Friday, November 3, 2017

G. G. Simpson story #4

There's a new "species" of orangutan.  I hope it's very successful, because I love orangutans. But of course there is no discovery of a new species here; what's new is the recognition of between-group differences.  In other words, we have a new highly endangered species of orangutan, and the old highly endangered species now has 800 fewer members than it had the other day. What it really means is that we have changed what we mean by "species" as primatology has become increasingly driven by conservation concerns. I've written about this (and in actual print, not in a fucking blog). In a nutshell, it represents the species as a biopolitical unit.

Anyway, this got me thinking about a conversation I had with Dr. Simpson in 1983.  

So one day I got him talking about the famous Classification and Human Evolution conference sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and organized by Sherry Washburn in 1962.  (Boy, talk about a manel! Click here to see the participant list!)  On the one hand, Simpson and Mayr were there, and Simpson had just published Principles of Animal Taxonomy. On the other hand there was a lot of weird stuff said in front of these ostensible experts.  Simpson recalled being particularly agitated by Louis Leakey’s comment, which seemed to suggest that there was no reason to even try and do animal taxonomy well.  From Leakey’s published text,

Since the names which we apply, at any and every level in the taxonomic sequence are inevitably arbitrary and artificial, it does not, I believe, matter what we decide to do, provided only that the majority of those who are concerned in the classification, at any given time,  are agreed as to how they will use the classification system that is set up and provided they are clear as to what they mean by the different names that are applied [italics in original].

“I thought that was about the most foolish thing I had ever heard anyone say about taxonomy,” recalled  Simpson.  I expected a punch line, and waited for it. “Then,” he continued, “Morris Goodman spoke.” 

Relevant Literature

Hagen, J. B. "Descended from Darwin? George Gaylord Simpson, Morris Goodman, and Primate Systematics." In Descended from Darwin: Insights into the History of Evolutionary Studies, 1900-1970, edited by Joe Cain and Michael Ruse, 93-109. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2009.
Leakey, L. "East African Fossil Hominoidea and the Classification within This Super-Family." In Classification and Human Evolution, edited by S. L. Washburn, 32-49. Chicago: Aldine, 1963.
Simpson, G. G. Principles of Animal Taxonomy.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.
Sommer, M. "History in the Gene: Negotiations between Molecular and Organismal Anthropology." Journal of the History of Biology 41, no. 3 (2008): 473-528.

And always consult this blog post before teaching primate taxonomy, you ex-ape!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this and directing us to your published work on these matters. I've used it to update some thoughts on Primatology & Primate Species that had already included your thoughts on primate taxonomy (my post still needs some work...).

    My question would be: haven't species designations, at least at the primate level, always been "biopolitical units"?