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).

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Three tales of Systematics and Biogeography

Would it be wrong to write fables of systematics and biogeography? A fable may be defined as conveying a moral concerned with accepted rules and standards of human behavior. Is this the stuff of science? Science purports to eliminate human 'bias' in its findings. However, there are many journals and institutions that suppress the publication of alternative or contradictory methods and theories in the name of scientific culture or 'morals'. One method may be favored not because of its logic or aims, but because it represents the scientist’s or editor’s own personal views. We evidently cannot write human bias out of the process of science. Nevertheless, we must endeavor to reveal where human judgment is impeding scientific rigor, if science is to progress.

Below we have done this in the form of tales that covey scientific concepts and catalog common mistaken processes. Most 'new' scientific methods are independent discoveries of old methods or theories that have already been proven as failures or successes, were recorded in scientific literature and promptly forgotten by the majority of active researchers. Many scientists see their methods as being wholly new, or as exceptions to existing scientific rules and laws. The same 'logic' is used by speeding drivers. They accept the endless warnings that 'speed kills', but most believe that they are an exception.

There are no exceptions in comparative biology. Unlike general biology, comparative biology has no laws or rules. In systematics and biogeography however many have taken it upon themselves since the Modern Synthesis to apply a synthesis (or a series of laws) in order to unify of field of science under a common goal. These so called 'laws' are:
1. There is a fundamental difference between the type of data one uses (i.e., morphological data = macroevolutionary/plylogenetic and, molecular = mircoevolutionary/genealogical).
2.Ancestor-descendant relationships can be either 'seen' or measured.
3.Centres of origin are known quantities that are supported by evidence.
The scientific literature of this field is full of these three 'rules'. We however dismiss these three 'rules' as irrelevant to systematics and biogeography. We have done so frequently, adding even more publications to the vast literature dedicated to warning biologists of the three troublesome 'rules'. For the first time, we will express the moral dilemma that one enters when adhering to these 'rules' in the form of three short allegorical tales that convey 'a moral concerned with accepted rules'.


Once a tailor stood on a hill admiring an immense tree and an old philosopher perched beneath. The tree blossomed the most beautiful flowers that the tailor had ever seen. The blossoms grew off branches that twisted and joined a haggard trunk that has grown strong with the passing of time. The tailor noticed that the etched face of the philosopher also bore the traces of time.

“I have lived in the village below for many years and yet I had never before seen nor heard of the large magnificent tree.” Remarked the tailor.
The old philosopher maintained his silent mediation.
“Each branch” contemplated the tailor, “reminds me of the links I have with my fathers, fathers and mothers, mothers.’
The philosopher stirred.
“So you know of your fathers, fathers and your mothers, mothers?” Replied the philosopher.
“Yes, I do.”
The philosopher smiled and remembered a long forgotten thought. “I once knew a mason who claimed the same.”
“Did he have evidence?” Enquired the tailor.
“Oh yes, he showed me heirlooms, trinkets, precious and rare.”
The tailor reached for his large pocket. “I have no trinkets, but proof. Pictures. Each member of my clan, as far back as my grandmothers’ mother, her sisters and brothers.” The tailor displayed several cameos before the philosophers’ wizened eyes.
“Just heirlooms. No more, no less.” The philosopher replied.
“No, they are evidence of my mother and of my kin.”
“The mason claimed to have those.”
The tailor dismissively flicked his hand. “You say those are heirlooms and not real proof. The pictures show in detail their faces and features, not mere possessions like heirlooms, but actual parts passed down our bloodline”.
“Did you paint these pictures yourself?” Asked the philosopher.
“No. I have never met my relatives for I am adopted. This is why I seek my clan among the many that walk in this world. All I possess of my family are these pictures to help me find them in the many lands through which I will pass.”
“Then how do you know that these are true depictions? How do you know who is who and when they lived?”
“I have been told on good authority that the artists all painted the portraits from live sittings. The age does not matter, I know by their features who is who.” The tailor seemed proud to have achieved this understanding.
The old philosopher sighed. “Like you, the mason said the same. He knew his bloodline by the name of the owner inscribed on each heirloom that was passed to an ambitious orphan like you.”
The tailor winced as the philosopher continued.
“The features on these pictures may show parts of your clan. They are heirlooms, precious and rare but not real proof.”
“No!” cried the tailor. “They reveal my past, my bloodline and who begat whom.”
The philosopher shook his head. “You imagine you see your past and your bloodline, but all I see are members of your family, related somehow and in some fashion. Perhaps that man you see is not your father, but your uncle, and this woman a cousin, not an aunt.”
The tailor retorted. “I share their features. I see them pass from mother to mother. They tell the truth about me and about by mothers, mothers.”
A deep weariness flooded the philosopher. “Your pictures are the heirlooms of forgotten and lost relatives. They only speak of features of a thing. The mason orphaned in birth thought the same as you. Those heirlooms, these pictures, are artefacts of the past. You cannot tell who is your mother, any more than she could recognize you.”


A collector of heirlooms trudged along a narrow, winding mountain path. The air was cold and the collectors’ mule stumbled over the uneven gravel surface, tiring of its heavy burden. Night fell and the collector decided to find a camp in a cleft that dominated the rocky terrain. Before him he saw a fire and a white robed philosopher crouched before it in deep mediation. The mule and its owner drew near.
“A fine beast you have there.” The philosopher was looking at the tired mule. “A fair creature, but laden with a great burden. Are you a merchant?” The philosopher asked.
“No. I am a collector of fine antiques.”
“Come sit beside me and relate your tale”. The philosopher beckoned to the collector.
“I have been sitting here by my fire admiring the great folds in the mountains yonder.”
The collector sat and gazed out into the great valley below.
“You say you collect antiques. For pleasure, or for business?”
“For the sake of my heritage” answered the collector.
“Heritage, that is a fine thing. The antiques you carry must be old and valuable?”
The collector’s eyes brightened. “These are exceptional antiques. They not only show the skills and the tools that were used in our long lost heritage, but they also identify the makers style and craftsmanship.”
“What do you gain from collecting these articles of old?” the philosopher enquired.
“I can tell the lives of their makers, their dates of their very first works and the dates of their very last. I admire the antiques, yet I wonder at the minds and hands that created them.”
“So, you too study the art of craftsmanship?”
“With these works I can recreate the clays, glasses and fires that were used. See here!” The collector sprang up and retrieved an object wrapped in silk from a leather pack strapped to the mules side. “Behold, this object from the second period!” The collector held a beautifully crafted trinket before the philosopher. “This work of art betrays its maker. See the fine textures in the glass and the way the iron is gently wrought?” The philosopher nodded. “Those are the trade marks of the great fire welder of the second period and this is his last piece,” said the collector.
“Oh dear, did the artist die once he had created it?” The philosopher looked saddened.
“Yes. All craftsmen tinker to their last day. It is these great works of mature masters and the first brave attempts by the artist as a naive youngster are what I seek. Like my father before me, I have scaled the many mountain paths that divide these vast lands and scoured every corner to retrieve every last piece that was created by these artisans!”
“How do you know that these are their last works? There have been many wars and restorations since the second period, not much survives, only memories and myths.”
“I am certain that I have found the last works of these great creators. Alas, now their secrets are gone. They all perished in the Great War at the end of the second period. Since then, no others have been able to create the artefacts in the form that you see before you.”
The philosopher returned his attention to the fire. “Perhaps they gave up their craft to join the war and perished much later.”
“No, never! These artists tinkered till their final breath. None would have left his toil for the fortunes of war!” The collector laughed.
“How do you know that these artists did not return to their craft after the wars and made more precious trinkets?”
The collector was amazed at the naivety of the question. “Because I, and my fathers before me, have never found such antiques after the second period. It is obvious that the disappearance of these works marks their demise.”
“Is it?” the philosopher mused. “But you can never know. These trinkets that you hold could be the oldest, but there could be many more made by the great fire welder lying shattered in the rubble of ruins or in the crypts of proud and jealous owners.”
“I and my forebears have considered these notions, but there may be a few that still lie hidden. However, there will be none that is any older than the one I hold. The great fire welder did not live beyond the second period and here is evidence of that.” The collector held the antique out in one hand.
The philosopher remarked; “What you hold in that hand is an antique made by someone that lived during the second period. What you hold in the other is all you know of the great fire welder’s demise.”
The collector stared at his second, empty hand. The philosopher continued. “You cannot assume that what you do not have is evidence of the demise of great artists, any more than I can conclude that those who rule these lands are dead because they do not sit by my side.”


One fair morning an orphan lay in an open meadow enjoying the spring sunshine and contemplating his journey and the direction he should take.
The orphan lay thinking of a family that he never met and of the many parchments that he had collected in the town halls on his travels. The youth had wanted to find his roots. There had been no family to show him the way, no uncle or cousin to guide him, and he had been alone except for his meagre inheritance, a certificate of birth. No place, no date, just a name, his name.

It was now a long time ago since the boy had set off on his long journey. He thought hard and counted the seasons. He thought it must now be ten or maybe more. The long northern winters seemed to last forever, yet he still moved on.

When he was just old enough to read he thought that his long deceased relations would have the same parchment, with a similar name. Curiosity got the better of him, and after enquiring with the local town cryer of the whereabouts of such parchments he was guided to the local town hall. There he found that other town halls have such records and he reasoned perhaps that in those he would find the same seal of his fore fathers. The orphan enquired about the seal on his parchment. The officer was not certain of its origin and suggested that the boy head north. “Town seals such as that belong to the wealthier lands in the north”.

His journey had been marred by sickness, and only a few villages could offer a state official who all too often knew little of such documents. Success came one summers’ day when he found a parchment in the archives of a small town. There he had evidence at last. Someone did share his name. Finally the journey became worthwhile. The parchment had a little more information to offer him. A woman who had been born in the village of the seal had moved to this place with her kin. That woman came from his village, with his name. The seal in the bottom left corner resembled the one on his own parchment. The officer that tended the archive knew little of the seal and of the towns and great cities of the north. He too suggested that the seal may have originated there, and that the boy seek his luck even further north.

The boy lay still in the long grass. He rolled over and began to unroll his parchment and study the seal. Only one other person had found his journey interesting, a wizened, old philosopher that he had met last winter.

The boy had told the philosopher his story and his ambition to seek his fore fathers’ home. The philosopher asked why he wanted to go there?
“To seek my fore fathers, those whom I had not known. I want to be close to them and their home. My home.”
“But your home is your ambition, your wit and desire to seek” Replied the old philosopher. “Once you reach that goal you will be alone in a foreign land without further ambition and wit that kept you company on you long journey.”
The young boy was stirred by the philosopher’s remark.
“But reaching those lands of my kin is all that I desire.” The boy could not find any other answer.
“Surely by finding your ancestral home, you will not be content. Are there not other mysteries you seek?”
“I have one mystery,” said the boy. “Why do all the lands have different seals?”
“It is the lands that claim you. It is you that belongs to them. A wanderer like yourself can not claim to belong to all that he sees.”
The boy was confused. “But I know I was not born in the town in which I was brought up. The seal proves this. But others I know were born there and they have never seen a seal like the one my parchment bore.”
The philosopher explained. “Everyone is born in a town or a village. The officials of that town stamp your parchment and claim you as its citizen. The towns lie in the valleys that are separated by the high mountains in the east and the wide deep seas in the east. Every person whether they are born there or not can only live in one town at a time. Your seal states that you are different, but yet you are part of at least one town and one family.”
“But my family lives in one town. This seal proves my case.” The boys’ confidence was waning.
“Some of your relatives may have been born there but yet grew up elsewhere like yourself.” The boy remembered the woman’s parchment that bore his seal as the philosopher spoke. “People move and what remains of their home towns are no more than memories and parchments stamped with seals.”
“Then my time is wasted seeking the origin of this seal?” The boy sulked.
“Perhaps there is fairer game in seeking why each town has a seal and why some seals resemble others. Your ambition is your life. You aim to seek and to discover. Once you see the impossibility of finding the origin of that seal, you will be lost. You will have no aim, your ambition like your seal, will then become a mystery.”
The saddened eyes of the orphan brightened slightly.
The philosopher smiled. “There are many lands, more with seals of this kind. There are kingdoms and cities in the north that even I, in my old age, have never seen. Perhaps they may tell the story of the significance of your seal and the others that you have encountered.”

The crickets sang sweetly and the thick scent of spring flowers perfumed the air. He knew that he had set off on a journey that he would never complete. Now he realized, it was why his seal differed not how it came to be there, that sent him on his journey. The philosopher was right. If he did find the origin of the seal his life would change from ambition to old memories of where he had been. He did not want to live on memories, or to find the home of his fore bears. It is the seals that hold the key to the histories of the lands between the vast mountains of the east and the wide deep seas of the west. That was his ambition. He now realized he had never been alone. Now his journey could begin.