Preface

Living is easy with eyes closed.

John Lennon

The well-known statement that “In the beginning was the Word,” with which the Gospel of John begins, is not fully correct: of course, in the beginning was the classification. For a word is but one of the forms of being of knowledge. With this, any knowledge begins with a distinction between “one” and “another”: good and evil, living and inert matter, plants and animals—and so forth to infinity. And all such distinctions constitute an essential part of the classification.

So, classification stands at the beginning of both knowledge and the “words” shaping it. The very ability to generalize and classify is one of the most important parts of any cognitive activity—and scientific knowledge provides no exception in this respect. All scientific disciplines classify in one way or another, some to a lesser and others to a greater extent; in some of them, classifications play an auxiliary role, while in others they constitute the very goal of the cognitive activity.

Biology is one of the most “classifying” natural sciences; as a matter of fact, it includes a special division devoted exclusively to the development of classifications, namely, biological systematics. This is a peculiar specificity of biology: all sciences classify, but it is only biology that developed and termed such a special classifying division.

Systematics takes a fundamental position in biology, for it shapes the subject area of this natural science branch by recognizing and fixing in living matter, in a certain way, specific structural units called taxa. Only reference to the latter makes all biological knowledge objective and concrete—and thereby scientific. Meanwhile, an attitude towards systematics among many biologists (and not only among them) is quite disrespectful. The prevailing belief among non-specialists is that systematics is engaged in something futile like “stamp collecting”; it just divides organisms by species and genera and then assigns names to them. Such an impression of systematics as a “defective science” seems to be one of the principal causes of the current “taxonomic impediment” that many taxonomists worry about. Unfortunately, such an attitude is supported indirectly by those taxonomists who present systematics in just such a scanty, purely empirical manner.

However, such a viewpoint is undoubtedly wrong. In fact, biological systematics is a fairly developed scientific discipline with its specific theoretical background that was being elaborated for centuries in the form of particular research programs. It is this background that defines, by and large, what “taxonomic reality” is as an essential part of the subject area of biology, how it is explored by specific taxonomic means, and how both theoretical and empirical taxonomic knowledge is substantiated and shaped. With this, theoretical foundations of systematics arise not by themselves but within certain philosophical contexts, so it is hardly possible, without the latter’s consideration, to comprehend what, how, and why systematics investigates. Further, it is of importance to recognize that theoretical knowledge of systematics is a developing cognitive system, so it cannot be understood outside the historical contexts of its development. Thus, the general framework of comprehending the science of biological systematics can be presented in the form of the fundamental triad “theory + philosophy + conceptual history’.“

This book represents the author’s ideas about historical development and essential content of the theoretical foundations of biological systematics considered within the context of this fundamental triad. It provides a kind of summary of my more extensive books published in 2012 and 2018 in Russian, so I am happy with an opportunity to present my ideas in English as part of the Species and Systematics Series of CRC Press, thanks to the positive attitude of Kip Will (Editor in Chief) and Chuck Crumly (Science Publisher).

The approach to consideration of the theoretical foundations of systematics adopted here is caused by the author’s commitment to the ideas of non-classical philosophy of science, including evolutionary epistemology that emphasizes both philosophical and historical conditioning and pluralistic treatment of theoretical and, consequently, empirical knowledge [Popper 1975; Hiibner 1988; Radnitzky and Bartley 1993; Stepin 2005]. According to this “non-classical” viewpoint, the theoretical foundations of systematics are shaped by changing philosophical and historical contexts. So the main task of this book is not just to review the diversity of taxonomic concepts but to analyze their basic premises: on what philosophical and scientific theoretical grounds particular taxonomic theories and concepts are founded and why and how they arise and function.

This historical-philosophical standpoint assumes the realization that particular taxonomic theories seem to appear rather regularly in certain philosophical and historical contexts in due time and die out with them in the respective time, although not completely, leaving some “conceptual traces” in the overall contents of systematics. Therefore, we should not blame our predecessors for doing or thinking “wrong” but give them our respect for their having laid the foundations of biological systematics with their ideas as they understood them in those times.

With this, such a position has one particular feature: it presumes that, in the theory of systematics, there is hardly anything that might be thought of as established once and forever. Adherents of every particular conception, believing it is “most true” and therefore “final” while others are “wrong” or “obsolete,” seem to look at the entire subject of biological systematics “with eyes wide shut.” And do contemporary theoreticians, thus believing, differ greatly in this respect from those who believed in their own conceptions in the 18th and the 19th centuries? And isn’t it wiser to remember King Solomon’s “everything passes—and this will also pass” and to realize that any current taxonomic knowledge is but a transition between the past and future developments?

So, readers are welcome to plunge into the variety of theoretical foundations of biological systematics, considered from broad historical and philosophical perspectives.

Igor Ya. Pavlinov

Zoological Museum at Lomonosov Moscow State University’

Moscow. Russia

 
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