Some Thoughts on Taxonomies, or
“Aggregations of Organisms”

Taxonomic organization of diverse phenomena is natural and useful, but it also poses a danger to clear thought about living, changing organisms (including people, individuals or groups) out in their actual situ, in the “real world”, in various eco-systems shared with other organisms.

Taxonomies are only tools. Tools, even wonderful tools, must never be mistaken for the jobs they do. Tools build, install, repair, service or maintain artifacts of value. Taxonomies are also like conceptual chests of drawers. They must never be confused with the "stuff" [German Stoff, material actuality] they hold. [Check out George Carlin's comedy routine on "stuff"] Chests of drawers allow sorted storage of our useful and valuable Stoff. When it comes to tools and chests of drawers, artifacts and other valuable actualities are the essence of the matter.

Taxonomies may do no more than give temporary and partial organization to the actualities which they identify, divide, group and rank. Sometimes they are outright silly. Consider Linnaeus, one of the greatest taxonomists [ID]. He once divided homo sapiens ["humans"] into three main phyla =

Homo Europeus "with eyes blue, governed by law"
Homo Asiaticus "with black hair, ruled by opinions"
Homo Afer "with frizzled hair and silky skin, women without shame"

[Linnaeus quoted in Bauman,Legislators...:82]

Taxonomies often seem foolish, especially when they are unconscious or thoughtlessly assumed notions of order and hierarchy. Even elaborately conceived taxonomies are foolish if they are granted anything more than limited utilitarian status in the toolboxes or compartments of understanding.

Consider these excerpts from, and summaries of, the following thought-provoking article =
Paul R. Ehrlich and Richard W. Holm|
“Patterns and Populations: Basic problems of population biology transcend artificial disciplinary boundaries”.

[You may recognize the name Paul Ehrlich [ID].]

This article addresses the difficulties of organizing individual living things into their most appropriate set of immediately “related” groups, and how to place these groups into yet more general groups. Taxonomy is a hierarchical set of categories more general than the individual organism, more general than the most immediate or first-level “family” of organisms, and so on. Taxonomies gather individuals into groups, then gather these groups into yet more general groupings, etc. Biological taxonomy presents “aggregations of organisms”, much as do the theoretical essays associated with SAC, "Taxonomy of Historical Experience" and "Dozen Categories of Human Grouping".

There are dangers, as Ehrlich and Holm make clear.

“People are inclined to confuse concepts with established facts and then consider it unnecessary to investigate the facts further.”

No neutral term for “more than one organism” has been found in any research discipline that has not been used in a restrictive or limited sense in some other research discipline.

“Many concepts in population biology have low information content and little or no operational meaning.”

“In a taxonomy based on ecological requirements, whales will be more closely related to sharks than to bears. Such a relationship is no more or less ‘true’ or ‘natural’ than the classical one [of Linnaeus]; it is merely based on different attributes. Special systems would, of course, be created on demand -- not in expectation of need, as today’s taxonomies are. What sort of taxonomy is desirable depends upon what one wishes to use it for.” [SAC editor’s emphasis]

Ehrlich and Holm recommend “multivariate methods of assaying similarities”. They continue, “The ultimate test of a mathematical model is how well it describes a situation in nature...”.

Back to SAC "Taxonomies of Historical Experience"