Taxonomy Quotes (19 quotes)
[About a conference on Systematic Biology] Many interesting statements were made that apply directly to the work of taxonomists. In some cases the interest lay in the value of the suggestion and sometimes in the obvious need for rebuttal.
A taxonomy of abilities, like a taxonomy anywhere else in science, is apt to strike a certain type of impatient student as a gratuitous orgy of pedantry. Doubtless, compulsions to intellectual tidiness express themselves prematurely at times, and excessively at others, but a good descriptive taxonomy, as Darwin found in developing his theory, and as Newton found in the work of Kepler, is the mother of laws and theories.
As long as museums and universities send out expeditions to bring to light new forms of living and extinct animals and new data illustrating the interrelations of organisms and their environments, as long as anatomists desire a broad comparative basis human for anatomy, as long as even a few students feel a strong curiosity to learn about the course of evolution and relationships of animals, the old problems of taxonomy, phylogeny and evolution will gradually reassert themselves even in competition with brilliant and highly fruitful laboratory studies in cytology, genetics and physiological chemistry.
As new areas of the world came into view through exploration, the number of identified species of animals and plants grew astronomically. By 1800 it had reached 70,000. Today more than 1.25 million different species, two-thirds animal and one-third plant, are known, and no biologist supposes that the count is complete.
But, as we consider the totality of similarly broad and fundamental aspects of life, we cannot defend division by two as a natural principle of objective order. Indeed, the ‘stuff’ of the universe often strikes our senses as complex and shaded continua, admittedly with faster and slower moments, and bigger and smaller steps, along the way. Nature does not dictate dualities, trinities, quarterings, or any ‘objective’ basis for human taxonomies; most of our chosen schemes, and our designated numbers of categories, record human choices from a cornucopia of possibilities offered by natural variation from place to place, and permitted by the flexibility of our mental capacities. How many seasons (if we wish to divide by seasons at all) does a year contain? How many stages shall we recognize in a human life?
[Referring to Carolus Linnaeus, who is also known as Father of Taxonomy.]
[Referring to Carolus Linnaeus, who is also known as Father of Taxonomy.]
In the real changes which animals undergo during their embryonic growth, in those external transformations as well as in those structural modifications within the body, we have a natural scale to measure the degree or the gradation of those full grown animals which corresponds in their external form and in their structure, to those various degrees in the metamorphoses of animals, as illustrated by embryonic changes, a real foundation for zoological classification.
Nature has not arranged her productions on a single and direct line. They branch at every step, and in every direction, and he who attempts to reduce them into departments is left to do it by the lines of his own fancy.
So why fret and care that the actual version of the destined deed was done by an upper class English gentleman who had circumnavigated the globe as a vigorous youth, lost his dearest daughter and his waning faith at the same time, wrote the greatest treatise ever composed on the taxonomy of barnacles, and eventually grew a white beard, lived as a country squire just south of London, and never again traveled far enough even to cross the English Channel? We care for the same reason that we love okapis, delight in the fossil evidence of trilobites, and mourn the passage of the dodo. We care because the broad events that had to happen, happened to happen in a certain particular way. And something unspeakably holy –I don’t know how else to say this–underlies our discovery and confirmation of the actual details that made our world and also, in realms of contingency, assured the minutiae of its construction in the manner we know, and not in any one of a trillion other ways, nearly all of which would not have included the evolution of a scribe to record the beauty, the cruelty, the fascination, and the mystery.
Taxonomy (the science of classification) is often undervalued as a glorified form of filing—with each species in its folder, like a stamp in its prescribed place in an album; but taxonomy is a fundamental and dynamic science, dedicated to exploring the causes of relationships and similarities among organisms. Classifications are theories about the basis of natural order, not dull catalogues compiled only to avoid chaos.
Taxonomy is often regarded as the dullest of subjects, fit only for mindless ordering and sometimes denigrated within science as mere “stamp collecting” (a designation that this former philatelist deeply resents). If systems of classification were neutral hat racks for hanging the facts of the world, this disdain might be justified. But classifications both reflect and direct our thinking. The way we order represents the way we think. Historical changes in classification are the fossilized indicators of conceptual revolutions.
The card-player begins by arranging his hand for maximum sense. Scientists do the same with the facts they gather.
The concepts and methods on which the classification of hominid taxa is based do not differ in principle from those used for other zoological taxa. Indeed, the classification of living human populations or of samples of fossil hominids is a branch of animal taxonomy.
The embryos of mammals, of birds, lizards, and snakes are, in their earliest states, exceedingly like one another, both as a whole and in the mode of development of their parts, indeed we can often distinguish such embryos only by their size. I have two little embryos in spirit [alcohol] to which I have omitted to attach the names. I am now quite unable to say to what class they belong.
The geneticist to-day is in a rather difficult position. He must have at least a bowing acquaintance with anatomy, cytology, and mathematics. He must dabble in taxonomy, physics, and even psychology.
The study of taxonomy in its broadest sense is probably the oldest branch of biology or natural history as well as the basis for all the other branches, since the first step in obtaining any knowledge of things about us is to discriminate between them and to learn to recognize them.
There may be as many classifications of any series of natural, or of other, bodies, as they have properties or relations to one another, or to other things; or, again, as there are modes in which they may be regarded by the mind: so that, with respect to such classifications as we are here concerned with, it might be more proper to speak of a classification than of the classification of the animal kingdom.
To a man of an impatient disposition, like James Gray, it became clear that in view of the very large number of known species many more generations of scientists could be kept occupied as sedate, taxonomic filing clerks by painstaking description and comparison of structures. This sort of existence was not for him; it lacked the excitement of discovery, and was not likely to make the principles or mechanisms underlying the process of evolution any more plausible.
You’ll be tempted to grouse about the instability of taxonomy; but stability occurs only where people stop thinking and stop working.