Taxonomy (Or Why Modern Biological Categories are Wrong)

cladeAristotle was the first to systematically lay out various living things in the world. According to him, they could be divided into three categories: plants, animals and rational beings (humans). Insofar as biology is concerned, human beings are animals. Therefore, there were two biological categories: plants and animals. Carl Linnaeus extended this knowledge to cover many new kinds of plants and animals, and created more divisions below that of plants and animals. Many of our modern biological categories come from him. The highest division was the kingdom and there were two kingdoms: plants and animals. In 1866, Ernst Haeckel suggested that simple single celled organisms form a third kingdom that he originally called Monera. (He later called this kingdom Protista.) His reasoning behind this change was that biological divisions show historical ancestry (common descent). Modern taxonomists have followed this new pattern and begun a program of categorizing biological things according to ancestry. This is wrong because it is contrary to the purpose of biological categorization.

There are thousands and thousands of different kinds of biological things. There are also many possible ways to categorize them. We might categorize living things by considering how we use them. So weeds refer to plants that we do not want, trees refer to large plants that provide shade, vegetables are edible plants with a similar kind of taste and fruits are plants that have sweet parts. This kind of categorization does not help us understand the living thing. It simply helps us categorize the living thing according to our purposes for it. In fact, any external categorization will not help us understand the living thing. I might name plants according to where they are found, whether I like them, where I bought them or what they can be used for. But these things may vary even if the plant (or animal) stays the same. Furthermore, even if these things do not vary, the explanation for why they do not vary includes knowledge not related to the living thing in question. For example, the reason why pineapples are edible partially has to do with the human digestive system. Finally, even the knowledge about the living thing itself does not unify our knowledge of that living thing. So no externally based categorization scheme is proper if our goal is understanding the living thing itself.

Categorizing living things by their ancestry is an external categorization scheme. The explanation why two living things were placed in the same category would be an external fact (that it is the best fit for those two individuals given the rest of biology). Although historical knowledge is invariant across researchers, it includes both facts about the living thing itself and facts about the rest of the living things that happen to live in the world. Secondly, knowing that dogs and wolves share a common ancestry does not unify our knowledge of dog or wolf biology. Knowing that both dogs and wolves are mammals (and that being mammalian is more fundamental than being a dog or a wolf), does unify our knowledge of either a dog or a wolf.

When we categorize living things we must begin with what is most fundamental, and work our way to what is least fundamental. What is most fundamental to a living thing is the reason why it is alive. Without that, it would not be a living thing at all. Everything else that a living thing does supports the life of that living thing first of all. Least fundamental are the parts of the living thing that can change without harm to that living thing – such as the length of hair, the color of hair or the growth of new branches. Nowhere in this scheme is there room for facts about the ancestry of living things.

The purpose of categorizing living things in biology is to organize them in order to understand them in themselves. The purpose requires categorizing living things according to differences in those living things beginning with the most fundamental differences. Since the differences between living things are purely internal, there is no room for history. Therefore, classification schemes such as cladistics that are based on historical relationships between organisms are universally wrong.

The Contemporary Liberal Assumption

TheSocialContractI recently listened to a series of lectures on the subject of political philosophy by a Yale professor. They are fairly well done and I recommend them. But what struck me while listening to them is a common assumption found within all of the perspectives he mentioned. This assumption remains without argument even though it requires one.

He mentioned five theories. Marxism, social contract theory, utilitarianism, anti-enlightenment theories and democracy. With each of these he gave at least two different versions. Furthermore, he was careful to give the best version of each of these theories, indicate how they would respond to objections and why someone might believe each one of them. Finally, these theories cover all major theories of politics that exist today. So any commonality between these theories is a major assumption of our time.

Each of these five theories assume that content can be separated from form. There are a few ways this assumption shows up. The first is that descriptive politics can be separated from moral theory. This idea is that we can describe how politics works without using any moral claims. The second way this shows up is the idea that the freedom people exercise in political activities can be separated from moral theories and from human nature. There are a few ways this idea shows up. Governments are encouraged not to prefer a particular moral scheme, a particular religion or a particular theory of human nature. Instead, they are encouraged to allow everyone to follow their moral scheme, religion and theory of human nature so long as it does not interfere with anyone else. The final way this shows up is in the description of human rights. Human rights are not only understood in a secular fashion, but they are also separated from any theory of human nature, or the good that these rights aim at. This assumption that form can be separated from content in these three ways is what I will call The Liberal Assumption.

Nowhere is the lecture was the liberal assumption ever defended. In fact, it was not even mentioned. This assumption was simply brought in as a matter of unexamined moral theory. This assumption is rarely defended in the modern political theory simply because all of the modern political theories assume that it is at least mostly true. There are some few philosophers who disagree with this, but their objections are mostly ignored.

This assumption was soundly rejected by the major philosophers of the ancient and medieval period. Each of them placed a study of politics after that of ethics. Each of them used their metaphysics, including the metaphysics of human beings, in order to understand both ethics and politics. So the modern liberal assumption is new and therefore hardly something obvious or something that does not require argument.

Given all of this, the key question becomes obvious. Is the modern liberal assumption true or false? In order to answer that question, the liberal assumption must be divided into its three parts. The first part is the descriptive assumption, the second is the assumption of unbounded freedom and third is the assumption of ungrounded rights. It is also necessary to make sure that any examination of these assumptions is done while imputing the most plausible theory to it. If the liberal assumption is extremely common, then we must assume that it is well-grounded. If we can show that even the most well-grounded liberal assumption is false, then it is false generally. If we show that the most well-grounded liberal assumption is true, then we can examine exactly how well-grounded it must be in order to be true. On the other hand, if we use a less well-grounded assumption, then any conclusion will be less certain, and it will be easier to doubt it.

There is one further issue. We cannot assume any particular form in order to determine whether or not this assumption is true or false. For if this assumption is true given utilitarianism but not true given social contract theory, then this is an argument for utilitarianism. It would not be an argument against the liberal assumption. We cannot even limit the forms to the current contemporary theories. Perhaps some new form will be discovered in the future. So we cannot limit ourselves to a particular form or range of forms when discussing the truth of this assumption.