The history and philosophy of taxonomy as an information science

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 42 (3):1-9 (2020)
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We undeniably live in an information age—as, indeed, did those who lived before us. After all, as the cultural historian Robert Darnton pointed out: ‘every age was an age of information, each in its own way’ (Darnton 2000: 1). Darnton was referring to the news media, but his insight surely also applies to the sciences. The practices of acquiring, storing, labeling, organizing, retrieving, mobilizing, and integrating data about the natural world has always been an enabling aspect of scientific work. Natural history and its descendant discipline of biological taxonomy are prime examples of sciences dedicated to creating and managing systems of ordering data. In some sense, the idea of biological taxonomy as an information science is commonplace. Perhaps it is because of its self-evidence that the information science perspective on taxonomy has not been a major theme in the history and philosophy of science. The botanist Vernon Heywood once pointed out that historians of biology, in their ‘preoccupation with the development of the sciences of botany and zoology… [have] diverted attention from the role of taxonomy as an information science’ (Heywood 1985: 11). More specifically, he argued that historians had failed to appreciate how principles and practices that can be traced to Linnaeus constituted ‘a change in the nature of taxonomy from a local or limited folk communication system and later a codified folk taxonomy to a formal system of information science [that] marked a watershed in the history of biology’ (ibid.). A similar observation could be made about twentieth-century philosophy of biology, which mostly skipped over practical and epistemic questions about information management in taxonomy. The taxonomic themes that featured in the emerging philosophy of biology literature in the second half of the twentieth century were predominantly metaphysical in orientation. This is illustrated by what has become known as the ‘essentialism story’: an account about the essentialist nature of pre- Darwinian taxonomy that used to be accepted by many historians and philosophers, and which stimulated efforts to document and interpret shifts in the metaphysical understanding of species and (natural) classification (Richards 2010; Winsor 2003; Wilkins 2009). Although contemporary debates in the philosophy of taxonomy have moved on, much discussion continues to focus on conceptual and metaphysical issues surrounding the nature of species and the principles of classification. Discussions centring on whether species are individuals, classes, or kinds have sprung up as predictably as perennials. Raucous debates have arisen even with the aim of accommodating the diversity of views: is monism, pluralism, or eliminativism about the species category the best position to take? In addition to these, our disciplines continue to interrogate what is the nature of these different approaches to classification: are they representational or inferential roles of different approaches to classification (evolutionary taxonomy, phenetics, phylogenetic systematics)? While there is still much to learn from these discussions—in which we both actively participate—our aim with this topical collection has been to seek different entrypoints and address underexposed themes in the history and philosophy of taxonomy. We believe that approaching taxonomy as an information science prompts new questions and can open up new philosophical vistas worth exploring. A twenty-first century information science turn in the history and philosophy of taxonomy is already underway. In scientific practice and in daily life it is hard to escape the imaginaries of Big Data and the constant threats of being ‘flooded with data’. In the life sciences, these developments are often associated with the socalled bioinformatics crisis that can hopefully be contained by a new, interdisciplinary breed of bioinformaticians. These new concepts, narratives, and developments surrounding the centrality of data and information systems in the biological and biomedical sciences have raised important philosophical questions about their challenges and implications. But historical perspectives are just as necessary to judge what makes our information age different from those that preceded us. Indeed, as the British zoologist Charles Godfray has often pointed out, the piles of data that are being generated in contemporary systematic biology have led to a second bioinformatics crisis, the first being the one that confronted Linnaeus in the mid-18th century (Godfray 2007). Although our aim is to clear a path for new discussions of taxonomy from an information science-informed point of view, we continue where others in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science have already trod. We believe that an appreciation of biological taxonomy as an information science raises many questions about the philosophical, theoretical, material, and practical aspects of the use and revision of biological nomenclatures in different local and global communities of scientists and citizen scientists. In particular, conceiving of taxonomy as an information science directs attention to the temporalities of managing an accumulating data about classified entities that are themselves subject to revision, to the means by which revision is accomplished, and to the semantic, material, and collaborative contexts that mediate the execution of revisions.

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