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Friday, November 14, 2008

Classification discussion - Public opinion

Subject: BRYONET: Classification discussion
Date: Thu, 13 Nov 2008 20:30:54 -0800
From: Ken Kellman <>


I have been watching this wonderful discussion, and although I must
confess that I have not understood all of the finer points, I have
learned a tremendous amount. I want to thank Brent and Richard for
working so hard on this thread. I also want to thank Bernard Goffinet
for the work that started it all off.
I want to examine another aspect of this question, that of public
opinion. Although it is obvious that public opinion must not ultimately
be the arbiter of scientific decision, we do have to be aware of how
science is viewed by the layperson. Here is an example that even the
least knowledgeable person can understand. Most would agree that birds
have evolved from reptiles. Are birds then reptiles? Obviously not! A
five year old can tell the difference. But strict monophyly would
dictate that birds be sunk back into the reptiles. The response of the
strict monophyleticists is to remove all hierarchical ranking. This of
course solves the problem. We can have the bird clade and the reptile
clade, and just say that the bird clade is a part of the reptile clade.

We have not lost the evolutionary information, and we have recognized
the two different groups. The problem comes to the smaller clades, what
we may now call genera and species. We do not now have an endangered
clade act. We have an endangered species act. Can you imagine the uproar
from those who already want to discredit science in public policy when
we tell them there is no such thing as a species? Whether or not the
phylocode is a better description of reality, it seems to me that this
is not an avenue that is available to the scientific community. The
promotion of the phylocode would be a disservice to the very
understanding of our world that it is trying to describe. The public
needs MUCH MORE education for that. An outrageous percentage of the
American people do not even believe in evolution! At a time in our
planet's history where the very survival of major ecosystems may depend
on public support of scientific understanding, we must be very careful.
Another issue is the desire of people to organize chaotic problems. We
give plants names, we group these plants in larger and larger groups,
all in an attempt to sort information so that it can be communicated and
used in ways that are impossible without that organization. I think
Richard's traditional taxonomy reflects this way our brains work, and
thus is more intuitive, and therefore more acceptable to the layperson.
Moreover, the best we can say about any of these cladistic trees (or
evolutionary theories), is that they are the personal opinions of the
author(s). There is never any proof, just high probabilities generated
from the evidence available at the time. We would have no success trying
to sell a non-intuitive description of the world with only personal
opinion and probability as our only proof.
I believe that both viewpoints (hierarchical traditional taxonomy with
its acceptance of paraphyly vs the rankless monophyleticist) must be
maintained, but used in different situations. We can recognize that
nature displays a rankless organization reflecting evolutionary
pathways, but we must recognize that we hide certain information by
losing intuitive names. We can also recognize that strict adherence to
rank has other limitations. We do not have to decide between the two
systems. We simply have to state the method we are using and accept the
consequences. Perhaps the real problem comes when we try to blend the
two systems as in the Goffinet et al work that generated this whole
discussion.This is a hierarchical system that enforces strict monophyly.
I am sure that I have missed several of the finer points of this
wonderful debate, and to a certain extent have demonstrated my ignorance
by speaking up. I still think it is important to keep our ideas relevant
to the times we live in.
Ken Kellman
9870 Brookside Ave
Ben Lomond, CA 95005
(831) 336-8548

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