If it's alive and it lives wild, it's wildlife.

Kevin J. Cook                                              Kevin@WildlifeWindow.com


Classification: A Perspective


            More than any other pursuit of biological scholarship, classification evokes disagreement, which in its turn provokes a blend of friction, acrimony, dissension, and resentment that produces an academic discord peculiar to the subject.  If my assertion seems remarkably negative, it is because such is the nature of the subject.  Two people may examine the same biotic evidence concerning a point of classification and subsequently render diametric opinions and be willing to engage life-long disputes to defend those opinions.

            And yet this discord is a beautiful thing.

            The human desire to understand what we truly are, where we came from, how we got here, and how all the components of life are related to each other, and to us, is a desire that burns not as a simple flame of curiosity but as a furnace of passion that fires body, mind, and soul.  No other intellectual pursuit – except perhaps medical research – inspires such innovation of thought and of applying knowledge to expand our comprehension of life on Earth.

            Discord fuels the furnace of intellectual passion.

            So, if the classification presented in Wildlife Window does not align with what you recognize, do not despair or be alarmed.  Instead, enjoy the challenge of reconciling the scholarship behind the differences.



Classification: State of Things


            Virtually everything about the familiar aspects of classification is now out-dated.  Those who work professionally in the discipline no longer refer to it as “taxonomy” nor to themselves as “taxonomists.”  They refer to their discipline as “systematics” and to themselves as “systematists.”  This conversion began three-quarters of a century ago and was essentially complete a few decades ago.  And yet, the word “taxonomy” still creeps in here and there.

            The long-standing concept of a basic seven-tiered hierarchy of classification descending from kingdoms through classes and families to species no longer accurately represents what we know to be true.  Ironically, this hierarchical concept simultaneously holds us back yet offers the only functional language system that allows us to communicate with any interdisciplinary efficacy.  An oft-cited quotation (Auk, 1989, 106:511) of Ernst Mayr, classification giant of the Twentieth Century, is yet appropriate: “No classification should be abandoned until it is definitely falsified.  Otherwise we would have an incessant turmoil in our information retrieval systems.”

            Mayr’s advice clearly defines our current conundrum: systematists have “definitely falsified” the seven-tier hierarchy of taxonomy, but no one has yet erected a new language system by which we may as productively communicate what we now know.

            Explosive developments in molecular biology have contributed enormously to our quest to understand the relatedness of life.  In some respects molecular biology has corroborated classification based on comparative anatomy, morphology, and behavior; in other respects, molecular biology has resolved bottlenecks that such disciplines could not.  However, molecular biology has also spawned new questions, some of which disorient our progress.  Not infrequently, this disorientation seduces bold researchers into making claims that do not hold up under scrutiny.  People who assess the contributions of molecular biology to classification often use such colloquial expressions as “over-running headlights” and “not a magic bullet.”  Looking back, we can find circumstances in which a bold claim made a big splash that got everyone wet without giving anyone a bath.

            For now, accept the uncertainty about classification by embracing two guiding principles: (1) we need to communicate about wildlife relatedness, and (2) we aren’t finished learning yet.



Classification and Wildlife Window


            To minimize the opportunities for confusion when communicating about classification, we need to be clear about our orismology (the study of scientific language, specifically terms).  I present here definitions of five terms as they will be used in Wildlife Window.


Taxonomy — the academic study of how living creatures are related to each other.


Phylogeny — the lineage of relatedness that shows how living creatures have diversified through time.


Classification — the intellectual product of the taxonomic pursuit that presents the best reflection of phylogeny.


Nomenclature — the language, specifically names and related terms, that we use to communicate about classification and phylogeny.


Cladistics – the scientific research protocol that provides the means to pursue taxonomy and by which means the most accurate picture of phylogeny can be drawn.


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