Prehistory of Systematics

As emphasized above, the history of systematics as a natural science branch begins with a purposeful exploration of the diversity of living nature using a rationally organized method. Viewed from this perspective, the previous stage in the development of classification activity, in which wildlife is somehow involved, can hardly be considered part of the conceptual history of systematics in its scientific meaning. Rather, this is its prehistory, in the course of which certain prerequisites for the formation of proper scientific systematics appear.

An Initial Step: Folk Systematics

A capacity to classify, that is, to recognize similar and different objects and to group and divide them on this basis, is inherent in animals as something like a “classification instinct” [Atran 1990; Ellen 2008]. It constitutes an important part of biological activity associated with the need to adapt to an environment by recognizing in it “ours” and “others,” viz. edible and inedible, companions and enemies, sexual partners and competitors, etc., and to react to them accordingly.

Members of the biological species of Homo sapiens inherit this form of primordial cognitive activity, with its inherent “classification instinct,” from their ancestors. Conscious classifying as an initial form of intellectual comprehension of the surrounding world grows out of it [Lévi-Strauss 1966; Foucault 1970]. With becoming able to think and speak, people begin to actively “invent” notions to denote not individual concrete things, but their generalized mental images. For example, the word “tree” does not mean this particular tree in front of one’s eyes, but a “tree in general,” i.e., any tree differing from various “non-trees.” Such generalizing notions, while multiplying more and more, together constitute primary classifications.

Until recently, it was generally acknowledged that reasonable cognition, as a prerequisite of modern science, originated in Antiquity, so there is nothing particularly interesting in the earlier forms of cognitive activity of archaic people. However, in the middle of the 20th century, this attitude changed under an influence of cognitology, which studies the primary forms of cognition [Klix 1983; Velichkovsky 2006]. One of its branches became ethnobiology, dealing with the relations of primitive humans with plants and animals, including their categorization [Maddalon 2003; Newmaster et al. 2006].

The development of such categorization gives rise to so-called folk systematics, which is defined above as a pre-systematics, as it develops no explicit theoretical and methodological constructions and thus remains basically irrational. Its background is intuitive and pragmatic, dictated primarily by the need to survive “here and now” and, for this, to comprehend the diversity of surrounding wildlife. The main product of folk systematics is folk classification—a primitive mental image of the structure of biota existing in a form of networked notions and names [Raven et al. 1971; Berlin 1973, 1992; Atran 1990; Pavlinov and Lyubarsky 2011; Lyubarsky 2018; Pavlinov 2018].

In interpretations of folk systematics, the above-mentioned dilemma of “pres-entism v.y. antiquarism” clearly occurs. In this case, presentism means that, in describing folk classifications, researchers borrow the proper analytical apparatus from contemporary systematics. In this way, they impose their cognitive schemes on the knowledge of indigenous people [Hays 1983; Atran 1990, 1998; Taylor 1990; Ellen 1993, 2008; Atran and Medin 2008; Pavlinov 2018]. Therefore, in studying folk systematics, presentism inevitably takes the form of a specific concept-centrism: researchers consider folk classifications from their own much more advanced theoretical positions. However, it does not seem right to consider from the standpoint of modern conceptual systems the folk classifications that arose in the context of local pre-scientific cultures.

There are two main points of view among researchers of folk systematics on the basic motivation for developing folk classifications: utilitarians believe they emerge due to certain practical needs, whereas intellectualists think they are mainly motivated cognitively. From the first perspective, the structure of folk classifications reflects certain human consumer attitudes to local environments. In particular, the organisms most important for the survival of an indigenous community are classified first of all; therefore, such classifications are strongly determined by certain local needs and therefore are subject-centered, highly selective, and locally specific [Hays 1982; Morris 1984]. This subject-centrism manifests itself in ethnocentrism, therefore folk classifications are reasonably called ethnobiological [Brown 1986; Atran 1990, 1998; Berlin 1992; Newmaster et al. 2006], and such local folk classifications are not relevant outside the specificity of the local folk cultures producing them [Steward 1955; Hunn 1977; Hays 1982; Ellen 1993, 2008; Maddalon 2003; Dwyer 2005]. The second interpretation presumes that there is a certain basic cognitive model inherent to the species of Homo sapiens operating with universal categories, including universal classification schemes minimally depending on local specifics of the cognizing subjects [Atran 1981, 1990, 1998; Berlin 1992; Mithen 2006]. From this perspective, cognitively motivated folk classifications reflect some fundamental structure of biota regardless of the local peculiarities of its perception, so they have some fundamental features in common [Berlin 1973, 1992; Berlin et al. 1973; Atran 1990, 1998; Lopez et al. 1997; Medin and Atran 2004; Atran and Medin 2008; Lyubarsky 2018].

The “factual” grounds for developing folk classifications significantly differ, thus providing quite diverse categorical schemes of division of local biotas. It is supposed that groupings of organisms by characters, which can hardly be explained by reference to any utilitarian criteria, produce some “general” folk classifications [Berlin 1973, 1992; Berlin et al. 1973]. Their high-rank groups are distinguished based on two kinds of characteristics of organisms: some are intrinsic (morphology, etc.), whereas others are extrinsic (ecology, etc.). In the first case, for instance, woody vs. herbaceous plants or hairy v.s bare-skinned animals or winged vs. legged vs. legless animals are recognized; in the second case, aquatic vs. terrestrial or arboreal vs. fossorial organisms are distinguished. At lower levels, particular anatomical features (color details, shapes of body parts, etc.) are usually taken into account. This general classification principle will be inherited from folk systematics by nearly all proto-systematics.

Folk classifications are predominantly hierarchical: they include groups (folk taxa) of different levels of generality. In the simplest case, their hierarchy is treated as rankless: “primary” (higher), “secondary,” etc. groups are distinguished [Berlin et al. 1973; Bulmer 1974]. Besides, other variants of orderings in the form of series, networks, and block schemes are recorded; however, hierarchical classifications are considered more “advanced” in comparison with others [Berlin 1992; Hunn and French 2000; Lyubarsky 2018]. With this, it is assumed that folk categories are cognitive universals that can be correlated with certain basic ontic categories of cognition [Atran 1990, 1998; Lyubarsky 2018]. Therefore, following “Linnean” terminology, hierarchical folk classifications lacking pragmatism are sometimes referred to as “natural,” whilst all others are “artificial” [Berlin 2004].

In more elaborated schemes based on the same “Linnean” tradition, ranked classifications with certain universal folk categories are considered characteristic of different local folk classifications [Berlin 1973, 1992; Atran 1990, 1998, 2008; etc.]. From four to six such categories (ranks) are usually distinguished; they are given the same names as in contemporary classifications: life forms, genera, species, etc. Such interpretation of folk classifications is obviously concept-centric and therefore may be erroneous in reflecting not so much the characters of perception of nature by primitive systematicians, as rather the point of view of their advanced scholarly interpreters [Ellen 1993, 2008; Coley et al. 1997; Ghiselin 1998; Pavlinov 2018].

Nevertheless, great importance is attached to an analysis of the rank hierarchy of folk classifications; with this, special attention is paid to identifying those categories that are recognized first of all by indigenous people as the most distinguished for one reason or another [Brown et al. 1976; Rosch et al. 1976; Brown 1986; Atran 1990; Ellen 2008]. “Intellectuallists” substantiate the special importance of folk life forms by supposing that, for an archaic perception, Nature is structured into the typologically most clearly recognizable large blocks, which are trees and grasses, animals and birds, reptiles and fish, etc. [Rosch et al. 1976]. A special significance of genera and species (or “generic species”) is substantiated from a utilitarian position [Atran 1999]: it is believed that archaic people first single out groups of lower ranks as the most significant for their survival “here and now” [Berlin 1992].

One of the issues occupying the attention of the researchers of folk classifications is the latter’s correspondence to the scientific ones; the main task is to reveal certain common features in them. The basic motivation for this is an assumption that, if the same groups are distinguished in the respective classifications, this can be taken as indirect evidence of their “reality.” In this way, contemporary scientific classification concepts serve as a general standard for such comparisons: for example, the “naturalness” of folk taxa is sometimes assessed from the point of view of the “evolutionary relationships” of their representatives [Berlin 1992]. Such criteria are obviously quite alien to folk systematics, so this approach means nothing more than a clear conceptcentrism, making these comparisons hardly correct [Hunn 1982; Brown 1986, 2004; Pavlinov 2018]. From this point of view, a method of “objectification” of biological species recognized by scientists by referring to folk taxa [Mayr 1969, 1988; Ludwig 2017] is hardly consistent, especially taking into consideration that scientists themselves treat species quite differently (see Section 6.7).

It should be noted that folk systematics is not only an initial stage of the prehistory of the scientific systematics but also a certain rather stable tradition. It is continued by many empiricists who rely on their personal experience and reject theorizing and formalization (possibly, because of their lack of understanding). This general attitude was clearly outlined by the zoologist Philip Darlington, who, protesting against the dominance of “numerists,” advocates “coming back [...] to a taxonomy that is correlated with reality” [Darlington 1971: 363]. And this can be achieved if taxonomists realize their “aspiration for truth without engaging any theoretical reasoning” [Stekolnikov 2003: 367].

 
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