Good for Oklahoma

I don’t know how I missed it, but I was just made aware of OESE, Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education, another great group of smart people rising up to fight for good education. I presume all the Oklahomans in my readership will now inform me that they’ve known about this forever, and it’s about time I highlighted their good work?


  1. wildlifer says

    Well Duh!! We Okies Rock!

    Actually, if it wasn’t for Vic (who has posted here before) we wouldn’t know near as much as we do about the nepharious activities of the creationists around here (or there as I’m in No’Cackalacky right now).

  2. Wes says

    I get the OESE’s newsletter. They’re really good at keeping track of the constant creationist bullshit that goes on in this state. Sally Kern (our local equivalent of Michelle Bachman) has proposed a few pro-creationist bills (in addition to a bunch of other nefarious anti-education moves), and the OESE has been making people aware of what she’s doing.

    One person they seem to have missed, though, is Paul Wesselhoft, a state representative who is proposing an “academic freedom” bill aimed at universities (as opposed to high schools and middle schools, the usual creationist targets).

    He’s not directly connecting it to evolution, but he drops hints about what his real motives are:

    Regardles of whether a law is necessary, Wesselhoft said he wants academic fairness at state universities.

    “Education entertains all points of view and indoctrination does not,” he said. “I don’t want to see indoctrination enforced on students. Teach the controversy, don’t avoid it.”

    That comes at the very tail end of an article in the school newspaper for Oklahoma State University (my school). As soon as I read that phrase “teach the controversy” I was like, “Bah! I knew this was a creationism bill!”

  3. carlsonjok says

    I haven’t known about Vic Hutchison and OESE since forever, but I have been on their listserve for over a year now. Besides that, the potty-mouthed Mean Girl known as ERV is here in Norman.

  4. robotaholic says

    I happen to live here and yes, ID is pretty popular but by no means do they try to put it in school or any school that I attended in my whole life. In fact, I remember when the teacher had to teach biology and she said: “I know this is going to offend some of you but I am required to teach this, it is in the science course and you WILL be tested on it-” so yes, evolution was definitely taught as well as sex education in the buckle of the bible belt- I’m glad we don’t have buffoons on the board of education here in Oklahoma like they had in Dover!

  5. James says

    And when we say
    Yeeow! Ayipioeeay!
    We’re only sayin’
    You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma!
    Oklahoma, O.K.!


    I’m behind, too, I only knew about the Oklahoma Academy of Science’s statement in November from reading the NCSE home page. Well done on both counts!

  6. Wes says

    so yes, evolution was definitely taught as well as sex education in the buckle of the bible belt- I’m glad we don’t have buffoons on the board of education here in Oklahoma like they had in Dover!

    Posted by: robotaholic | January 29, 2008 3:56 PM

    Let’s not get too complacent, though. Texas is currently spiraling down the creationist shithole, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the creationist north of the Red River started feeling emboldened by this and try something up here.

  7. says

    Good for them, of course. But they exist primarily because of shenanigans in 1999, when this junk was proposed as an “evolution disclaimer”:

    Message from the Oklahoma State Textbook Committee:

    This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory, which some scientists present as scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants and humans.

    No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact.

    The word evolution may refer to many types of change. Evolution describes changes that occur within a species. (White moths, for example, may evolve into gray moths). This process is micro evolution, which can be observed and described as fact. Evolution may also refer to the change of one living thing into another, such as reptiles into birds. This process, called macro evolution, has never been observed and should be considered a theory. Evolution also refers to the unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things.

    There are many unanswered questions about the origin of life, which are not mentioned in your textbook, including: Why did the major groups of animals suddenly appear in the fossil record, known as the Cambrian Explosion? Why have no new major groups of living things appeared in the fossil record in a long time? Why do major groups of plants and animals have no transitional forms in the fossil record? How did you and all living things come to possess such a complete and complex set of instructions for building a living body? Study hard and keep an open mind. Someday you may contribute to the theories of how living things appeared on earth.

    Even had the “No one was present when life first appeared on earth,” which is special for combining two retarded errors, the confusion of the evolution of life since it first appeared with abiogenesis, and the sheer stupidity of claiming that we can’t know anything unless it had eyewitnesses (any number of criminals would like to have that “argument” at their disposal).

    Good luck to the OESE, for they’ll need it against the organized stupidity that produced such a statement.

    Glen D

  8. Zensunni says

    One of the above questions seems more interesting than the others “Why have no new major groups of living things appeared in the fossil record in a long time?” So I loooked up and found the following table:

    Birds…… about 170 million years ago
    Mammals…. about 220 million years ago
    Reptiles… about 320 million years ago
    Amphibians: about 400 million years ago
    Fish……. about 500 million years ago

    It does seem like it has been a long time since a major new class has appeared? Is this primarily because of the way things are classed (for instance maybe a large difference between placental mammals and marsupials actually is a new ‘major group’)? Seems like an interesting question.

  9. says

    No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact.

    If I ever heard this come out of the mouth of a creationist, I’d probably pick up the nearest bible and pound open their skull with it, screaming all the while “Were you there when this was written?! Were you?!”

    Man, if the early Abrahamites were this annoying, I can understand why they had to spell out “Thou Shalt Not Murder” so forcefully.

  10. Chris says

    As a native, it is refreshing not to have Oklahoma make the news for something embarrassing and for something good. Like Inhofe or Coburn opening their mouths.

  11. gatoscuro says

    Yes, sometimes we do things right ’round here. Science education in OK is a lot like everywhere else–we try and sometimes we get it right. The rest of the time we look like idgits.

  12. says

    I live in OKC and I have never heard of it.

    Oklahoma does not have a good record on evolution .

    My HS science teacher gave in to local pressure and just encouraged us to read the text book if we were interested. But then she took the kids that cared to a really good genetics forum. At least she tried.

  13. says

    @Zensunni: I think the easiest version of the answer would be, that’s something like saying, “It’s been a long time since there was a branch on this tree as big as the trunk; why not?”

    …in other words, once certain large niches are filled (or the environment changes radically) that level of the overall possible development is occupied. Think of the hundreds (or potentially thousands) of different species of dinosaur which occupied the tree at one point (and for what length of time); whatever event pruned that substantially large portion of the Tree, only then left open a space for something else to branch out into the empty space that was left for it.

    This is all metaphor of course. I teach engineering, not biology, but this is how I understood it in school.

  14. Escuerd says

    Zensunni: The original question was actually one I don’t hear often from creationists.

    I’d say that the principle reason that “major groups” (i.e. broadly defined categories) all seem to be really old is that it takes a long time to build up enough differences to separate two organisms at that level. Lines A and B may start out in the same species, but they’ll have to become different genera before they can become different families, and so on. By the time they’re sufficiently different to be classed as distinct phyla, the split will be in the quite distant past.

    The question really ought to come only with an answer to the broader question of what kinds of timescales we should expect for the emergence of new taxa. They make it sound like there’s some a priori reason why we’d expect groups to separate so much faster. If the actual rate were lower by an order of magnitude they’d probably make the same argument.

  15. says

    WRT #9, first one must recall that above the level of species, the taxonomic categories are fairly arbitrary. For instance, what does it mean that the class of birds “arose” around 170 million years ago? After all, one could also say that they’re simply an evolving branch of the dinosaurs, and presumably could be classed as dinosaurs.

    That said, there don’t seem to be a lot of truly novel “designs” appearing more recently, which likely is due to the complexity that has evolved since, say, the Cambrium. In context, I would think that this would be expected, since radically changing the morphology of birds would not likely yield anything that is very fit. That’s why there’s so much conservatism in evolution, the fit are selected to largely maintain what has worked in the past.

    Not that there aren’t extant questions surrounding the conservatism of basic body types.

    Getting back to the proposed disclaimer, of course the meaningful question to ask is, if there’s a highly capable designer lurking around and causing evolution, why isn’t there a steady procession of “new models,” new body types appearing? More striking would be, why aren’t there any “retro” designs, like we see in autos? We certainly have great explanations for the latter situation, which certainly isn’t expected under design, and it seems that we have a pretty good grasp on the earlier question, why aren’t we getting new “body types” through evolution?

    It’s because, unlike in design, history constrains what is possible. The IDiots want us to think ID is reasonable because “anything is possible” with an unconstrained “designer,” and the necessity of explaining the fact that there are very serious limitations on evolutionary possibilities which are in fact what must be explained, doesn’t occur to them. That’s because they’re not interested in science, only in saying that God can do anything.

    Glen D

  16. says

    Zensunni: the previous answers are good; my only response would be: What’s a “major group”? That’s vague enough that almost any proffered example could be accepted or rejected. I mean, PZ probably thinks the last “major group” to arise is Bilateria ;-) (After that it’s all just variations on a theme, right?). But such deliberate imprecision is among the standard tools of the propagandist.

    Interesting, though, that the authors apparently don’t consider humans a “new major group”. I guess they agree we’re just a branch of the great apes ;-).

  17. says

    That said, there don’t seem to be a lot of truly novel “designs” appearing more recently, which likely is due to the complexity that has evolved since, say, the Cambrium.

    I guess it all depends on what you consider “novel.” Zensunni’s comment listed all vertebrates. How much novelty is there in any of the subsequent lineages in that list. On the level of differences that list is providing, I’d probably add cetaceans, even though they’re mammals, because to me that seems like another big jump (at least as big as dinosaur to bird), and they split off from the rest of us mammals around what, 50 million years ago? Bats probably diverged somewhere around that long ago, too. So, on that level of complexity, I’d agree with Escuerd, that it just takes time to build up differences. If you’re talking truly novel, I don’t know – even if us vertebrates are constrained by our history, there are a lot of invertebrates out there. Maybe that The Future Is Wild “documentary” will be right, and someday there’ll be octopuses swinging from trees. Then again, I’m not a biologist, so what’s my opinion worth, anyway.

  18. raven says

    Interesting, though, that the authors apparently don’t consider humans a “new major group”. I guess they agree we’re just a branch of the great apes ;-).

    Technological tool user was certainly a major evolutionary advance. Nothing like it ever happened before and look what we’ve done to the planet and biosphere.

    The next major evolutionary advance might be transhumans, posthumans, and/or intelligent, self evolving silicon based “artificial intelligence”. The game isn’t over yet on planet earth and we have 1-2 billion more years to go before the sun heads off the main sequence.

    Even though a creo asked it, it is a good question. I believe Gould addressed it in one of his books. Something about trends in evolution being fewer but deeper branches since the precambrian.

  19. says

    Well, my original comment is held up in moderation, so by the time it shows up, it’ll probably get lost in the thread to newer comments. Instead of repeating the whole thing, I’ll just point out that in Zensunni’s list, all the novel groups are still just vertebrates. And if you’re going to include birds in that group (which as Glen D pointed out are really just another group of dinosaurs), you ought to also include whales and bats, which most likely diverged from the rest of us mammals around 50 million years ago.

  20. mothra says

    @9, 17. The question as asked has a very anthropocentric spin. A counter question is how would we at this moment recognize a group that in the future will give rise to a distinctive clade? In the early Jurassic could we have singled out the future birds as such. The ‘niche’ of ‘large flying creature’ passed from Palaeopterous insects to Pterosaurs, and to Birds. The ‘niche’ of ‘small flying creatures’ belongs largely to the Neopterous insects, but there is a group of mites- Gallumoidea with structures called pteromorphs- side flanges that flap. In a future world reduced to soil organisms, would have their chance?

    Also, recognition and reorganization of taxonomic groups changes with the increase of our knowledge. Categories in taxonomy are in fact NOT arbitrary. Birds are only a branch within the Carnosaurs of the Dinosauria. They are no longer ‘Class Aves.’ The change was not arbitrary. The history of taxonomy is one of steadily increasing knowledge and of improvements in techniques of data acquisition and interpretation. Every species has a lineage. If we could travel back in time, as in Dawkins’ Ancestors tail, we would meet other taxa, these meeting points are nodes in a branching ‘bush’ of life. The closest thing to arbitrary is picking which nodes are given names. Taxonomy includes classification which is not only supposed to reflect evolutionary history but also provides a filing system for information retrieval. Originally, directly interwoven in the Linnean system of classification was also identification. In addition there are rules and guidelines for the naming of organisms- nomenclature (for animals, the ICZN- International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature). These rules provide some stability but the conflicting demands of the system: steadily increasing information and improving technology along with information retrieval (not to mention human error) cannot help but make taxonomy appear arbitrary.

  21. homer says

    Keeping Oklahoma out of the news as another ID target has not been an accident. The people that run the OESE spend a great deal of time keeping track of legislation, educating legislators and educating the public. They have been active in communicating with church groups and with teachers. I think they help give legislators the courage it takes to stand up to the right wing groups. Vic and the OESE deserve a great deal of thanks for keeping science on the right track in OK

  22. says

    OT: Anthony McCarthy (olvlzl) posting at Echidne of the Snakes is really starting to be a pain in the arse going on about the “Darwin cult,” “lazy pop Darwinists,” the “Darwin industry,” “those trying to subject human beings to the rule of science,” etc., etc. etc. (scroll down to 1/26/08 or search for “Darwin”, and especially see comments) – although there’s less in this post about how we need to let creationism into the schools if it will help the Dems win . . .

  23. says

    Cladistics is not arbitrary, but if you’re talking about named categories, as we were (pay attention to context), the taxa are “fairly arbitrary.” The claim wasn’t simply that they’re “arbitrary” (learn to accurately paraphrase mothra, if you choose to paraphrase), it was “fairly arbitrary,” a way of bypassing mothra’s pedantry.

    As is too typical, someone has to step into a limited discussion bringing a bunch of technicalities that don’t apply to what was being discussed, misrepresenting what was written in the doing. If changing Aves designation shows anything, it’s that classification under the traditional system is indeed “fairly arbitrary,” if not simply “arbitrary” as mothra misrepresented what had been written.

    And with this I’m probably out of this thread, since I don’t really care to deal much with misrepresentations such as mothra dealt out.

    Glen D

  24. says

    Oh, I should correct myself somewhat, because it’s true that reclassifying Aves is not arbitrary (what’s “fairly arbitrary” is that Aves is a class, and not a taxon above or below “class”). I wasn’t thinking there.

    Of course the branchings aren’t arbitrary, it’s the taxa which are. What’s a “class,” except something which tries to conform roughly with Linnaeus’s “classes”? And of course that is all anybody means when they say that taxa above the species level are “arbitrary” (the meaning is, of course, contextual), that what constitutes a “class” or a “phylum” has to be a judgment call.

    Certainly the nesting of the taxa is not arbitrary, which seems to be what mothra is getting at, but no one who said the taxa are “fairly arbitrary” ever was implying otherwise, that I know of.

    Glen D

  25. says

    PZ and those who made comments above – thanks for the kind words about OESE. For those just learning about our organization, please check the web site (http://www.biosurvey.ou,.edu/oese/)and sign the state wide petition that states ‘Science Only in The Science Classroom.’ We understand that such on-line petitions have shortcomings, but this one really has helped our lobbying. When legislators see Zip Codes listed for their districts, they pay some attention! Folks can also subscribe to our Evolution List Serve (720 subscribers) on the web site.

    With five very bad bills in this legislative session, the worst in the past ten years, we have a HUGE fight on our hands with a Republican controlled House and an evenly divided Senate. Any of these bills that reach a floor vote will pass as the Repubs and DINOs troll for supposed votes of the large religious right population in this state. We need all the help we can get – letters to editors, messages to legislators, op-eds, etc. At this point I am very concerned. We have won out for the past ten years, but I am a little pessimistic this year.

    OESE is also offering each year a weekend workshop for teachers on the teaching of evolution to attempt to make an impact. The one last September is described on our web site. Thanks to a grant from the DELTA Foundation and a contribution from a Unitarian church in Tulsa, we were able to offer the teachers selected full scholarships and textbooks. The next workshop is scheduled for October.

    I appreciate the kudos, but we have lots of folks who have helped and deserve the credit – especially the 30 members of the OESE Board of Directors that includes representatives from other state organizations (Oklahoma Academy of Science, Oklahoma Association of Science Teachers, Friends of Religion and Science, Interfaith Alliances, Oklahoma Mainstream Baptists, several colleges and others listed on the web site.)

    BTW. In answer to a query above, yes, Missouri has a similar organization, Missouri Citizens for Science (, as do many other states listed on the NCSE and OESE web sites.


  26. says

    BTW. We have not missed the ‘Higher Education Sunshine Act’ introduced by Rep. Wesselhoft. It was covered on the posting of the Oklahoma Evolution List Serve sent out yesterday (28 January). This bill is just an extension of David Horowitz’s national attack on what he supposes to be a bad bunch of liberal professors in all institutions of higher education. We expect that all state colleges will oppose this nonsense.

  27. Wes says

    BTW. We have not missed the ‘Higher Education Sunshine Act’ introduced by Rep. Wesselhoft. It was covered on the posting of the Oklahoma Evolution List Serve sent out yesterday (28 January). This bill is just an extension of David Horowitz’s national attack on what he supposes to be a bad bunch of liberal professors in all institutions of higher education. We expect that all state colleges will oppose this nonsense.

    Posted by: vhut | January 29, 2008 9:10 PM

    Ah! That’s what I get for not checking my email often enough. I end up looking like a dumbshit. :D

  28. Jason says

    Now they just have to work on getting Coburn out of office.

    I spent some time in OK and they have a good organization that gets a lot of practice fighting the creation crazies.

  29. Rally round the flag and circle the wagons says

    The OESE group picture hardly looks like a conventional group of scientists: 72% WOMEN (85% excluding the invited lecturers); four of the seven women whose figures can be ascertained are waaay overweight (maybe they should learn some health science, that’s biology).

    Three of the lecturers are from the Department of Zoology at OU (two emeriti). Departments of Zoology have gone the way of the dinosaur. With the exception of Wisconsin-Madison, you can’t find zo departments in first-tier research universities today in America. The Ivies closed theirs in the 80s. The University of California shuttered its five zo departments (three UC campuses opened in the 60s never had them to begin with, because it was recognized that this was an antiquated field). Same for Chicago, Stanford, Duke, Michigan and Washington. Oklahoma’s neighboring-state flagships (UNM, CU, KU, UAR, and UTA) folded theirs too.

    Which isn’t to say anyone was fired, but zo was absorbed into bio departments because it had fallen to tertiary importance with the emergence of the New Biology. Most zo majors were historically pre-med students, but they lost interest as much more interesting, modern biology disciplines arose, so dwindling students translated into declining tuition-share disbursements, and this along with meager research budgets led to decisions to shrink departments through retirement attrition, and move younger professors into sustainable departments.

    The University of Oklahoma is not exactly at the forefront of science. For every 1 dollar in federal science and engineering research funding that the University of Colorado received in 2004, Oklahoma received 25 cents. ($320 M v. $81M). Neighboring states’ UNM got $112M and KU $102M. The University of Texas got $436M. Data: NSF Institutional Profiles.

    The problem with biology in high school isn’t creationists. The problem is that 7 bio courses in a secondary school biology teachers program doesn’t confer scientific knowledge. Which is why the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics bio courses are taught by people who have Ph.D.’s. It’s why top-rated private schools have bio faculty credentials like the following: Ph.D. Berkeley, Ph.D. Johns Hopkins, Ph.D. UC Santa Cruz in one renowned West Coast prep school; in a highly regarded Midwest prep school it’s Ph.D. UAB+ postdoc Washington U, Ph.D. Stanford; in a vaunted East Coast prep school it’s Ph.D. Duke, Ph.D. Johns Hopkins, Ph.D. Georgetown. Even teachers in schools like these who have only B.A./B.S.s have taken 8-10 upper-division bio courses, not 3. They’ve spent senior year doing research projects. They’re qualified to go to grad school in biology. These teachers aren’t hired for science-indifferent rich kids, they’re employed to inspire science-talented kids, such as scholarship students, to follow science pathways in university and beyond.

    Some of you think you know biology. Okay, what’s the initiating amino acid in bacterial protein synthesis? What’s its mRNA codon? Given a single strand of DNA, what primary conformation will it take in a low-salt solution of neutral pH, and why? How does a chloroplast convert oxygen and water into sugars? What are the dark and light cycles of photosynthesis? What’s a nematocyte and how does it work? What does cyanide do in cells that makes it deadly toxic? How do macrophages, neutrophils, and B and T lymphocytes interact in response to viral and bacterial invaders? How does UV radiation cause skin damage, and potential carcinogenesis? Why is a light microscopes useful magnification limited to about 1000x? What’s the maximum useful magnification of a transmission electron microscope and why?

    Is the influenza virus a DNA or RNA virus, and why is this important? What makes it not a retrovirus like HIV?

    Why aren’t organic vegetables necessarily safer (excluding E. coli contamination) than pesticide-treated vegetables? How can biomass be generated in deep sea vents in the complete absence of sunlight? What important medical machine uses NMR, and how does it fundamentally work? Give an example of a bioreactor. Why are remotely operated unmanned vehicles vastly more practical for studies of abyssal sea life than manned vehicles? When did Nature begin publishing Nature New Biology, Nature Genetics and Nature Medicine and why did the publishers do this? In 1977 Scientific American published a biomedical article that raised eyebrows throughout the research community, not because it contained material that was not credible, but because no one had ever used Sci Am to publish this kind of article before. What was unprecedented, and caused criticism?

    These are modern biology matters. Modern biology is research. It requires expensive instruments and materials that research faculty aren’t going to let Little Miss Soon to Become a Biology Teacher touch. LMSBBT has never been given assignments to read primary biology literature and discuss them. Unless LMSBBT has negotiated a deal with the school of education to allow her to earn a real biology degree, complete with 20 hours per week of research work in senior year, with primary biology literature readings, (which would qualify her to go into a bioscience Ph.D. program if she wanted to) and a master’s of education or M.A.T, in a dual-degree pathway.

    Don’t count on this happening soon, because the concept of the soshies who run schools of education and our public school “system” is to make public high school “science” teaching anti-science teaching. They don’t like science. They don’t want their students to learn science. LMSBBT can’t even get a lab tech job, except for washing glassware and stocking shelves. The science-teacher-training track is a trap: there are no other reasonable options for the person who completes it, except to teach high school “science”. She doesn’t know enough biology to actually do biology. And if you can’t do it, you can’t teach it.

    On another thread, somebody said I haven’t kept up with the new upgraded standards for secondary science certification endorsement. Yes, I have. What somebody didn’t get is the fact that 40 credit hours of school of education coursework required is 40 credit hours of time, 1.3 years, that the real science students are spending taking science courses. Unless somebody was saying that today’s science teachers are earning 160 credit hour bachelor’s degrees. Which they aren’t, according to university school of education science-teacher-program web descriptions.

    The real problem is, there is no mission to teach science in public education, except in the residential 11th-12th grade academies, and a small number of 4 year high schools that have exemptions to hire people with science degrees but without ed degrees.

  30. says

    [massive chunk of comment by “Rally round the flag and circle the wagons”]

    Wow. One sees a lot of people with bees in their bonnet, but it’s always inspiring to run into one with a bee for a bonnet. Granted, it usually inspires me to back away slowly, making no sudden movements, lest I agitate them . . .

    Ah – whatever the value of your observation, Rally, is this thread really the best place for it?

    The OESE group picture hardly looks like a conventional group of scientists: 72% WOMEN (85% excluding the invited lecturers); four of the seven women whose figures can be ascertained are waaay overweight (maybe they should learn some health science, that’s biology).

    Again, while your basic point (science teaching is very low priority) is a good one, ‘Oh my god, they’re WOMEN – and FAT!!1!’ rather takes away from it. Unless, of course, you’re basic point is actually ‘Hey, lookatme! I’m an asshole!’. In which case, well . . .

    And of course, any place where an undergrad degree in whatever subject isn’t required (or reasonably enforced) for high school teachers, you have the same issue, although certainly fields with actual job opportunities have it much worse.

    Hey, they’re ahead of th

  31. mothra says

    Boy Glen D, you sure get your feathers ruffled/ scales up easily. My paraphrase, I thought, was accurate enough for the conversation but we can agree to disagree and I had no intention of any even implied insult. The subject was relevant (QED). I am a taxonomist and the [technical] details are important. The difficulty which I apparently needed to spell out was that because taxonomy seems (fairly) arbitrary to an onlooker, the change of names and classifications is used by creationists as part of their changing facts scree against science- whereas they have only one unchanging ‘fact.’ Perhaps I needed to add this in the original text- I try not to post long diatribes and so I do apologize.

    As I believe you know but I will spell it out, taxonomy has six obligatory categories: Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. If, you mean that there is some arbitrariness as to which node these obligatory names are applied, then we are in agreement. However, one of the unfortunate things about taxonomy is that it is a historical science that saves rather than completely replaces its errors. By comparison, it is merely a ‘factoid’ that Newton termed his invention (that Leibniz called the calculus), ‘the method of fluxions.’ Knowing that piece of information is in no way relevant to doing calculus. By contrast, taxonomy is unfortunately constrained, for reasons of information retrieval and sources for available names* to keep track of its history of names (synonomy). For example: Feltia subterranea is a moth which has also gone under the names Agrotis annexa, A. interferens, A. interposita, and Xylina lytaea. Why all the names? 1) The species is found on two continents and many islands, 2) taxonomists on three continents in the days of mail- by- ocean- steamer (or clipper ship) did the naming, 3) the species is sexually dimorphic and 4) the species is a major economic pest of vegetable crops. Not one of the name changes was in any sense arbitrary- all were dictated by the facts known at the time to a researcher. They can seem arbitrary- just like the sun seems to rise every morning.

    *Available names- (in this case) names that are the first to be checked against if, for example, what we now understand to be Feltia subterranea turns out, with future research to be more than a single species. The original name would go with the type specimen of A. subteranea, the second species would be checked against the type specimens for the other names.

    Now we are indeed way off the original topic. Finally, I anthropocentrically picked a familiar example in my first post (bird-dinosaur), the better discussion but not as readily appreciated would have been to point out that all of the diversity discussed by #9 was a small portion of one branch of one of the three domains of life. The taxa are old but the discoveries are new. Also, as was pointed out by another poster with embellishments here, once niches are filled, competition for a particular niche will be by sibling species, parapatric species or even sympatic species rather than by ‘evolution of a new group’ as species in any such group will simply not be able to compete. Absolutely lastly, when a species is introduced into a new area, starlings in North America (damnit) the new species parses the hyperniche differently than members of the local ecological community that evolved, such that the introduced species can out compete more specialized species as it never meets them ‘head-to-head’ in all areas of their specialization.

  32. mothra says

    Here is one final ‘seems arbitrary’ example of categories in taxonomy- this one at the order level. Morphology, the fossil record and DNA sequencing all indicate that the Siphonaptera (fleas) are not an insect order, but a clade deeply buried within the order Mecoptera (Scorpion-flies). Morphology was haltingly understood a century ago, the final clinching fossils came to light in the early 1990’s, and DNA by the late ’90’s and more recently. Siphonaptera will (in time) disappear from entomology texts as an ordinal name. But it will be more than a human generation before ‘Order Siphonaptera’ is no longer taught in introductory entomology classes. Changes are pitifully slow and taxonomy will ‘seem arbitrary’ [Its cloudy in the northern Great Plains this morning, -23 F and the sun is not shining (did it seem to rise today)] to an outsider.

  33. Pierce R. Butler says

    No one was present when life first appeared on earth.

    Why should anyone here, even our illustrious host, object to this declaration (which concisely expresses abiogenesis in short words)?

    It might clarify the statement to add a brief subsidiary clause after the second word: “including any deities.”