[Taxacom] Intuition in taxonomy

Richard Zander Richard.Zander at mobot.org
Mon Mar 2 09:32:03 CST 2009

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

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