Leonard Finkelman writes...
A spectre is haunting Europe--the spectre of individualism.
Yes: there is an obvious sociopolitical spectre now haunting the Old World, but I'm not in any position to make public assertions about that issue . In any event, this isn't a blog about social science or political philosophy. I'm talking instead about taxonomy (which should surprise absolutely no one who's read my last several posts), wherein individualism may be antithetical to meaningful classification. I'm talking about the spectre that rises out of Loch Ness.
I recently had occasion to visit the cryptozoological Mecca during a vacation tour through Scotland. Even though I had resolved to take a complete break from work during this holiday , the Loch--and its most famous purported resident--got me thinking about one of the most enduring and volatile debates in paleontological theory, and so I couldn't help recording some thoughts about lumping and splitting. I didn't find any cryptids during my trip to the Loch, but I did find a conceptual relation between the Loch Ness "monster" and how one thinks about multiplying or reducing the number of paleontological taxa on the record. The way one thinks about the individuality of the Loch Ness cryptid carries implications about how liberal or conservative one is about taxonomic distinctions.
First, a few words about the Loch Ness "monster," popularly nicknamed "Nessie" (if not actually referred to as such by Scottish locals). Three words in particular: "no," "such," and "thing." I was pleasantly surprised to find that local discussion of the monster tended towards reason rather than sensation. The Loch's closest thing to an official tourism institution, the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, goes to some entertaining lengths to demonstrate that the only "evidence" for Nessie's existence is a collection of occasionally dubious testimonials. The famed pictures of cryptic humps rising from the Loch's surface are thoroughly debunked; monster-less alternative explanations are suggested for eyewitness testimonials .
Of course, eyewitnesses continue to give those testimonials. One of them, a local enthusiast named George Edwards, even runs a sightseeing cruise around the lake. It was Mx. Edwards' narration of this cruise, delivered in a mellifluous Scottish brogue, that got me thinking about lumping and splitting.
Mx. Edwards was sure to reiterate three points over the course of his remarks:
- It is simply not possible to empty Loch Ness of all its water.
- The cryptid sighted on the Loch should not be called a "monster."
- Whatever the cryptid is, there must be more than one of it.
Passing over the first point--which is admittedly irrelevant to my thoughts, but still makes me chuckle--the second and third strike me as intimately related. In the biological sense of that word, a "monster" is an organism so radically different from other organisms--so completely individualistic--that it cannot be classified with other organisms in any real taxon. As I argued in my post about endlings: if a species is a population of organisms, then every species must have more than one member . If the Loch Ness cryptid is classifiable within a species, then, it cannot be a true monster.
But why should we be committed to the idea that the cryptid is a part of some species, real or discovered? Why should we be bothered (as I was in that earlier post) by the idea that a species reduced to a single member is no longer a species? The answer to that question might account for the differences between taxonomic lumpers and splitters.
In a widely-quoted passage in his Origin of Species, Charles Darwin marveled at the 'truly wonderful fact ... that all animals and all plants throughout all time and space should be related to each other in group subordinate to group' (1859 p. 128). This passage is the key to Mary Winsor's (2009) argument that taxonomic concerns motivated Darwin to formulate the theory of evolution by means of natural selection: the relations of species grouped within a genus, and of genera within a family, and of families within an order, etc., do not appear accidental, and so there must be some explanation for taxonomic groupings (and that explanation should be more principled than, "Eh, God felt like it"). Conversely, since natural selection generates a natural taxonomy by differentially preserving beneficial variations--the differentiae in biological classification--and since all organisms are in some sense products of natural selection, it should follow that all organisms should be in principle classifiable.
Darwin himself recognized limits to the latter line of reasoning. In his unpublished manuscript for the "Big Species Book" that would later get edited down into the Origin, Darwin warned against the "absurd" state of affairs 'when there will be almost as many specific forms as individuals' (in Stauffer 1987 p. 247). Taxonomy is the result of differentiae preserved through Natural Selection, but this must be balanced against the fact that one purpose of any system of classification is to recognize similarities (between members of a taxon) as well as differences; if not, then any taxonomy would simply be a catalog of numerically distinct individuals.
In Darwin's theory, then, we have a tension between liberalism about taxonomic differentiation--caused by selection, which is 'daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest' (Darwin 1859 p. 84) and generating new biological taxa through that scrutiny--and conservatism about principles of classification. The current debate between lumpers--taxonomic conservatives--and splitters--taxonomic liberals--externalizes that tension inherent in Darwin's work.
Bearing this in mind, a Loch Ness monster would serve as a fairly good litmus test for one's theoretical sympathies towards lumping or splitting. If there were truly a Loch Ness monster, that would mean that something living in Loch Ness cannot be classified in any biological taxon. It would not follow from that, however, that the monster is not classifiable. A question remains open: would a Loch Ness monster be classified as its own species?
A taxonomic liberal would have no problem assigning a Loch Ness monster to its own species. Darwin worried that unchecked taxonomic liberalism would imply an "absurd" situation in which a species would include only a single member, but not all taxonomists see the absurdity in that state of affairs. A taxonomist who would classify a Loch Ness monster in its own species is one pressured more by differences between organisms than by similarities, and so relieves Darwin's tension through a greater inclination to split.
By contrast, a taxonomic conservative would insist that a Loch Ness monster can't be classified by biological standards. If a taxonomist feel greater pressure to recognize the similarities between organisms within a taxon than to emphasize the differences between organisms in different taxa, then that taxonomist relieves Darwin's tension through lumping; a biological monster is, by definition, an organism that cannot be lumped .
Under normal circumstances, practicing taxonomists do in fact balance these conflicting tensions. Sometimes the pressure from one side wins out. A supposedly juvenile T. rex may be recognized as different enough from other specimens in the species that it gets split into its own genus, but the result isn't a different species for each individual tyrannosaurid specimen. Other times the pressure from the other side wins out. Specimens previously classified in three different genera get lumped as growth stages of Pachycephalosaurus wyomingensis, but P. wyomingensis doesn't get lumped with other close relatives. What makes the Loch Ness "monster" a good litmus test is the lack of conceptual space to balance the tension: one must be either a taxonomic liberal or a taxonomic conservative, full stop.
Does the individuality of a Loch Ness monster exclude it from classification or not? The answer to that question haunts paleontology, wherein lumpers and splitters are at near-constant odds, just as surely as European tourism is haunted by the spectral humps of strange Scottish creature .
On that note, let's exit through the gift shop.
- We in the United States have been distracted by spectres of our own recently.
- I originally promised myself that I would post a sort of re-run this month, linking to an essay I wrote for Scientia Salon last year. I'm enough of a Kantian about ethics to hold myself to a promise.
- It seems that David Hume continues to smile upon his homeland.
- Mx. Edwards' reasoning was a bit less theoretical: he pointed out that the first recorded account of a cryptid in Loch Ness came from the Christian missionary St. Columba in 565 AD and that it's incredibly unlikely that any animal could be so long-lived. Credit where credit is due: he's not wrong about that last part.
- It might seem that I've excluded one possibility: that the Loch Ness monster is an endling. To the contrary: I can't exclude that possibility because that isn't a possibility. An endling is the final remaining member of a species, meaning that its individuality is accidental; a monster is a species of one by definition. An organism therefore can't be both an endling (i.e., a potential member of a larger population) and a monster (i.e., an organism necessarily excluded from all other species populations).
- I'd be remiss in failing to note the excellent thoughts on cryptobiology recently contributed by Derek and by Adrian. Talk about convergent evolution!
- Darwin, Charles. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London, England: John Murray Books.
- Stauffer, R.C. (1987). Charles Darwin’s Natural Selection: Being the Second Part of His Big Species Book Written from 1856 to 1858 (Ed.) New York, New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Winsor, M.P. (2009). “Taxonomy was the foundation of Darwin's evolution.” Taxon, 58: 1-7