Species Concepts and Phylogenetic Theory: A Debate

By Quentin D. Wheeler; Rudolf Meier | Go to book overview

1 Joel Cracraft
Species Concepts in Theoretical and Applied Biology:
A Systematic Debate with Consequences

Biologists, especially systematists, had debated species concepts for a very long time, well into the nineteenth century. The debate intensified with the rise of the so-called New Synthesis in the 1930s and 1940s and then accelerated even more with the “systematics wars” of the 1960s to 1980s, particularly with the ascendancy of cladistics, or phylogenetic systematics.

The debate itself has had many nuances. Some systematists have only been interested in discriminating all the discrete taxonomic variation they can in nature, without concern for the processes that might have produced this variation. Often called alpha taxonomists, they have been the workhorses of taxonomy, relentlessly monographing Earth's diversity. Although their propensity to describe species has been belittled by some, without their efforts we would know far less about the diversity of the natural world. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a number of systematists, mostly European, became more interested in how this taxonomic variation might have been generated, and they perceived the application of species status to discrete populations as an impediment to these efforts, especially when that variation was deemed minor. These systematists, mostly vertebrate zoologists working on birds and mammals, promoted a “polytypic species concept,” which evolved into the well-known Biological

Editors' Note: This introductory essay was solicited from Dr. Cracraft, an innovator and major proponent of a phylogenetic concept of species. It explains why a debate about species concepts is needed today, after so many years and publications devoted to the subject. However, anyone with such in-depth expertise on species concepts necessarily brings opinions and biases to any essay on species, whether explicit or implied. In fairness to all contributors to this volume, the reader is thus cautioned to keep in mind that certain statements in the introduction might be controversial. Therefore, all the essays in this volume, including the introduction, should be read with a critical mind.

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