Philosophy of Biological Systematics

Course description

Approaching the subject from the perspective of the philosophical foundations of scientific inquiry, this course offers critical examinations of the principles required to judge the scientific merits of systematic/taxonomic procedures by way of the following topics:

1.    Introduction
2.    The goal of science. The goal of biological systematics
        a. The nature of understanding
        b. Basic foundations of scientific inquiry
        c. Systematics versus taxonomy
3.    Causal relationships in systematics
        a. Taxa and causal understanding
4.    The nature of why-questions
5.    The three forms of reasoning: deduction, induction, abduction
6.    The uses of deduction, induction, and abduction in science
        a. Defining fact, hypothesis, and theory
        b. Background knowledge
        c. Theory and hypothesis testing
        d. The meanings of evidence and support
7.    Systematics involves abductive reasoning
8.    Inferences of systematics hypotheses, i.e. taxa
        a. The ‘species problem’ and its solution
        b. Implications for bar coding
        c. Specific and phylogenetic hypotheses/taxa
9.    Some implications for “phylogenetic” methods
        a. The limits of phylogenetic hypotheses
        b. Relations between types of evidence in systematics
        c. Abductive reasoning and parsimony
        d. Abductive reasoning and likelihood
        e. Abductive reasoning and Bayesianism
10.    The Requirement of total evidence (RTE)
        a. Relation of RTE to inference
        b. Relation of RTE to systematics
        c. Implications for systematics
        d. The errors of cladogram comparisons and character mapping
11.    Homology & homogeny & homoplasy
        a. Richard Owen’s use of homologue and homology
        b. E.R. Lankester’s replacement terms, homogen, homogeny, and homoplasy
        c. Implications of abductive reasoning for the utility of these concepts
12.    Character coding
        a. Why character coding is necessary for systematics
        b. Accurately representing observation statements
        c. Character coding, why-questions, and the data matrix
13.    Sequence data and phylogenetic inference: implications of top-down causation
14.    The mechanics of hypothesis testing in biological systematics
        a. Traditional misconceptions about testing phylogenetic hypotheses
        b. Basics of testing explanatory hypotheses
        c. The uses of evidence, revisited
        d. What is actually required to test phylogenetic hypotheses
        e. The limits on acquiring causal understanding via phylogenetic hypotheses
        f.  The myths of support measures: bootstrap, jack-knife, Bremer, etc.
15.    Implications for nomenclature
16.    Defining biodiversity and conservation

Participants will be provided reprints covering the topics in the course, as well as a PDF file with all course slides (>800) and associated notes.

Group picture during the 2014 training in Brussels.

One week

23-27 October 2017

Course language

Target Audience
MSc students, PhD students, early career researchers, professional systematists/taxonomists and anyone who is interested in the philosophy of Biological Systematics
Criteria for selection will be scientific merit, motivation and usefulness of the training course for your career.

Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels

Course organiser
Distributed European School of Taxonomy (DEST)

Dr. Kirk Fitzhugh, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, U.S.A.

Course fee
300 EUR
Participants are responsible for their own travel, accommodation and subsistence costs.

Minimum number of participants
Course will be cancelled if a miniumum number of 15 participants is not reached.

Deadline for registration: 1 June 2017.  

Click here for the registration form. 

Payment deadline and details will be provided upon acceptance to the course.

Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith