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Re: Archaeopteryx

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Graydon" <oak@uniserve.com>
To: "DML" <dinosaur@usc.edu>
Sent: Monday, June 16, 2003 4:21 PM
Subject: Re: Archaeopteryx

> On Mon, Jun 16, 2003 at 03:55:59PM +1000, Colin McHenry scripsit:
> > I think it's missing the point by such a large margin that it no
> > longer has anything to do with traditional taxonomy.  Whoever first
> > said that taxonomy had to equal phylogeny was a fool who didn't
> > understand (a) taxonomy, (b) how the human brain perceives and
> > recognises patterns, and (c) phylogenetics.
> Linnean taxonomy is actively wrong, though; it's based on frankly
> creationist assumptions.  (Could hardly have been otherwise, considering
> when it got started.)

That seems to me like saying that because Darwinism (in its original form,
circa publication of Origin) didn't include the genetic theory of
inheritance, it is 'actively wrong'.  Whatever the beliefs of Linnaeus, the
people who practice what is known to everyone as Linnaean taxonomy today -
and I'm one of them - do not base that excercise upon 'frankly creationist'
assumptions, any more than neo-Darwinists base a paradigm of evolutionary
biology upon a theory that omits Mendels genetic theory of inheritance.

> There isn't any way to get that structure, that pattern, to become
> something which includes descent with modification; if taxonomy is going
> to include that sheaf of ideas, it has to be *something* different.
> > I doubt that Nature has any preference for following formulae that we
> > might possibly be able to understand, at least in the context of this
> > discussion.  As for 'opinion' and 'authority'?  Well, as I've argued
> > before on this list, I think they count.  I think that humans are a
> > much more sophisticated pattern recognition device than any algorithm
> > that will be devised in our life times.
> This is known to be false, for many types of pattern.  (Or people
> wouldn't bet on horse races or play slot machines.)
> We didn't evolve to spot patterns of descent in a sequence of fossils;
> there's no particular reason to expect us to be good at it.  (Faces,
> now, faces we are really really good at.)

Sorry, I don't understand how our inability to pull patterns out of
sequences that are basically without pattern falsifies my statement.  Surely
the point about pokermachines and horse races is that they have no pattern.
That is why gambling is called a 'game of chance'.

We didn't evolve to be able to drive cars, solve murder cases, or beat the
English at all forms of sport, but nevertheless (most) humans are very good
at this.   Not all (myself included) are that hot at facial recognition, by
the way.

> And, well, yeah, things are unstable; things are always unstable for
> awhile in a new branch of science,

New?  Cladistics has been around in vertebrate palaeontology for 20 years
now.  How much time do you want?  Whole other disciplines in biology have
appeared in this time.

but having a way to approach taxonomy
> that is at least plausibly independent of the contents of any one
> person's head, and thereby at least plausibly science.  Stuff that isn't
> independent of the contents of any one specific person's head can be
> part of the process of science, but isn't itself sufficient to call a
> conclusion scientific.

There are lots of things that go into the thing that what people understand
to be 'the process of science', and scientific methodology is only one of
them.  As a palaeontologist and biologist, the 'scientific method' is only
one of the tools I use to do my work.  The others include, in no particular
order, being able to communicate orally and in writing in at least one
language(although I do hope my 'science' is better than my spelling),
drawing (albeit badly), reading, employing critical analysis of other
people's work (an excercise based mainly in logic), and  mathematics.  The
science part - constructing testable hypotheses, and testing the hypotheses
of yourself and others, is only a small part of the work I do (alhtough it
is a very important part).  This is the main reason I prefer to be called a
'biologist' or a 'palaeontologist' than a scientist -  the former are
descriptive and informative, whilst the term scientist isn't that
informative to lay persons, and indeed gives many an inaccurate impression
based upon some unfortunate cultural stereotypes.

There is no reason why taxonomic practice needs to be based on what can be
identified, in the narrow sense, as a 'scientific' methodology.  All
scientist uses mathematics, and maths is not scientific.  Similarly,
taxonomic systems were devised as a convenient way of summarising and
communicating information about a particular group of organisms.    There is
also no logical reason why a taxonomic system needs to reflect notions of
descent with modification.

The only requirement of a taxonomic system is that it is usable  - i.e. the
criteria for taxonomic entities not be so obscure as to be obstructive, and
the whole system be reasonably stable.  This is of course exactly what
Linnaean taxonomy has provided for so many years.  Originally, this system
was based upon a pattern of different degrees of similarity (grades) between
organisms.  The idea that the taxonomic systems it included should reflect
'descent with modification' only appeared when it became obvious that the
former pattern was a result of the latter process.  Now, of course, we have
a concerted push to make the process, not the pattern, the basis of the
standard taxonomic system.  I personally believe this to be misguided,
however well intended it may be.



Colin McHenry
56 Gaskill St
Canowindra NSW 2804
+61 2 6344 1009
0428 131 858