (I mean personkind) and can be demonstrated so. 

Also, we are engaged in a 250-year research project started by Linnaeus to describe, name and catalogue the world's biota. Maybe one does not have to demonstrate the validity of one's new species immediately, but leave that for revisionists and the like. Taxononmy is, like MSWindows and Office, all one program.

Richard H. Zander
Missouri Botanical Garden
PO Box 299
St. Louis, MO 63166 U.S.A.
richard.zander at mobot.org


From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu on behalf of Peter DeVries
Sent: Wed 6/17/2009 4:01 PM
To: Maarten Christenhusz
Cc: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] decline and fall of taxonomy

Here are two issues that relate to your note:
1) Many believe science is about making a hypothesis and testing it. It
might help if species descriptions address this.

   Something like:

"I hypothesize that there is a separate species represented by these
specimens and having these characteristics"

-- then support this hypothesis with data

   Proving something is a species might be a little difficult, but you get
the idea

2) Under the current way of doing things, it seems almost impossible that a
species description or revision can be adequately peer reviewed or


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