[Taxacom] Intuition in taxonomy

Steve Manning sdmanning at asub.edu
Mon Mar 2 10:25:50 CST 2009

Hello Richard,

I would certainly agree with you in general.  However, in the real 
world, alpha taxonomists often make their decisions based on one to 
few available specimens, and I think this is a large part of the 
problem.  Whatever you call an "innate template for identifying 
reality", intuition or some other word, it may or may not be valid 
and certainly shouldn't ever, in my opinion, be the basis for 
ignoring or minimizing objective evidence.  But if you are looking at 
just a few specimens and deciding whether to lump them or split them, 
for example (or looking at data sets based ultimately on such 
investigations), sometimes it seems just like a coin-flip, so if 
someone "intuits" that it should be done one way rather than another, 
at that stage it may be an important part of the process, always 
subject to modification, even if describing new taxa.  So in that 
sense I am a splitter, figuring it will probably result in more 
precise descriptions.  But even when doing that, I actually hope that 
some of those narrowly defined taxa will be placed in synonymy with 
further investigations, either phenetic or population genetic or 
whatever else may ultimately enter the picture.

I think a big part of the problem is that even though those making 
legitimate "intuitive" decisions as described above recognize that 
their conclusions are subject to modification based on objective 
evidence, in fact this is often not done in the foreseeable 
future.  Thus much of our alpha-taxonomic hierarchy is still based on 
originally intuitive decisions, right or wrong, particularly at the 
infrageneric and infraspecific levels where much or most of the 
actual work is done.

Steve Manning

At 09:32 AM 3/2/2009, Richard Zander wrote:
>A colleague recently wrote me that alpha taxonomy has been called 
>"intuititve" and therefore had the reputation of not being 
>particularly scientific, so I should perhaps not base certain of my 
>methodological novelties (e.g. use of nonmonophyly to identify named 
>shared ancestors) on its efficacy.
>Here is my argument, after some digging in a dictionary: Intuition 
>is the direct perception of truth, without inference, perhaps by 
>some inate template for identifying reality. It is a leap of 
>understanding, and although such leaps do contribute to science, 
>alpha taxonomy in my opinion largely does not proceed this way. (It 
>would be a lot less work, otherwise.)
>Alpha taxonomy is dianoetic, meaning using discursive reasoning. 
>This is ratiocination that "runs" from premise through analysis 
>and/or synthesis to a conclusion. The premise of alpha taxonomy 
>(nowadays) is that organisms are grouped in nature in various ways 
>and apparent heirarchies because of processes of evolution, and we 
>can identify such groups through standard methods. The human 
>computer-brain is certainly adept at this given the very similar 
>clusterings obtained from molecular analysis. Surely initial 
>indentifications by studying published floras, publication of new 
>taxa that fit no previous taxon, and revisionary work cannot be said 
>to not involve inference on the basis of sorting by several 
>metrics,  evaluation of biogeographical patterns, and tempering 
>measures of similarity with concern for convergence through recourse 
>to evolutionary theory. That alpha taxonomy is to a considerable 
>extent an exact science is shown by the many measurements and 
>discussion of their importance in systematic publications, and 
>description of variation and conservative traits at a level of 
>resolution appropriate for biodiversity, and indeed evolutionary, analysis.
>Replicability has been an issue. I do not doubt that any five alpha 
>taxonomists will come up with similar (though not exact) taxonomies 
>on some unknown group. The apparently exactly replicable nature of 
>other methodologies may well be due to agreement on the part of the 
>practicioners to all make the same mistakes (biases, assumptions) 
>like weighting all traits uniformly or using the same models of 
>trait evolution. Any five pheneticists or phylogeneticists may 
>attain the same degree of disagreement (or lack of resolution) if 
>each were encouraged to weight traits differently, e.g. as they vary 
>in a population (suggested by Farris in 1971, I think) or following 
>some kind of covariation analysis.
>In sum, the classifications of apha taxonomy are not intuitive, but 
>are inferential and central.  I wonder what taxacomers think of this?
>I am encouraged by the establishment of a special program at the 
>National Science Foundation to support revisionary work as such. 
>(That I could not easily get to this program from the DEB home page 
>because there was no quickly identified menu of programs, plus my 
>inattentiveness, was reason for my previous squawk on Taxacom.)
>Richard H. Zander
>Missouri Botanical Garden
>PO Box 299
>St. Louis, MO 63166 U.S.A.
>richard.zander at mobot.org
>Taxacom Mailing List
>Taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
>The entire Taxacom Archive back to 1992 can be searched with either 
>of these methods:
>Or use a Google search specified 
>as:  site:mailman.nhm.ku.edu/pipermail/taxacom  your search terms here

More information about the Taxacom mailing list