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Darwin-L Message Log 1:139 (September 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<1:139>From ahouse@hydra.rose.brandeis.edu  Thu Sep 16 07:58:06 1993

Date: Thu, 16 Sep 1993 09:04:37 -0500
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
From: ahouse@hydra.rose.brandeis.edu (Jeremy John Ahouse)
Subject: Taxonomy and directedness

Barry Roth wrote:
"Ideas of "progress" in one form or another _infuse_ systematic zoology (at
least the corner I am familiar with -- terrestrial mollusks).  In cladisti-
cally analyzing your group, work through character-state argumentation ac-
cording to one of the modern protocols (e.g., outgroup comparison).  Then
compare your results to those of the old-timers and ask yourself how did
they come up with their ideas of character-state polarity.  It may not be
quite as blatant as with Henry Hemphill, who wrote around the turn of the
Century, "Westward the course of Empire takes its way -- no less so in the
natural world than in human affairs" (he was mainly talking biogeography,
but systematics was in there too); but culture-driven decisions are really
common, and still exert an effect on the classifications we use every day."

Then Stan Salthe forwarded this to me:

from Foucault, q.i. Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge
..This passage quotes a certain Chinese encyclopedia in
which it is written that animals are divided into

    belonging to the Emperor
    embalmed
    tame
    sucking pigs
    sirens
    fabulous
    stray dogs
    included in the present classification
    frenzied
    innumerable
    drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush
    et cetera
    having just broken the water pitcher
    that from a long way off look like flies

"In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing that, by means of this
fable,  we apprehend in one great leap, is demonstrated as the charm of
another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark
impossibility of thinking THAT."

    The putative Chinese taxonomy above didn't feel right to me.  This
got me to thinking about what I want from a taxonomy... which may not be
what nature has to offer.  To organize the world and drop it into the
appropriate bins I want a nested hierarchy of non-overlapping sets with a
minimum of grabage pail categories (this cashes out as categories that you
gain membership to by having characteristics rather than lacking
characteristics; compare "et cetera" and "sucking pigs" or "invertebrates"
and "angiosperms").  Cladistics insists that as a first pass we assume a
nested hierarchy (which comes from bifurcations without "lateral" transfer
of traits).  This is certainly an appealing position and also seems to be
realized in many taxa.
    In language or cultural evolution the desire for this kind of
classification is still great, but I don't see that the underlying
mechanisms support it (especially the assumption of little lateral
transfer).  Now how does progress get wrapped around all of this?  I like
the atemporal position that cladograms take, but notions of progress
require that time be reintroduced to the classification.  Any suggestions
for a coherent way to do this?  Is it just sneaking in through the
polarization of character states (as Barry Roth implies)?  So that my
nested hierarchy of non-overlapping sets has a progressivist agenda "built
in" to its fabric?
    Finally I do find the alternate classification expanding.  And I do
see that it opens up the possibility for questions that I might not have
asked.  And in this way I can see the utility of many alternate taxonomies,
whether or not they reflect underlying mechanisms... and they do offer the
possibility that multiple underlying mechanisms might be at work and a
particular classification may privelege only some of these.

    - Jeremy

    :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
    Jeremy John Ahouse
    Biology Dept. & Center for Complex Systems
    Brandeis University
    Waltham, MA 02254-9110
    (617) 736-4954
    email by Eudora on the Mac: ahouse@hydra.rose.brandeis.edu

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