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"The Economist" on species splitting (1 Viewer)

jurek

Well-known member
Switzerland
This article is interesting, even if birds are not mentioned. Idea that spectacular species are split simply to increase rarity applies very well to albatrosses, spanish imperial eagles etc.


"Species inflation

Hail Linnaeus
May 17th 2007
From The Economist print edition

Conservationists—and polar bears—should heed the lessons of economics

“NO SCIENCE in the world is more elevated, more necessary and more useful than economics.” That was the view of Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist, born three centuries ago this week, who is better remembered for devising the system used to this day to classify living organisms.

Linnaeus sought to reveal what he saw as the divine order of the natural world so that it might be exploited for human benefit. He lived at a time when exploration and trade were bringing new specimens to the attention of European scientists. Those specimens, particularly the plants, were scrutinised as potential crops. At the turn of the 17th century there was no sense of how creatures were related to each other; descriptions and classifications were unsystematic. Linnaeus gave life to an organising hierarchy with kingdoms at the top and species at the bottom.

The system he created has proved both robust and flexible. It survived the rise of evolution. It also survived the discovery of whole categories of organism, such as bacteria, that the Swede never suspected existed. But, rather as John Maynard Keynes observed that “there is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency,” so Linnaeus's system is being subtly debauched by over-eager taxonomists, trying to help conservation.

Go forth and multiply
As new areas are explored, the number of species naturally increases (see article). For example, the number of species of monkey, ape and lemur gradually increased until the mid-1960s, when it levelled off. In the mid-1980s, however, it started rising again. Today there are twice as many primate species as there were then. That is not because a new wave of primatologists has emerged, pith-helmeted, from the jungle with hitherto unknown specimens. It is because a lot of established subspecies have been reclassified as species.

Perhaps “reclassified” is not quite the right word. “Rebranded” might be closer. Taxonomists do not always get it right first time, of course, and what looked like one species may rightly later be seen as two. But a suspiciously large number of the new species have turned up in the limited group of big, showy animals known somewhat disparagingly as “charismatic megafauna”—in other words the species that the public, as opposed to the experts, care about.

One reason for this taxonomic inflation is that the idea of a species becoming extinct is easy to grasp, and thus easy to make laws about. Subspecies just do not carry as much political clout. The other is that upgrading subspecies into species simultaneously increases the number of rare species (by fragmenting populations) and augments the biodiversity of a piece of habitat and thus its claim for protection.

In the short term, this strategy helps conservationists by intensifying the perceived threat of extinction. In the long term, as every economist knows, inflation brings devaluation. Rarity is not merely determined by the number of individuals in a species, it is also about how unusual that species is. If there are only two species of elephant, African and Indian, losing one matters a lot. Subdivide the African population, as some taxonomists propose, and perceptions of scarcity may shift.

The trouble is that the idea of what defines a species is a lot more slippery than you might think. Since it is changes in DNA that cause species to evolve apart, looking at DNA should be a good way to divide the natural world. However, it depends which bit of DNA you look at. The standard technique says, for example, that polar bears are just brown bears that happen to be white. This is not good news for those relying on the Endangered Species Act. For a certain sort of Colorado rodent (with, alas, a nose for prime riverfront real estate) the question of whether it is “Preble's meadow jumping mouse” or a boring old meadow jumping mouse may be a matter of life or death: local property developers are on the death side. The Bahamas switched overnight from protecting their raccoons to setting up programmes to eradicate them when a look at the genetic evidence showed the animals were common Northern raccoons, not a separate species.

The 21st-century answer to this 18th-century riddle is that a species is what a taxonomist says it is. Evolution often fails to produce the clear divisions that human thought in general, and the law in particular, prefers to work with. It therefore behoves taxonomists to be honest. If they debase their currency, it will ultimately become valueless. Linnaeus the economist would have known that instinctively."

URL_is:_http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9191545
 
Idea that spectacular species are split simply to increase rarity applies very well to albatrosses, spanish imperial eagles etc.

I do not have any expert insight into the case for many vs few albatross species, just this thought: if two groups of birds have very strong geographic sence, so that they only come to land on the two different islands where they were born, that would constitute as strong a barrier against interbreeding as them not recognizing each other as species due to differences in voice?

Apart from that, I agree that the view of what constitutes a species in an inherent part of the problem. At the oppocite extreme, there is the possibility of arguing that there only exists a single species of dabling duck in the world, because every dabling duck is able to produce hybrids with every other dabling duck. (and that has already once been the subject of a long thread here on birdforum)

Cheers
Niels
 
I do not have any expert insight into the case for many vs few albatross species, just this thought: if two groups of birds have very strong geographic sence, so that they only come to land on the two different islands where they were born, that would constitute as strong a barrier against interbreeding as them not recognizing each other as species due to differences in voice?

In theory, yes, but in real life, generally no. All taxa move (though this often appears to be forgotten when it comes to subspecies), and except when taking the absolutely most extreme cases, there are few taxa that truly are completely isolated from all other closely related taxa (be that subspecies or closely related species). Even in the ultra site-specific albatrossess there are a number of documented cases where individuals of a specific taxon ended up in the breeding island of another - supposedly allopatric - taxon (salvini ending up in eremita colonies, steadi ending up in salvini colonies, etc). If anything, this is perhaps one of the strongest arguments for some of the albatross splits, as there - despite the occasional wanderers and even documented cases of breeding pairs turning up in the "wrong" colony - to my knowledge is no documented case of hybridization between taxa in e.g. the T. cauta complex. On the contrary, in my opinion the currently available biochemical data is far from convincing when it comes to the various albatross-splits, and could just as easily be turned around and used as an argument for lumping the whole deal instead.

Distribution thus stands in contrast to voices, as a species where the voice is essential for breeding success (e.g. a Scytalopus tapaculo) still would be reproductively isolated even if it managed to find its way into the range of a closely related, but normally allopatric, relative. Anyhow, you probably already knew this, but just in case.
 
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What a crap article.

Let's create the notion that there isn't that much biodiversity, so there is less motivation to protect it. A Polar Bear is really just a Brown Bear, and there are plenty of Brown Bears, so screw the Polar Bears.

Here's a real essay on economics and nature, part of Jack Turner's The Abstract Wild, one of the best collections of modern nature writing you'll ever read: http://www.gilacommunity.com/TurnerEcoNat.html

People who talk about nature in economic terms simply have no soul.

Adam
 
What a crap article.

Let's create the notion that there isn't that much biodiversity, so there is less motivation to protect it. A Polar Bear is really just a Brown Bear, and there are plenty of Brown Bears, so screw the Polar Bears.

Here's a real essay on economics and nature, part of Jack Turner's The Abstract Wild, one of the best collections of modern nature writing you'll ever read: http://www.gilacommunity.com/TurnerEcoNat.html

People who talk about nature in economic terms simply have no soul.

Adam

I think you're misreading it - the article quoted above was just describing the impact of economics on species diversity - it wasn't advocating it. Your article also describes a similar effect and then suggests we should avoid it. No conflict there.
 
I think you're misreading it - the article quoted above was just describing the impact of economics on species diversity - it wasn't advocating it. Your article also describes a similar effect and then suggests we should avoid it. No conflict there.

I don't think he is misreading it, just reading the seeds of doubt sown delicately between the lines. The agenda is there.

With Tim; why are other social scientists taught and encouraged to analyse the subjectivity and value-laden nature of their discipline, whereas economists are taught to see their laws as equivalent to the laws of physics?

Graham
 
Here's a real essay on economics and nature, part of Jack Turner's The Abstract Wild, one of the best collections of modern nature writing you'll ever read: http://www.gilacommunity.com/TurnerEcoNat.html

People who talk about nature in economic terms simply have no soul.

Adam

Excellent perspective IMO. Although I think his interpretation of the Enlightenment and what it's 'moral' venture was about is a little off. It was the 'victory' of Reason, Science and over religiousity and the traditional source of moral good as being something transcendent. Unfortunately, it was a Phyrric one and sadly alienated both 'morally' and physically', the 'noble savage' from his connection to the land upon which he lived and regarded as 'sacred'. Incidently, Christianity and Judaism are both rooted in a notion of 'Sacred Land' but again, in practice have fallen fowl of the economisation of people and society.

We have much to learn from traditional indigenous cultures regarding our attitude to the 'natural world' IMO - Chief Seattle said it all in 1854:

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land ? This idea is strange to us.

If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water how can you buy them?

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.

The white man's dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us.


full text:

http://www.ancharraig.com/aislingmagazine/articles/TAM27/Buytheair.html
 
why are other social scientists taught and encouraged to analyse the subjectivity and value-laden nature of their discipline, whereas economists are taught to see their laws as equivalent to the laws of physics?

Graham

I quite agree - but doesn't the same apply to taxonomists? Especially when there is no agreement on which species concept is most useful, or to what extent species exist in nature rather than in our heads. Isn't taxonomic practice hugely influenced by a whole range of personal, cultural and political factors?

The writer of the above article may have a malign hidden agenda - I really don't know. But I think some valid and important points are nevertheless made.

Personally I think conservation policy can - at times - be too focussed on species. For instance, many would say that the Scottish Crossbill is more worthy of protection if it can be shown to be a "good" species. But I would say that a complex population of partially differentiated, more-or-less reproductively isolated birds that are hard to define as either one or many species is more interesting and more scientifically valuable than a number of clearly discrete taxa. Conserve those crossbills and we may have a chance to see see speciation in action.

best wishes
James
 
Excellent perspective IMO. Although I think his interpretation of the Enlightenment and what it's 'moral' venture was about is a little off. It was the 'victory' of Reason, Science and over religiousity and the traditional source of moral good as being something transcendent. Unfortunately, it was a Phyrric one and sadly alienated both 'morally' and physically', the 'noble savage' from his connection to the land upon which he lived and regarded as 'sacred'. Incidently, Christianity and Judaism are both rooted in a notion of 'Sacred Land' but again, in practice have fallen fowl of the economisation of people and society.

We have much to learn from traditional indigenous cultures regarding our attitude to the 'natural world' IMO - Chief Seattle said it all in 1854:

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land ? This idea is strange to us.

If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water how can you buy them?

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.

The white man's dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us.


full text:

http://www.ancharraig.com/aislingmagazine/articles/TAM27/Buytheair.html

The concept of dominion over nature is not a product of the enlightenment and good science can incorporate any and all pre-enlightenment knowledge which can be well reasoned and/or empirically justified. Economics is not enlightenment science, but it has hitched a ride and by doing so darkened the perception of the enlightenment. Economists measure people, but when they do not get the expected results they blame the people and not the measuring stick. That's bad science.

To digress further, the way forward is not to reject rationality and modernity but to continue to apply enlightenment values to the new challenges which our technology has created. I want scientists and rationalists to tackle poverty, climate change, and over-population, not acupuncturists, mediums, and a "new partnership of faiths". Economists are welcome to join when they recognise, like sociologists, that their discipline is not and cannot be as objective as physics and chemistry.

Romanticism about pre-enlightenment times gives house room to all kinds of dangerous mumbo jumbo from traditional religions to new age 'spirituality', and from astrology to homeopathy. Where will the relativist and post-modern rejection of enlightenment knowledge end? When children start dying of preventable diseases? Clearly not, in the case of the MMR vaccine. Personally I'd ban the superstitious new-agers from the fruits of rational science. Why would a Reiki healer or new age guru need a plane ticket? Surely they can use astral travel or magic carpets?

/END RANT

Sorry!

Graham
 
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I quite agree - but doesn't the same apply to taxonomists? Especially when there is no agreement on which species concept is most useful, or to what extent species exist in nature rather than in our heads. Isn't taxonomic practice hugely influenced by a whole range of personal, cultural and political factors?

Absolutely, but I think taxonomists recognise that their discipline is subjective in a way that economists do not. The concept of species is, as I understand it, debated from the outset in taxonomy. You have to go a long way in Economics to see the fundamental tenets of economics seriously discussed or challenged. Assumptions such as pareto-optimality and perfect market knowledge are simply givens.

Graham
 
How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land ? This idea is strange to us.

If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water how can you buy them?

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.

The white man's dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us.


Isn't it widely thought that Chief Seattle never said any of this and that it was all made up about 30 years ago?
 
I don't think he is misreading it, just reading the seeds of doubt sown delicately between the lines. The agenda is there.

With Tim; why are other social scientists taught and encouraged to analyse the subjectivity and value-laden nature of their discipline, whereas economists are taught to see their laws as equivalent to the laws of physics?

Graham

What seeds of doubt? I just read it again and to me this article is saying: taxonomists be aware of the possible negative impacts of your decisions on conservation priorities? Am I being dense (always a strong possibility ;) )? I would have described it as conservation-friendly in its aims - surprisingly so considering its provenance.
 
Isn't it widely thought that Chief Seattle never said any of this and that it was all made up about 30 years ago?

Yes, there are doubts as to it's actual origin but the sentiments are still pertinent IMV -

- the last linked article ends on this sentence:

''Chief Seattle valued the land not because it was inherently sacred, but because it was the dwelling place of his ancestors''


This is actually one of the same thing: Traditional indigenous indians believed they were guardians of the land for both past and future generations - traditionally, they had no notion of 'ownership' of land but rather 'custodianship'. This absence of proprietorial 'rights' in their culture made them particularly vulnerable to advancing white 'civilisation' in terms of defending traditional tribal lands. Their whole mythical and spiritual realities were part of their everyday relationship with the land and social structure was built around this relationship - it was this connection with the land upon which they lived, that made the ancestorial dwelling places sacred. The two issues are/were inseparable in traditional tribal communities.
 
The concept of dominion over nature is not a product of the enlightenment

Graham

Actually, if you read your enlightenment philosophers, particularly Kant - it was the 'dominion' over 'human nature' which lead to a new concept of morality that synthesised emperical experience of the world with platoistic/aquinian interpretations of the source of 'moral good' something that Descartes with his concept of duality was unable to do. (Human nature being defined by Kant as being subject to self-interests, greed, personal inclinations etc which could be overcome by human reason, rather than human nature). The concept of dominion over nature (as that referred to in Genesis, for example), was not a product of the enlightenment period, but certainly underpinned the pure Rationalist thoughts that typified some of the earlier Enlightenment philosophers.

(as for the rest of your 'RANT', it's unrelated to the point I was making;) )

I've also forgotten what any of this has to do with the original Thread discussion (if anything at all!)
 
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What seeds of doubt? I just read it again and to me this article is saying: taxonomists be aware of the possible negative impacts of your decisions on conservation priorities? Am I being dense (always a strong possibility ;) )? I would have described it as conservation-friendly in its aims - surprisingly so considering its provenance.

One place I read seads of doubt is in the reference to charismatic megafauna
But a suspiciously large number of the new species have turned up in the limited group of big, showy animals known somewhat disparagingly as “charismatic megafauna”—in other words the species that the public, as opposed to the experts, care about.

I would like to see data on this; I suspect that the study would find that each group of species that has been worked on seriously have been expanded to a similar degree with the inclusion of DNA markers. There may be a bias in that the charismatic species were the ones that it was most easy to get money to study!

Niels
 
I just read it again and to me this article is saying: taxonomists be aware of the possible negative impacts of your decisions on conservation priorities?
(...)
I would have described it as conservation-friendly in its aims - surprisingly so considering its provenance.

I agree. "The Economist" is informative and rather friendly for conservation. I don't see any propaganda there.


For me, this is a sign that setting conservation priorities is wrong. E.g. conservation undervalues large primeval habitats. Somehow conservationists cannot express value of "large" and "primaeval" and "biodiverse" in area, or they don't clearly register in law. So they must rely on splitting rare species.
 
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don't know enough about mammal taxonomy to comment there but i don't reckon there's much of a splitting bias towards charismatic species in birds

for every Amsterdam albatross and Spanish imperial eagle there's plenty of Natterer's slaty-antshrikes and Vega gulls...
 
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