[Taxacom] Do not say: "Species are hypotheses"

Nico Franz nico.franz at asu.edu
Sun Jun 4 19:15:29 CDT 2017

Hi all, for your consideration.

If tomorrow an intelligent alien population occupied earth, and selectively
wiped out all humans, then this would have little effect on the deep-time,
evolutionary identities and relationships of all other natural entities on
earth. A majority of taxonomists practice our science as if that sort or
realism about the evolutionary identities and boundaries of taxa is valid.

When someone inquires about why taxonomies (must) change, this question is
also a challenge to us to be sufficiently precise in our use of language.
That is, to get the relationship of..

terms (human language),
meanings (theories of how that language [adequately, we hypothesize]
reaches out to entities in the natural world), and
the entities themselves

..sorted out well enough.

One way to try that is to say: The proposed combinations of pointed-at
samples and empirically grounded characteristics that make up our taxonomic
diagnoses are hypotheses. We hypothesize that, as these diagnoses 'clash'
with more samples that we will find in the natural world, there will be an
alignment between the identities/boundaries that our hypotheses entail and
predict, and those that the natural entities signal to us. How much of that
signal we receive can change. How we interpret that signal can change. At
some point, under a cheerful conception of scientific progress, the
alignment between our representations of the signal and 'the signal itself'
will improve.

The above model is a good way to speak of (1) alignments between multiple
diagnostic hypotheses in relationship to each other, and also (2) of the
alignment between each of them to the external, evolutionary signal.

Do not say: "Species are hypotheses" if you wish to communicate that you
are thinking of taxonomy as a hypothesis-based, empirically self-refining,
scientific endeavor that is realized overwhelmingly in the human
language/meaning realm, while there is also a natural realm that is not a
set of hypotheses, and does not change (much, for most macro-organismal
groups) in the course of a human lifetime. Taxonomy is the mimic, taxa are
the model. Species are natural entities whose identities and boundaries our
species-level concepts (hypotheses) are intended to align with, through a
successive approximations approach. The species-level concepts are the
hypotheses here, not the species. When our science is under inquiry, I
submit that it is not the best time to promote linguistic shortcuts that we
on the inside may deal with just fine, but which on the face of it obscure
the totality of elements in the alignment work that taxonomists engage in.

Cheers, Nico

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