Species are what you want them to be

What is a species? I don’t know. And honestly, I don’t really care too much.

Species is just a semantic label I place on a set of individuals related to a phylogeny. There tends to be a correlation in genetic variants between these creatures. For sexual organisms, which does not include all organisms, it generally denotes the ability to produce fertile offspring between any two pairs of the opposite sex.

Over ten years ago I read Speciation by Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr. As evolutionary geneticists with an interest in taxonomy they take the “species problem” somewhat seriously, but ultimately they’re instrumentalists. “Species” are not the ultimate goal of their scholarship from what I can tell. Rather, species are instruments, semantic tools to smoke out evolutionary processes which shape and determine the pattern of biological variation we see around us. The “origin of species” is less important in relation to the species themselves, as opposed to why we can create categories of species out of the specialized morphological diversity around us.

Not everyone agrees with this position. And not everyone has the same opinion about species. On the whole plant systematists and ecologists will take a different tack on the species problem than evolutionary geneticists. Evolutionary geneticists who work with plants will have a different view from those who work on animals, let alone those who work with bacteria.

The point then is that species are social constructs whose utility and nature varies by discipline. I’m not being a solipsist here. Nature is real. And genetic and phenotypic variation is real. But in some ways the labels we give it can become matters of emphasis.

Of course, I am aware this is an idiosyncratic view. For Carl Linnaeus, the cataloging of species, natural kinds, was cataloging the Creation of God. If you are a Creationist, as most pre-modern people were, then species in their variety and number reflect the will and intention of God. Their study and enumeration would be a glimpse into the mind of the divine.

This doesn’t come out of a vacuum. The religious and Creationist thought simply systematized deep intuitions about the nature of things and biological categories. One doesn’t have to be a genius to make a story about why it would be adaptive to promiscuously and compulsively categorize nature around you. Religious thinkers were simply reshaping and firming up ideas which were in the air.

And this probably brings up why questions about “species” crop up over and over in the comments. And this is why a few times a year I have to put this post up….

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13 thoughts on “Species are what you want them to be

  1. The point then is that species are social constructs whose utility and nature varies by discipline. I’m not being a solipsist here. Nature is real. And genetic and phenotypic variation is real. But in some ways the labels we give it can become matters of emphasis.

    Sounds a lot like another category that gets some of us in trouble these days – race.

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  2. It would be an academic question if the “Endangered Species Act” had not become a cudgel in the ongoing class warfare in the United States where it has been used by urban elites to demoralize and impoverish working class loggers in Oregon. It got so convoluted that the Feds decided they needed to hunt down one “species” of owl because it was preempting the Federally protected habitat of another “species” of owl.

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  3. For what I have read from this side of the Atlantic, your ESA protects not only species but also sub-species (or “populations”), meaning that the definition of “species” could not be much relevant for it.

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  4. “the ESA is a minefield if you are an evolutionary geneticist….”

    or a lumberjack.

    “There is a solution to “endangered species” – grow them commercially.”

    The “environmentalists are not trying to preserve species, they are trying to destroy human communities particularly ones that will not kowtow to them.

    “your ESA protects not only species but also sub-species (or “populations”), meaning that the definition of “species” could not be much relevant for it.”

    Bingo. Why be hung up on science, when it is politics you are interested in.

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  5. @Walter Sobchak

    The loggers didn’t actually care about feeding their families either, they just wanted to rape Mother Earth.

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  6. What I always think when reading the word species is: Qualify and Quantify.

    Qualify: Make clear what aspect of speciation one is talking about: morphology, genetics, interbreeding, ecology, whatever.

    Quantify: Use variables to describe these aspects.

    A proper characterization of a species will look something like this: “In terms of morphology these populations are really quite substantially differentiated, they don’t interbreed that often, but genetically they are really very very similar”.

    The apparent vagueness of this description should not be considered as a weakness, something that has to be resolved and cleared-up. The reality of population genetics should be considered as ‘vague’.

    These kind of multi-dimensional & quantified species descriptions do more justice to biological reality than (apparently) precise descriptions that reduce multiple factors and variables to species names.

    (Species problem solved really)

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