Dwarf Tulipa-PBS and Alpine Topic of the Week

Jim McKenney jimmckenney@starpower.net
Fri, 20 Feb 2004 13:37:43 PST
In discussing the nature of Tulipa linifolia and Tulipa batalinii, Mark
McDonough says:
>Personally I find the two species instantly recognizable and distinct, yet 
>some schools of thought put these two entities together as synonyms.

Mark, I'll bet you find Great Danes and Chihuahuas "instantly recognizable
and distinct", yet the received wisdom is that they are the same species.

Thank you for providing an entree into one of my favorite rants. : ) 

The days are long gone when taxonomists should try to base specific
distinctions on what things look like. From the time of Plato and his
concept of the eidos (and no doubt long before that) until the end of the
nineteenth century, taxonomists routinely based their decisions on what
things looked like. No one knew any better. But once science began to
appreciate the significance of Gregor Mendel's work, things got turned
inside out. Cutting- edge biologists came to a revolutionary realization: 

Organisms are not members of the same species because they look alike. It's
the other way around: they look alike because they are members of the same
species (i.e. they look alike because they share the same gene pool). 

And it seems to me that some taxonomists, even now a century later, do not
understand the implications of this. 

Mother Nature, meanwhile, goes about her business oblivious to all of this. 

For the first time in history, science began to understand the significance
of the similarities and differences we observe. 

One practical consequence of this for people in the species naming business
is that the appearance of things (and by appearance I mean gross
morphology, chromosome count, DNA profiles and so on) is much less
important than was thought - and in itself does not answer the question
about species status. What is it that taxonomists really classify? Isn't it
true that what they really classify is their knowledge? When we see
similarities, that presumably indicates relationship.  But the question
always remains: what degree of relationship? And what formal category of
classification corresponds to this relationship? And in my opinion, to
answer that the scientist has to remove his scientist hat and put on his
artist hat. They paint the pictures, and the market buys them or not,
depending on the skill of the artist and the expectations of the buyer. 

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