[Taxacom] Serious questions about taxonomy/ontology

Stephen Thorpe stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz
Fri Sep 10 17:48:12 CDT 2010


Richard, 

surely you are trying to wind me up???

>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? 
>

Um ... er ... we are describing what we observe through our eyes! Lets just 
consider morphology for now. There are individual organisms out in the field 
(have you been there lately?) which have differing morphologies to each other, 
and the same basic morphologies seem to crop up again and again. This is what 
taxonomists describe! Taxonomists also classify these morphologies (and that bit 
isn't descriptive, but for traditional taxonomy, as opposed to systematics, it 
is just a data organisation task)

Stephen



________________________________
From: Richard Zander <Richard.Zander at mobot.org>
To: Stephen Thorpe <stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz>; Bob Mesibov 
<mesibov at southcom.com.au>; TAXACOM <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu>
Sent: Sat, 11 September, 2010 4:39:47 AM
Subject: RE: [Taxacom] Serious questions about taxonomy/ontology

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
glory. 

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
http://www.mobot.org/plantscience/bfna/bfnamenu.htm
Modern Evolutionary Systematics Web site:
http://www.mobot.org/plantscience/resbot/21EvSy.htm


      


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