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).

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The Autonomous Algorithm

The S&B Blog will be running a series of posts dealing with the rise of the black box and the fall of the foundations of systematics.

The Timetree of Life: A product
of the Autonomous Algorithm?

Presently, the majority of systematic analyses are constructed in the same way - a matrix is assembled and fed into a computer that then produces a branching diagram. Students of systematics are taught how to produce this branching diagram, using the algorithm, without context to the foundations of systematics. The result is a whole new generation of computer users ignorant of the basic fundamentals of systematics, such as theory (i.e., homology, monophyly), history (i.e., why we do what we do) and methodology (i.e., how to find homologs and construct a cladogram by hand). This also results in an increased dependency on algorithms, which in turn creates a new systematic history and theory that revolves around algorithms rather than concepts. The former black box, which implemented basic algorithms to find approximations of cladograms, is now totally autonomous to the theory, method and history that had gone into its creation. We call this the Autonomous Algorithm.