The role of classification in the conservation
J.H. O’Keeffe and M. Uys
‘What’s the use of their having names’, the gnat
said, ‘if they won’t answer to them?’
‘No use to them’, said Alice, ‘but it’s useful to
the people that name them, I suppose.’
This quotation from Lewis Carroll illustrates a few of the fundamental limitations of classification systems, and in particular emphasizes the artificial nature of classification – a process which is intended to help us to simplify, organize and understand complex and variable groups so that we can work with them more easily, but is in no way an inherent property of the things being classified. We would like to start by offering the following definition of classification, so that it is clear from the start what we mean when we refer to classification:
Classification is an artificial process in which
people attempt to divide a group of objects/
systems/ideas into discrete groups according to
a set of criteria, decided on by the classifier.
We do this in order to make the group
conceptually manageable – e.g. we split the group
of living things into different Phyla according to
our perceptions of the origins of their
Much debate has been engendered about the usefulness of classification as a tool. For example, it has been pointed out that every river is different in many ways from every other, and it is therefore fruitless to attempt to classify them, since the classifier will inevitably end up with as many groupings as there are rivers.
This, however, is a myopic point of view. The point of a classification system may not be to identify all the distinctive features of a group – it is far more likely to be aimed at clarifying the similarities between subgroups, and the use of hierarchical sets of criteria provides a way of defining similarities (or differences) at different levels of resolution for different purposes.
In view of the emphasis on variability and heterogeneity in ecological river research at present (Palmer and Poff, 1997), it may seem anachronistic to be concentrating on classification, which is essentially