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cladistics and names
I hope Mickey will let this through, since I seem to have been
responsible for the most recent flare-up of this discussion. Afterward,
I promise to sit quietly in my armchair. ;-)
Relative to Chris Brochu's comment (12/21/98; 10:18a), there are degrees
of cultural taxonomy. Logically there shouldn't be, but the world isn't
always logical (Scotty, beam me up!). Of course I wouldn't suggest that
it's OK to call a porpoise a fish because it swims, to use yet another
example of taxonomic ignorance in the public mind.
>Popular and academic meanings may diverge widely, but since we need
precise meanings in science, it would be foolish for us to abandon
My point is really this: When attempting to precisely define a concept
that needs to be precisely defined, we should not borrow a name that
already has an imprecise definition, and hope we can clean it up. I
believe it was Chris Campbell who pointed out that "Diapsida" has always
had a precise meaning and does not seem to be in danger of exploding into
chaos, because when it was coined nothing else had that label.
"Dinosaur" and "reptile" are basket cases.
One of my biggest pet peeves is the attempt to redefine "Tetrapoda" so it
does not include all four-legged vertebrates. I don't think there was
any confusion, BEFORE this, as to what a tetrapod is. I'm pleading for
the exercise of wisdom. It's like the difference between a court of law
and a court of justice: one works by the letter of the law, and the
other tries to do what is right (of course, as cultural defined!). As
opposed to Bill Clinton, I hope all my cases are heard in a court of
>That a group seems "intuitive" or somehow obvious to us reflects our
cultural baggage as much as anything else.<
Ironically, our cultural baggage is that of the scientific view of the
world; it is not of a totally different culture such as in the interior
of New Guinea.
Ralph Chapman wrote (12/21/98; 8:21a):
>At the time I first came here to NMNH on a 10 week graduate
student fellowship, I got to know the three world's experts on
calymenid trilobites, 2 of them British and very serious about
their pronunciations. No two of them pronounced the genus
Flexicalymene the same.<
And see how far you get before someone objects to how you pronounce
"stromatoporoid". In my early work, I ran into trouble with some species
names: "platinus" and "lusatiae", for example (inoceramid bivalves). I
think it is clear from the etymology that the Burgess Shale lancelet
Pikaia should be pronounced pie-kah-ee-ah, but the people who named it do
not. I have always asserted, including in discussions on this list, that
the way an expert pronounces a name is correct, even if different experts
pronounce it differently. How do you feel about Compsognathus?
>Names shift all the time as we try to get a better and better
phylogeny. Get used to it. There are aspects of cladistic procedures
that I find personally annoying . . [snip]. We need more moderates
(funny to hear that from Washington).<
I am a cladistic moderate. But I'm not going to preface everything I say
with that admission. That might suggest I don't feel strongly about
I have a talk for local groups called "Dinosaurs: Modern and Ancient".
I explain phylogenetic taxonomy, and then show slides of feathered
dinosaurs and birds that are only part way to looking like modern birds,
plus the obligatory ostrich-ornithomimid comparison. My conclusion is
that birds are living dinosaurs.
As Ralph said,
>So, there are problems with cladistics but there is no better
alternative as yet. I suspect we will evolve towards one. . . [snip]
Science, after all, is based on the dialectic and you need to have
disagreement to get a good dialectic going.<
I couldn't agree more with these sentiments.
Norman R. King tel: (812) 464-1794
Department of Geosciences fax: (812) 464-1960
University of Southern Indiana
8600 University Blvd.
Evansville, IN 47712 e-mail: email@example.com