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(From Wikipedia)


Fitting messy things into tidy boxes -- the "Science" of Taxonomy.


The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus was the father of modern taxonomy. He divided everything into families, which he subdivided into genera, and these in turn into species. The test for a species, as he originally specified it, was that if two individuals were capable of breeding and producing fertile offspring they belonged to the same species. Unfortunately this system has very little relation to the real world, and taxonomist have been arguing with each other ever since as to how various groups of animals and plants should be divided up.

When I was a young child my mother told me "Common names [for plants] mean nothing -- they vary from place to place and from time to time -- but if you learn the scientific names you will be able to talk to any scientist around the world, and they will know what you are talking about”. So I learned the scientific names of the plants I was interested in, particularly the ferns and the orchids of the Dandenongs, but before I left school half of them had been changed.

This unfortunate experience highlights a fundamental clash -- people in everyday life want everything to have a convenient handle on it, so that if an architect specifies that the frame of a house should be built of, say, Eucalyptus goniocalyx, the builder will know what he means, and he can be confident that the building will meet the specifications.

On the other hand the Taxonomists like to think that the name they are giving a plant or animal will establish both what it is, and what its relationships are. These are nice ambitions, but both are based on fundamentally flawed logic. In this paper I will attempt to outline some of the problems.


Part 1


Part 2


Part 3


Part 4


Part 5

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 © Roger Riordan 2004-2017

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