[Taxacom] decline and fall of taxonomy

Richard Pyle deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
Thu Jun 18 13:25:09 CDT 2009

> Is there general agreement that a species description is a 
> form of hypothesis driven science rather than a descriptive science?


Unless the hypothesis is, "defining this circumscription of organisms as a
single 'species' facilitates communication amongst biologists and others
better than this other circumscription definition".  But that hypothesis is
not a biological hypothesis; it would need to be tested by people expert in
the ways of human-human communication.

A biological hypothesis would be something like:

"the most recent common ancestor between one circumscribed set of organisms
and another circumscribed set of organisms lived more recently than the most
recent common ancestor between either set and a third circumscribed set of

...which is a convoluted (but more explicit) way of saying "organism 'A' and
organism 'B' are more closely-related to each other than either is to
organism 'C'".

In other words, the products of taxonomy are defined and labelled entities;
whereas assertions about phylogenies are [usually] testable hypotheses.  

I say "usually" because I'm not even sure there is always a single clear-cut
answer to questions about phylogeny; in part because we don't necessarily
have a common undrstanding of what is meant by "related to" [see recent
exchange on "Human Origins" between Richard Zander and John Grehan], and in
part because certain pesky organisms don't always play by the rules
(introgression, reticulate patterns of evolution, etc.)

> Is there general agreement that we need to improve the 
> documentation of these descriptions so it is clearer to other 
> scientists why the authors came to the conclusions they did?

Absolutely; yes!

> *1) I don't think that there is anything wrong with 
> descriptive science, but some scientists argue it is not science.
>   So, why fight that battle when you don't have to.

As long as we don't try to pretend that descriptive science is something
that it is not.

I wish I had more time to comment on many of the excellent concurrent
discussions happening on this and other lists, but I do not.


P.S. The answer to the taxon authorhip issue is straightforward:  we need
both sets of authors; one to disambuguate the name (and properly credit the
original proposer); and one to specify in what sense (i.e., which
circumscription, or taxon concept) is implied by the name.

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