[Taxacom] panbiogeography critique

mivie at montana.edu mivie at montana.edu
Sun Jun 28 11:06:13 CDT 2009

I know I am going to regret this....

Croizat being right on something is a correlate of the chimpanzee (or
Orang if you prefer) pounding on a typewriter and occasionally producing a
sentence.  In thousands of pages of gibberish, something would be correct
by random coincidence.  This is the major error of panbiogeographers:
confusing the coincidental accident with ex post facto verification.

I have been attracted to Panbiogeography at 3 points in my career, the
most recent just a couple years ago. I have spent most of my career
working in the West Indies, and 30 years ago knew a huge amount about  how
West Indian Biogeography worked.  Over the last 30 years what I know has
been dramatically decreased -- the more I learned, the less I know. 
Today, as I write this from St. Lucia, I am mostly just confused on the
subject.  I doubt we will really understand the region without a major
improvement in our understanding of its physical origins and history that
differs from what we think today.

Recently, I spent 5 years working on the tiny Lesser Antillean island of
Montserrat. The geologic history of the island and region seem pretty
clear, it is a volcano in a line of volcanoes.  However, the more I
learned about its fauna, the more weird anomalies I found that made it
more Greater Antillean than any of its sister islands.  Attempts to remove
this problem by more sampling of surrounding islands (hyp: the patterns
observed are due to under-sampling of intervening islands) did not work. 
It just reinforced the oddities.

The only answer seemed that there was something unknown that made
Montserrat's history different from the surrounding islands, that
something being totally beyond current geologic understanding.

This lead me to reexamine Panbiogeography, thinking maybe I had missed
something the first 2 times.  I reread what I could stomach of the
literature (passing on a reread of Croizat himself). But, again, for the
third time, it let me down.  It produces an ex post facto narrative with a
seductively attractive answer that fits the data, but it is circular and
inherently unscientific in the end.  It does produce predictions, but
those predictions can only be supported by possibly random coincidence,
and cannot be refuted by non-corresponding data, as those are explained by
the same method as just other tracks, not refutation of the one previously
proposed.  Like religion, panbiogeography will explain any discovered

Plus, certain of its practitioners are so bizarre!  [NOTE: THIS REFERS TO
equivalents of someone who believes in some random but brilliant guy in
New York finding golden tablets in an unknown language descended from
Egyptian, finding truth there, sending the tablets away with an angel, and
then founding a religion that is centered in an isolated geographic
setting.  The followers then use the "fact" of the tablets to justify
their current beliefs, and tend to feel anyone who disagrees is attacking
them and their divinely revealed truth.  Plus, they are very anxious to be
viewed as mainstream, not marginal.

Correspondingly, panbiogeographers believe in some random but brilliant
guy in Venezuela, hammering out a series of books in a language that is
descended from English (but not quite there), whose followers form a
colony in New Zealand, and believe with all their heart and sole that they
have discovered truth, but that the rest of the world is out to attack
them.  They do send out missionaries, etc.  And, they are desperate --
desperate -- to be seen as a mainstream valid science, not marginal.

However, while this approach makes excellent religion, it does not make
good science.  Not a group I want to be associated with.  If the theory
was more validly based, it would attract a wider, perhaps nearly
universal, following.  The fact that it does not makes its practitioners
very much like the persecuted self-validating members of minority
religions -- very sure of their superiority and of their eventual
vindication and salvation in this world or the next.


>> bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of mivie at montana.edu
>> Clearly should have stayed out of this discussion, it is not going to
>> change anything by getting into  it, but sometimes I go over the edge.
>> Spending your life in a wheelchair can make you grumpy, I am finding.
> But
>> a few corrections:
> No worries. Anyone who participates on this list is probably "over the
> edge".
>> > Michael feels
>> > that panbiogeography is ridiculous and teaches his students this,
>> Again, not what I said.
> The quote is " I and many others still ridicule panbiogeography at every
> opportunity -- I did it this morning with some students."
> So I think Heads can be forgiven to interpreting "I did it this morning
> with some students" to mean "that panbiogeography is ridiculous and
> teaches his this".
> I do ridicule it, but mostly because of the
>> bizarre practitioners, and never in an actual teaching environment.
> But see above.
> In what way are the practioners "bizarre"?
> It is
>> hard to actually talk about Croizat's books with a straight face (have
> you
>> actually tried to read them?).
> Yes I have read them. Also read plenty of 'standard' books that are
> sometimes no better or worse.
> In the conversation I cited, I was having
>> a discussion with grad students and am guilty as admitted of ridicule,
> but
>> not as stated above.
> Clarification understood, but the inference was reasonable I think.
>> Mainstream religion believes in talking snakes, but that does not make
> it
>> good science.
> But in science publishers such as OUP seem to be pretty conservative and
> citing other fields may not be germane. If the nature of the publisher
> has no bearing on being mainstream, then the opinions by critics of the
> method don't really add to much either. They are just opinions that may
> or may not be correct. But some comments below.
> Cracraft's "oversimplistic interpretation" claim my or may not be
> correct. But if "oversimplistic" interpretations result in successful
> geological predictions then so what?
>> "Most applications of the panbiogeography
>> method tend towards the narrative rather than the analytical"
> This could be said of all dispersalist accounts (the analysis being the
> phylogeny, the narrative being the dispersalist claims). This claim
> about panbiogeography ignores the fact that the panbiogeographic method
> is analytical.
>> "...they strongly advocate using biogeographic distributions
>> as evidence of phylogenetic relationships, but their examples have
>> preconceived notions of relationships built into them."
> Who knows what this might mean. The fact is that the use of
> biogeographic relationships has generated phylogenetic predictions that
> have been later corroborated through biological analysis.
>> "The authors are strong supporters of the importance of systematics,
>> but they are short on specific analytical procedures of how
> biogeography might be used to infer relationships."
> Hard to figure that one out.
>> Serious problems inherent in the Panbiogeography method, which have
> been
>> documented in the literature ad nauseum.
> No they have not. Just theoretical objections to a method that works.
> That's the bottom line - the method does work. No one has demonstrated
> that the standard tracks and nodes do not exist, that there are no ocean
> basin correlations of global patterns of distribution, that there are no
> centers of basal evolution, that there are no correlations between
> distribution and tectonics, that Croizat was wrong about the tectonics
> of the Galapagos or the Americas. One can theoretically debate any
> method theoretically, but the bottom line is the result (in my opinion).
> John Grehan
> _______________________________________________
> Taxacom Mailing List
> Taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
> http://mailman.nhm.ku.edu/mailman/listinfo/taxacom
> The Taxacom archive going back to 1992 may be searched with either of
> these methods:
> (1) http://taxacom.markmail.org
> Or (2) a Google search specified as:
> site:mailman.nhm.ku.edu/pipermail/taxacom  your search terms here

More information about the Taxacom mailing list