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January 29, 2018

Species are what you want them to be

Filed under: Speciation,species,Species concepts — Razib Khan @ 8:55 pm

What is a species? I don’t know. And honestly, I don’t really care too much.

Species is just a semantic label I place on a set of individuals related to a phylogeny. There tends to be a correlation in genetic variants between these creatures. For sexual organisms, which does not include all organisms, it generally denotes the ability to produce fertile offspring between any two pairs of the opposite sex.

Over ten years ago I read Speciation by Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr. As evolutionary geneticists with an interest in taxonomy they take the “species problem” somewhat seriously, but ultimately they’re instrumentalists. “Species” are not the ultimate goal of their scholarship from what I can tell. Rather, species are instruments, semantic tools to smoke out evolutionary processes which shape and determine the pattern of biological variation we see around us. The “origin of species” is less important in relation to the species themselves, as opposed to why we can create categories of species out of the specialized morphological diversity around us.

Not everyone agrees with this position. And not everyone has the same opinion about species. On the whole plant systematists and ecologists will take a different tack on the species problem than evolutionary geneticists. Evolutionary geneticists who work with plants will have a different view from those who work on animals, let alone those who work with bacteria.

The point then is that species are social constructs whose utility and nature varies by discipline. I’m not being a solipsist here. Nature is real. And genetic and phenotypic variation is real. But in some ways the labels we give it can become matters of emphasis.

Of course, I am aware this is an idiosyncratic view. For Carl Linnaeus, the cataloging of species, natural kinds, was cataloging the Creation of God. If you are a Creationist, as most pre-modern people were, then species in their variety and number reflect the will and intention of God. Their study and enumeration would be a glimpse into the mind of the divine.

This doesn’t come out of a vacuum. The religious and Creationist thought simply systematized deep intuitions about the nature of things and biological categories. One doesn’t have to be a genius to make a story about why it would be adaptive to promiscuously and compulsively categorize nature around you. Religious thinkers were simply reshaping and firming up ideas which were in the air.

And this probably brings up why questions about “species” crop up over and over in the comments. And this is why a few times a year I have to put this post up….

February 8, 2011

Species, not arbitrary, but not clear & distinct

Filed under: Biology,philosophy,species,Species concepts — Razib Khan @ 1:48 am

John Hawks and Jerry Coyne are mooting the ‘species concepts’ debate, with particular focus on recent human origins (specifically, the relationship of modern humans to Neandertals and Denisovans). Coyne, who coauthored the book Speciation and remains preoccupied with the issue in his academic work, knows of what he speaks. And of course he wouldn’t think that the discussion of species, how to delineate them, and what they are, is a sterile exercise. He has chosen to allocate a significant portion of his life to the topic. I think very few would disagree with Coyne when he contends that “Species are not arbitrary divisions of an organic continuum.” If there is one taxonomic category which has a concrete basis in reality, that would seem to be species. But, I would observe that I’m not sure that species are necessarily so clear and distinct. After all, we know that there is here and there, but where does here end, and there begin?

I’m of a reminded of the classic Zeno’s paradox:

In the paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, Achilles is in a footrace with the tortoise. Achilles allows the tortoise a head start of 100 metres. If ...

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