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Paul Grobstein's picture

classification: uses and caveats

I think its a very interesting essay, even more so given that is was written in 1959 and directed at a quite narrow issue and audience, classification of the invertebrates by professional systematic biologists.  Thanks for bringing it to our attention.  What's worth thinking about, among other things, is the applicability of the concerns in a whole series of both biological and wider contexts, including not only health and social policy but our own inclinations to categorize or not categorize both others and ourselves.  Some apt points, in addition to those Rachel mentions about why classification is useful and the need to avoid "mis-use" ...

"It has been evident for a long time that classification of animals has been plagued by a series of hypotheses that attained such a firm hold that no one even dared to speak about the possibility that they might be faulty."

"all of us accept things which we cannot justify and claim there is a basis for ideas for which we can produce no real basis.  This is the nature of the strange organ we call the human mind."

"Classification is many things to different people ... There is a variety of definitions of what a natural classification is."

"Classification is ... not the recognition of something that exists in nature, for nature is not classified.  It is the invention by man ... "

"The general purpose of all classification ... is to bring order to a mass of data too great to be fully understood separately. But every classification will by its very nature serve only the purpose for which it is designed ... inference of unknowns from knowns is the real purpose of most classification."  (PG: Perhaps also the recognition of unknowns and questions following from those?)

"A recent zoology textbook tells us that taxonomy emphasizes the differences between organisms.  This is true only if we are looking at it after the work of classifying is done ... real classiciation always employs similarities, and the differences appear mostly as a by-product."

"In the constant effort to simplify biology for teaching purposes, we have submerged the evidence that variety is the most obvious characteristic of the animal kingdom."

An electron is an electron is an electron.  But a rose ... differs from all other roses.  And a Montague or a human or an elephant or an E. coli differs from all other instantiations of those things.  Yes, there are similarities but in focusing on those we obscure the differences.  Maybe the most important thing to teach about biology is the importance not only of similarities but also of differences? 

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