Three philosophical tenants of museum-based understanding |
Each of these mid-20th century philosophical advances inverts the traditional way of thinking about biological subjects - population thinking makes the individual rather than an abstract ideal the 'real' subject of study, authentic hypothetico- deductive reasoning makes doubt the engine of certainty and agreement, and phylogenetics connects individuals and species through time by a history of change and inheritance rather than as random members of a class - and our relatives rather than our slaves or automata. Each of these tends towards or derives from a democratic world view in which externally imposed mystery is replaced by internally generated wonder and interest - the world is, in the Haida phrase, 'as sharp as the edge of a knife' because of the historical uniqueness of its composition and inhabitants (see O'Hara, Robert J. 1997. Population thinking and tree thinking in systematics. Zoologica Scripta, 26: 323-329.).
authentic epistemology (Karl Popper) - One of the most basic questions is 'how do we know a generalization is true?' Popper gave up on the long and unsuccessful search for philosophical surety, and asserted that we can't know - we can never absolutely affirm that "All Ravens are black," because we can never be sure, for any assertion, that the Queen Charlotte Islands Observer won't break out in stories about a white Raven hanging around Port Clements. Only hypotheses that could be refuted are allowed to count as scientific, and the only genuine tests of a scientific theory are attempts to refute or to falsify it. In this view, science builds up a vast webby nebula of logically interconnected stories fitted over the unknowable face of the truth like a mask, fitting more closely in some areas, and more loosely in others. This inverted approach to Truth endows individual objects with scientific importance as potential falsifiers of a multitude of theories. If the stories are about the natural world, the critical objects either are, or must become, museum specimens, since it's only by re-examining the material our predecessors worked with that we can re-study their hypotheses, and only by examining old specimens that we can test hypotheses about past conditions.
Popper was an Austrian/English philosopher of science (1902-1994), see The Logic of Scientific Discovery. 1959. (translation of Popper, 1934. Logik der Forschung). Hutchinson, London. and http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/popper/
population thinking (Ernst Mayr) - Population thinking rejects the idea that each species has a somehow intrinsic essential character, and instead sees every species as a varying population of populations of interbreeding individuals. "For those who have accepted population thinking, the variation from individual to individual within the population is the reality of nature, whereas the mean value ('the type') is only a statistical abstraction." The shadows on Plato's cave wall are no longer the actual objects of this World, but the ideas we have about them and the stories we tell about them. The implications for museums are clear: since variation is the real object of study, the a series of specimens from which statistical conclusions may be drawn replaces the 'typical specimen' as the representative of each species and locality in the museum collection.
Mayr is a German/American ornithologist and philosopher of biology (1904- ) see Animal Species and Evolution. 1963. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press (expansion of Mayr, 1942. Systematics and the Origin of Species). and http://library.mcz.harvard.edu/history/ernstmayr.html
phylogeny (Willi Hennig) - Phylogenetic thinking implements the Darwinian realization that living organisms are not independent replicates within a class, but are instead interconnected parts of an evolutionary history (phylogeny). Hennig's insight was that natural taxa (species or groups of species) could only be those that included all the descendants of a single ancestral species - not necessarily those that were bodily the most similar. Further, these groups can only be recognized by the shared possession of new characters that originated in the ancestral species, and derived characters of particular interest to the taxonomist were no grounds for placing a group in its own taxon of higher or equal rank to its ancestor. In a nested classification you can't have a group 'Reptilia' (cold-blooded Amniotic Vertebrates) of equal rank to others made up of descendants of 'reptiles,' such as Aves (feathered warm-blooded Amniotes) and Mammalia (hairy warm-blooded Amniotes). Subsequent workers have developed methods of objectively finding these evolutionary trees, and the organization of data on phylogenetic trees has revolutionized the museum sciences: systematics, taxonomy, biogeography, geographic variation, and comparative biology.
Hennig was a German dipterist (1913-1976) see Phylogenetic Systematics. 1966. University of Illinois Press, Urbana (translation by D. Dwight Davis & Rainer Zangerl of Hennig, 1950. GrundzŁge einer Theorie der Phylogenetischen Systematik.) http://www.cladistics.org/about/hennig.html