Chautauqua: And What of the Playtpus?

About two weeks or so ago, I started work on a new Chautauqua entry.  It started with something about an excommunication, a quote from Maude in Harold & Maude, and evolved into a debate about classical analysis that ended with the following words:

Kings Play Chess On Funny Green Squares.  And what of the platypus?

Anyone who has had high school biology should recognize the first.  It’s basic taxonomy, minus a few sub-categories.  Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.  At each level, you can ask a basic question, and that question will direct you.  In fact, you can write a simple computer program—a dichotomy tree—that will help you navigate taxonomy.  I wrote one in the early ‘70s in BASIC.  By following the twists and turns of the tree, you find out what kind of life form you have, by a process of elimination. For example, human beings fit into the categorization like this:

Animal, Chordata, Mammalia, Primate, Hominidae, Sapiens.  Yeah, I had to look it up.  Essentially, you choose:  animal or vegetable?  We’re animals, so we eliminate all plants.  Backbone, or no backbone?  We have backbones, so that eliminates insects and pretty much everything with an exoskeleton.  And so forth.  Ask the right questions, and you end up at homo sapiens.  Us.

And what of the platypus?

Well, it’s like this.  The platypus is an animal that is warm-blooded, has fur, has a duck-like bill, webbed feet, secretes poison, lays eggs, and nurses its young—through its skin.  In other words, it’s a biologist’s nightmare.  It’s interesting to look at its taxonomy, which looks something like this:

Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Monotremata, Ornithynchidae, Ornithynchus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus.

Now, when we get to order, humans have a lot of relatives.  There are 16 families of primates.  Consider the poor montremes.   Once you say “primate,” you have families that branch into multiple genera  and species.   Once you say “monotremata” you get five species.  Period.  Four of these are echidnas, and one, one is the platypus.

Which means that the taxonomic classification is, in essence?

Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Monotremata, Platypus, Platypus, Platypus.

Now, I started off going in one direction with this, when I realized I had made a mistake.  I started off with the intent that I was going to show the flaws with scientific classification, because it had to fit the platypus into an extent category, when—perhaps—monotremes should have formed a whole new class, parallel to mammals.  But in fact, genetic analyses show that for all their weirdness, platypi are closer to mammals than they are to other critters.

What all of this points to is not that the questions make up the classification, but that that the classification dictates the questions.  This means that the problem isn’t necessarily with the classification, but with the questions that we derive.  And all of this wraps back around to the relationship between theories and hypotheses.

Having a good theory—or a good taxonomy—doesn’t automatically mean that we will have good questions—good hypotheses.  Sometimes we have to refine them.  But it does suggest that there may be points at which we need to be careful; if we classify the platypus as a mammal, we need to do so for more reasons than the fact that’s covered in hair.  It has to be a mammal for reasons that it shares with all other mammals, and it also has to be a mammal for reasons it shares with no other class.

This tells us something about science.  Next time, I’ll try to open that up a little bit, and explain the ways in which science is analogous to, but completely different from, the United States Supreme Court.

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