Such expressions as that famous one of Linnæus, and which we often meet with in a more or less concealed form, that the characters do not make the genus, but that the genus gives the characters, seem to imply that something more is included in our classification, than mere resemblance. I believe that something more is included; and that propinquity of descent,—the only known cause of the similarity of organic beings,—is the bond, hidden as it is by various degrees of modification, which is partially revealed to us by our classifications (Darwin, 1859, p. 413f).

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Natural and Artificial Classification: A reply to Wilkins

The following post is a reply to John Wilkin’s The philosophy of classification on his blog Evolving Thoughts.

An Uninformed Consensus

John Wilkins in his recent post believe that our view is "radical" because
"… they have presented some views on classification that do, indeed, differ from the received consensus."
We beg to differ.

In late 20th and early 21st century literature there are very few discussions on the nature of classification. Most revolves around explaining existing classifications (i.e. Reptilia) or in the defence of poorly defined taxonomic groups that fail to form groups (i.e., paraphly). It is these debates (i.e., paraphly versus monophyly) that would benefit from the discussions of early 20th and late 19th century morphologists, would did hold a consensus view of natural and artificial classifications. That consensus was this,
We then follow a Natural Method, which cannot be called a system, because it is destitute of any unity of principle. (Candolle & Sprengel, 1821)
It is our belief that the pursuit for explanations to existing classifications that ended this debate and therefore any consensus. Furthermore, it is the addition of homology = similarity that radically altered how we view classifications, leading to the almost Fukuyamaist statement that,
"I would say that the effort put into this controversy is further evidence that systematists do not have their priorities straight. In their day-to-day work they really do not make much use of classifications, but they show a strange obsession with fighting about them for reasons that seem to me to be an historical curiosity" (Felsenstein 2005)
Currently there is no consensus over natural or artificial classifications. The topic is a moot point and very few concern themselves with its relevance to 21st systematics and biogeography. As systematists we are more or less tied to the consensus of the past, namely to the literature of the 19th century and early 20th century. In that sense we are not “radicals", but rather “old fashioned”.

Similarity and Homology

Similarity, as expressed in the usual kinds of data matrices, is 11, or, the molecular version, AA is not a relation. The 11 and the AA are, if anything, homologues, the parts, the 'namesakes' as Owen called them. We see homology as a relation: 0(11), or the molecular version, G(AA). We stated earlier:
"...all molecular systematic studies are phenetic as they ignore relationship, that is, homology". One might expand that and say, "...all numerical systematic studies are phenetic as they ignore relationship, that is, homology."
This would be more accurate.

In response to John’s comment,
"I'm not sure I follow this. According to current usage, molecular systematics does rely on homologies: they have a number of special terms devoted to identifying them: paralogy, xenology and orthology. Of course, they often don't use homology properly. And to identify a homology in molecular biology you need to do some prior work; homology is an inference from sequence similarity (including eyeball alignment). In short, if I understand the argument, molecular systematics derives homology from similarity".
In fact we would suggest that it would be more accurate to say:
"... molecular systematics does rely on HOMOLOGUES: they have a number of RELATIONS DERIVED FROM them: paralogy, xenology and orthology....And to identify a HOMOLOGUE in molecular biology you need to do some prior work; HOMOLOGUES ARE inferenceS from sequence similarity (including eyeball alignment). In short, if I understand the argument, molecular systematics derives HOMOLOGUES from similarity ..."
This certainly is not radical. What we are suggesting is that de Candolle (1813) presented a very clear account of classification, an account still of significance today.

Haeckel and Classification

In our understanding, Ernst Haeckel did more than most to promote the genealogical view of species relationships. It might be fair to say that all our genealogical endeavours stem from Haeckel. Adolf Naef (1917, 1919)was the first to critique that viewpoint His interest was in natural classification. Hennig (1950), quite deliberately, focused on Naef. Thus, it might be fair to say that Hennig's efforts were directed towards rehabilitating Haeckel. Further, one might see Systematics and Biogeography (Nelson & Platnick, 1981) as a further detailed critique of Haeckel - if the most detailed critique available - and a restatement of de Candolle's viewpoints on classification. In this sense cladistics sensu Nelson & Platnick is of greater significance than cladistics sensu computer programs.

We would venture the suggestion that Sober (1988) mistook cladistics sensu Farris (parsimony sensu Farris) as if it was the generally accepted view (in the mid-1980s that might have been possible). In fact Sober deliberately excludes the more general view, as if the argument really was about parsimony versus likelihood, one algorithm versus another,
"Because this work is about phylogenetic inference, not classification, nothing will be said about the current controversy concerning so-called 'pattern' cladism." (Sober, 1988:8, footnote 7).
Thus, in our view, the more general study of classification exclude Sober's work as a relevant commentary on the matter.

Candolle, A.P., de, & Sprengel, K. 1978. Elements of the philosophy of plants. Reprint of the 1821 ed.. New York, NY.
Hennig, W. 1950. Grundzüge einer Theorie der phylogenetischen Systematik, Deutsche Zentralverlag, Berlin.
Naef, A. 1917. Die individuelle Entwicklung organischer Formen als Urkunde ihrer Stammesgeschichte: (Kritische Betrachtungen über das sogenannte "biogenetische Grundgesetz"), Verlag von Gustav Fischer, Jena.
Naef, A. 1919. Idealistische Morphologie und Phylogenetik (zur Methodik der systematischen), Verlag von Gustav Fischer, Jena).
Nelson, G. & Platnick, N.I. 1981. Systematics and biogeography. Cladistics and vicariance. Columbia University Press, New York.
Sober, E. 1988. Reconstructing the Past: Parsimony, Evolution, and Inference. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1 comment:

John Wilkins said...

I don't think we disagree, merely differ on the emphases. There is a consensus, but I never said it was informed (in fact I said it wasn't). And by radical I mean only that your approach is not the consensual view. Of course it has antecedents (in fact, radicals often say they are returning to the root of the matter - radix = root).

It was a compliment.