Is Taxonomy an Art or Science?

| 20 Comments

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “taxonomy” as “classification, esp. in relation to its general laws or principles; that department of science, or of a particular science or subject, which consists in or relates to classification; esp. the systematic classification of living organisms.” Without a doubt, taxonomy is a major arm of biology.

A taxonomist and collaborator of mine, Brendan Hodkinson, recently opined on the status of taxonomy as an art or a science.

I tend to think of science itself in a very strict sense, as the process of developing and testing hypotheses. However, my big caveat is that there are many activities that are involved in (and are absolutely essential to) the practice of science that are not science per se according to that definition. This does not diminish their value to science. Some of this has to do with the acquisition of background knowledge that informs the hypotheses to be tested, while some of it is associated with making the results of inquiry available and comprehensible to the scientific community and the public.

So then is taxonomy art or science? …

Read the rest to see his conclusion.

20 Comments

I think he’s too hard on systematics. First, taxonomy has two major components, of which he mentions only one: the attachment of names to groups. But there’s also (at least) alpha taxonomy, the delimitation and description of species. The former, being arbitrary (you can pick any clade to name, and assign any name to it subject to certain likewise arbitrary rules of nomenclature), isn’t science. But I don’t know of any systematist whose work consists mainly of doing that. Instead, they do phylogenetics, which sometimes requires new taxonomies. So nobody’s going to lose a career if that sort of taxonomy is recognized as non-science. And of course the point would still remain that naming is necessary for science even if naming isn’t science.

Then again, in alpha taxonomy there’s a clear hypothesis to be tested: this entity here is a new species, separate from all previously described ones. To the extent that alpha taxonomists actually test that hypothesis, they’re doing science. Even if the test is “this looks too different from previous specimens for me to believe they’re from the same population”.

Yes, but for an alpha taxonomy hypothesis, when do you know the results support the hypothesis? Deciding if a new taxon is “separate from all previously described ones” certainly involves some subjectivity, based on an individual’s definition of a species. In that sense, I would argue that it could still be called art. But as Brendan mentions in his post, calling taxonomy art doesn’t detract from its importance! I think Brendan does a great job of describing taxonomy and its role in relation to “hard” science. I like to think of systematics/phylogenetics as the “hard” science and taxonomy as the art of interpreting that science.

John Harshman said:

I think he’s too hard on systematics. First, taxonomy has two major components, of which he mentions only one: the attachment of names to groups. But there’s also (at least) alpha taxonomy, the delimitation and description of species. The former, being arbitrary (you can pick any clade to name, and assign any name to it subject to certain likewise arbitrary rules of nomenclature), isn’t science. But I don’t know of any systematist whose work consists mainly of doing that. Instead, they do phylogenetics, which sometimes requires new taxonomies. So nobody’s going to lose a career if that sort of taxonomy is recognized as non-science. And of course the point would still remain that naming is necessary for science even if naming isn’t science.

I’m pleased to see John saying that as if it was noncontroversial. It didn’t used to be. Back in 1995 in the newsgroup sci.bio.systematics I proclaimed the founding of “the fourth great school of systematics, the It-Doesn’t-Matter-Very-Much school” (this was in a post of July 26, 1995). The point was that above the species level, classification matters almost not at all, while phylogeny is important. While I enjoyed teasing systematists by making this point, they got quite hot-under-the-collar and were remarkably irritated (one friend, a good guy and excellent scientist, got irritated enough to call it “a bizarre thumb in the eye to systematists”).

I’m glad to hear that maybe my view was not so isolated after all. But in the interim years remarkably few people have espoused it. Maybe more will start to do so.

Joe Felsenstein said:

I’m glad to hear that maybe my view was not so isolated after all.

You seem to have elided from “…it isn’t science” to “…it doesn’t matter.” My point, and the original poster’s point, was that taxonomy (the part about naming groups) is necessary even though it isn’t science. We need to give names to things we want to talk about. Just as it isn’t important whether protons are called protons or glerps, as long as we agree on what to call them and agree on their properties, it isn’t important whether a node is called Aves or Neornithes, as long as we agree on the topology of the tree. But we do have to have some name. At least that aspect of classification is crucial.

John Harshman said: You seem to have elided from “…it isn’t science” to “…it doesn’t matter.”

If it does matter, then it is part of science, I would think.

My point, and the original poster’s point, was that taxonomy (the part about naming groups) is necessary even though it isn’t science. We need to give names to things we want to talk about. Just as it isn’t important whether protons are called protons or glerps, as long as we agree on what to call them and agree on their properties, it isn’t important whether a node is called Aves or Neornithes, as long as we agree on the topology of the tree. But we do have to have some name. At least that aspect of classification is crucial.

It is important to infer the tree (the phylogeny). Not quite so important to have a succinct name for an interior node of the tree. And none of this requires a full hierarchical classification, just a tree. You can go off and have fun making (say) a classification which is based on the alphabetic order of the species names, or the dates on which they were described. As long as the inferred phylogeny is around, it doesn’t matter what that classification is.

So then is taxonomy art or science? …

IMNSHO, the answer is yes.

Or to put that another way, the answer to this question requires the use of Fuzzy Logic rather than binary logic.

Henry J said:

Or to put that another way, the answer to this question requires the use of Fuzzy Logic rather than binary logic.

Well, yes and no …

For a while, I associated with a number of fanatical birders. Each one kept multiple lists (of birds they’d seen in different locations or circumstances), and at least in the US, the most important list of all is the North American Life List, every bird seen in North America. Birders are very competitive lot, and they are as attracted to round decimal numbers as anyone else. And as it happens, the number of birds inhabiting or seasonally visiting North America is just about exactly 600. (There are also “accidentals”, birds blown in by storms or who fell in with flocks of some other species, but these are few and rare).

As a result, the most successful competitive birders tend to have 599 or 600 birds on their life lists. Seeing that one last species to push from 599 to 600 is a major event. Now, enter the splitters and the lumpers among ornithologicsts. The members of two flocks might be different in some tiny ways, so do they qualify as two species? If so, the birders jump for joy. Then someone discovers that the black-crested titmouse is actually an immature tufted titmouse, and the black crest is gone at about 3 years old. So they are they same species. Agony! Dozens of people are knocked off the 600-bird perch. Birders love splitters, adding species, and hate lumpers. For them, taxonomy costs them a lot of sleep.

Joe Felsenstein said:

John Harshman said: You seem to have elided from “…it isn’t science” to “…it doesn’t matter.”

If it does matter, then it is part of science, I would think.

Why would you think that? Is assigning the word “proton” to some particle or other a part of science? Seems to me that it isn’t, but that it’s important to have an agreed term. Sure, taxonomy is more than that, but it’s that part which I would characterize as important non-science. Classifications too are useful as they provide handy guides to the meanings of names. An annotated cladogram with named internal nodes would do as well, but of course that would be isomorphic to a classification.

Or perhaps you would consider it unimportant because any idiot can do it? Sure, but some idiot has to, and a consensus of other idiots has to agree, or lots of biology doesn’t happen, or is at least much less convenient. How would it be if physicists had to refer to “that particle that’s found in every nucleus – you know, the positively charged one that’s 1837 times the mass of that other particle, you know, the one that chemists are always on about”? Trivial to do, important to have.

As a physician, my answer is clear.

To me the standard is - if things which are proven wrong by the scientific method are eliminated from the discipline, then the discipline is at least an applied science. In fields where the professionals don’t necessarily get to choose their projects, it may be necessary to take actions where complete scientific knowledge is not available. But that which has been shown to be wrong in scientific studies should always be eliminated.

Ironically, a “pure” scientist and “pure” artist have something in common - a very high degree of freedom in choosing their next project.

Taxonomy has to deal with what nature serves up. Every type of organism needs some kind of human-meaningful nomenclature. To accomplish that, some kind of arbitrary divisions are needed. For example, genus is pretty useful to lay (relative to taxonomy) people, even if it arbitrary. If I know that an animal is a member of the genus Mus, that gives me a fair amount of useful information about what type of animal to expect.

The answer to this thread’s title question is .… no.

This is a very slippery subject, dancing on the edge between art and science. We have to remember that “species” is one of those things that is difficult to define, even though it is something that everybody recognizes as real in some sense, and important. I remind students that the problems inherent in defining and identifying species at least partly arise from the fact that we see populations in all phases of the process of speciation. The concept of typological species, or any other taxonomic rank, is platonic, and arose from the concept of stasis and immutability, not transformation. The recent trend of “species inflation” underscores the problems. Even creationists are forced to acknowledge the fluidity of species, trying to bullshit their way around the issue by creating “baramins” that somehow evolve but don’t evolve.

The application of science to species and taxonomy is context dependent. For example, I hold to the view that cladistics is not scientific because it uses parsimony as an operational tool, thereby defining homology and synapomorphy by the number of character transformations in its purest form. Yet you can argue that it is scientific in the sense that hypotheses are falsified and corroborated on the basis of a few simple and reasonable assumptions. Certainly numerous hypotheses are tested each day concerning phylogenetic relationships, but it is only rarely that data can be brought to bear to actually falsify a hypothesis with any sort of certainty (for example, SINEs offer a powerful test of phylogeny because they are one of the few characters that can be confidently shown as homologous on an a priori basis).

Regardless, I agree with Joe that the tree is what is important. Higher levels of taxonomic classification are user-defined, and largely stabilize through consensus. People use the classification that best reflects our knowledge about phylogeny, and that most usefully expresses how we communicate about groups of taxa and their relationships to each other.

Labeling and organizing the data may be analogous to the building of tools for use in science, but it’s certainly crucial to subsequent progress. Whether it’s labeled as “doing science” or as “doing science-related activities” is, imo, quibbling over terminology. (Of course, quibbling of that kind is probably a very common pastime among scientists and related professions.)

Henry

Taxonomy is an Art. But Baraminology, that’s a Science!

Reed A. Cartwright said:

Taxonomy is an Art. But Baraminology, that’s a Science!

If baraminology allows the groups it finds to get bigger and bigger as the evidence for common descent becomes clearer (which it will), then yes, it will be a science! And in the end, all of life will be in the same baramin. And Noah’s ark will not need to be very big – it need only carry a culture of one bacterial species (say a live culture of some yoghurt). Leaving the rest of the space for racketball.

Reed A. Cartwright said:

Taxonomy is an Art. But Baraminology, that’s a Science!

Taxonomy is an Art, but Baraminology is just a mess.

Ohh, you think that AiG’s Ark Park will have racketball? That way they can give their 1.5 gajillion visitors every year something to do other than stand in a really really long line for their only ride. (Yay! The Plagues of Egypt log flume, can we go again mom!)

I liked the frogs best.

No, I liked the river of blood.

Hey, Mom, why isn’t Bobby moving?

John Harshman said:

I liked the frogs best.

No, I liked the river of blood.

Hey, Mom, why isn’t Bobby moving?

It’d be fun to suggest that baraminology predicts that all the first-born species were killed in the Flood. :)

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Reed A. Cartwright published on August 22, 2011 2:00 PM.

Photography Contest: Finalists, Land was the previous entry in this blog.

Prolific Internet Troll Arrested in Montreal and Under Examination is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Categories

Archives

Author Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.37

Site Meter