[Taxacom] Serious questions about taxonomy/ontology

Richard Zander Richard.Zander at mobot.org
Fri Sep 10 11:39:47 CDT 2010

I'm working up a publication demonstrating that taxonomy is not a
descriptive science. The "description" part is a myth. What are we
describing? Something intuitive? instinctual? communicated to us by
radio waves from another planet? 

A taxonomic description is a set of answers to the application of a
series of Rules of Thumb. Since there are many rules of thumb
(heuristics, genetic algorithms, see Gigerenzer "Gut Feelings") for each
taxon, "descriptions" when even based on very small samples are
phenomenally accurate in prediction of distinctiveness of a taxon and
its at least local evolutionary relationships. 

Taxonomic rules of thumb need formalizing so we can stop knuckling our
foreheads when panjandrums of phylogenetics pass us by on the road to

Regarding this variant of "ontology" and its apparent structuralist
absolutism and hyperprecision, check out this quote from Jaynes:

"These scientisms, as I shall call them, are clusters of scientific
ideas which come together and almost surprise themselves into creeds of
belief, scientific mythologies.... And they share with religions many of
their most obvious characteristics: a rational splendor that explains
everything, a charismatic leader or succession of leaders who are highly
visible and beyond criticism, certain gestures of idea and rituals of
interpretation, and a requirement of total commitment. In return the
adherent receives what the religions had once given him more
universally: a world view, a hierarchy of importances, and an auguring
place where he may find out what to do and think, in short, a total
explanation of man. And this totality is obtained not by actually
explaining everything, but by an encasement of its activity, a severe
and absolute restriction of attention, such that everything that is not
explained is not in view."
-Jaynes, J., The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the
Bicameral Mind, Mariner Books, p. 441.

* * * * * * * * * * * * 
Richard H. Zander 
Missouri Botanical Garden, PO Box 299, St. Louis, MO 63166-0299 USA 
Web sites: http://www.mobot.org/plantscience/resbot/ and
Modern Evolutionary Systematics Web site:

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