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Darwin, Schoenberg, and Sibley: A New Dawn for Nature Study?

Pete Dunne, in his wonderfully didactic Essential Field Guide Companion, classifies the Brown-headed and Pygmy nuthatches as the “pack nuthatches.” I like it! For starters, I like how “pack nuthatch” conveys—shall we say?—essential information about the flocking behavior of these peripatetic pixies of the pinewoods. I also like how “pack nuthatch” hints at something about nuthatch evolution; I like how the name implies that the Brown-headed and Pygmy nuthatches are each other’s closest relatives. They’re the only “pack nuthatches.” Other nuthatches, in Dunne’s formulation, get other monikers.

It is plausible, I hope you will agree with me, that the Brown-headed and Pygmy nuthatches are what ornithologists refer to as “sister species.” That means they evolved from a shared, or “common,” ancestor—one not shared by any other extant bird species. If ornithologists had been around to classify that common ancestor, they would have given it a name. Maybe they would have called that bird—why not?—the capital-P Pack Nuthatch.

01 Pygmy NuthatchToday, of course, the Brown-headed and Pygmy nuthatches are classified as two separate species. Many thousands of years ago, in the scenario outlined in the previous paragraph, they—or, more properly, their ancestors—were one single species. The process of going from one species to two species was gradual. It’s not as if the Pack Nuthatch suddenly split into the Brown-headed and Pygmy nuthatches at say, 9:00 a.m. G.M.T. on Tuesday, October 23rd, 4004 B.C. Rather, there was some period—lasting perhaps hundreds or thousands of years—during which the (properly hyphenated, lower-case) pack-nuthatches were neither one species nor two species. (Left: Pygmy Nuthatch by © Bill Schmoker.)

I think most of us will have had no problem with the preceding. We understand that “speciation”—the process by which species come into existence—usually requires a long time and tends to be gradual. We understand that you don’t just flip a switch at some point in geological time, and declare that species A has instantaneously been transformed into species A’ and A”.

Or do we? Do we really accept that that’s how evolution works?

02 Red-shouldered HawkConsider now the example of the eastern and western populations of the Red-shouldered Hawk. It’s certainly plausible that these two populations arose from a common ancestor, some undifferentiated (“monotypic”) Red-shouldered Hawk. But their breeding populations are completely isolated at the present time; and with continued isolation of their breeding populations, they might well evolve into two separate species. Gazing into our crystal ball, we’ll say that, thousands of years from now, those two separate species will have been christened the Swamp Buzzard and the California Buzzard, respectively. (Right: California Red-Shouldered Hawk by © Bill Schmoker.)

That’s all well and good. A single species, the Red-shouldered Hawk, thousands of years ago. And two species, the Swamp and California buzzards, at some point thousands of years in the future.

But what about right now, in the second decade of the 21st century? Are these birds still one species? Or have they already become two species?

Or are they neither one species nor two species?

Think back to Pete Dunne’s “pack nuthatches.” At some point in their evolutionary past, we all agree, those nuthatches were neither one species nor two. Rather, they were in transit, if you will, from being one species to being two species. They were in the process of speciation.

Speciation is an ongoing process. It happened eons ago, and it’s still happening today.

And that brings me to what I consider to be one of the great ironies of modern thought. Many of us snigger at Creationists for imagining that all species came into being, perfectly formed, in an instant, at some point in the not-so-distant past. And yet many of us—we non-Creationists—do the exact same thing in our view of “species” at the present time. We demand that a population of organisms be this species, or that species, or these two species, or those two species, or three species, or four species… Like the Creationists, we cherish the idea of the fixity of species. The Creationists say that species were fixed at the moment of Creation. We say they’re fixed right now.

We say that the Red-shouldered Hawk is either one tick on our checklists or two ticks on our checklists. Conversely, we reject that the Red-shouldered Hawk could be both one tick and two ticks at the exact same time. And yet every credible analysis of “Darwin’s dangerous idea” demands that very interpretation.

Speaking of Darwin…


Toward the beginning of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin launches an attack on the proposition that it is meaningful to say that a population of organisms is or isn’t such-and-such a species. In Chapter 2 (“Variation Under Nature”) of Origin, Darwin writes:

“It must be admitted that many forms, considered by highly competent judges as varieties, have so perfectly the character of species that they are ranked by other highly competent judges as good and true species. But to discuss whether they are rightly called species or varieties, before any definition of these terms has been generally accepted, is vainly to beat the air.”

Then a full-on shot across the bow of ancient thinking about species:

“Certainly no clear line of demarcation has as yet been drawn between species and subspecies—that is, the forms which in the opinion of some naturalists come very near to, but do not quite arrive at the rank of species; or, again, between subspecies and well-marked varieties, or between lesser varieties and individual differences. These differences blend into each other in an insensible series; and a series impresses the mind with the idea of an actual passage.”

And a few paragraphs down:

“From these remarks it will be seen that I look at the term species, as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other, and that it does not essentially differ from the term variety, which is given to less distinct and more fluctuating forms.”

03 Charles DarwinFrom this point forward in Origin, Darwin sets about the task of dismantling the old idea of the fixity of species. In chapter after chapter, Darwin adduces example upon example of the fluidity of evolution by means of natural selection. Darwin’s Victorian prose can be a bit of a slog for the modern reader, increasingly accustomed to the conveyance of every idea via the medium of the 140-character “tweet.” But those subsequent chapters are worth the slog: Darwin marshals massive evidence in support of the view that evolution has been happening for very long periods of time, and, furthermore, that evolution is still happening.

And then we come to the final chapter of On the Origin of Species. Chapter 14 (“Recapitulation and Conclusion”) is a tour de force, one of the greatest scientific treatises of all time. Darwin seems to give it his all in Chapter 14. And in Chapter 14, Darwin unleashes his final, devastating assault on the idea that populations of organisms must be attributed to this species or that species.

“No one can draw any clear distinction between individual differences and slight varieties,” he writes, “or between more plainly marked varieties and subspecies, and species.”

And this:

“On the view that species are only strongly marked and permanent varieties, and that each species first existed as a variety, we can see why it is that no line of demarcation can be drawn between species, commonly supposed to have been produced by special acts of creation, and varieties which are acknowledged to have been produced by secondary laws.”

04 Origin of SpeciesThen he really piles it on:

“When the views entertained in this volume on the origin of species, or when analogous views are generally admitted, we can dimly foresee that there will be a considerable revolution in natural history. Systematists will be able to pursue their labors as at present; but they will not be incessantly haunted by the shadowy doubt whether this or that form be in essence a species.”

For many people, Darwin lets on, “This may not be a cheering prospect.”

True enough, “But we shall at least be freed from the vain search for the undiscovered and undiscoverable essence of the term species,” Darwin concludes.

All of which brings me around now to the matter of the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.


If you could stick with me through this next section, I would be most grateful. I accept that it might seem odd that I’m dragging in a composer who was born more than 100 years ago. But I’m going somewhere with this, honest. And, before too long, I’ll be talking about The Sibley Guide. We’ll be back on familiar ground soon enough.

05 Arnold SchoenbergArnold Schoenberg is perhaps the most notorious “classical music” composer of all time. His scandalous “achievement” was to discard what had generally come to be regarded as Western tonality—a way of making music that characterizes the oeuvres of everyone from Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn to Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson.

If you look at a sheet of music—whether it’s “Let It Be” or “Der Erlkönig”—the very first thing you’ll see is some indication as to key signature. This key signature is a system for ordering the relationships among the various notes within a particular work of music. In conventional, or “classical,” Western tonality, a piece of music has to be in a certain key. McCartney’s “Let It Be” is in the key of C major, for example, and Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig” is in the key of E minor. It wouldn’t make sense, according to Western tonality, to say that a piece were simultaneously in C major and E minor. Even weirder would be to say that a piece weren’t in any key at all.

Enter Arnold Schoenberg. Like many composers of his generation, he pushed the limits of conventional tonality. In doing so, Schoenberg and his contemporaries were heeding the timeless artistic impulse to push the limits of form and style. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, that great paragon of classical music, delighted in the expression of such impulses. His “Dissonance” Quartet starts out in a manner so as to obscure the key signature of the work; but after a short tease, the work gallops off in that most conventional of key signatures, C major.

Schoenberg, however, took it a step further. A big step further. When it comes to pushing the limits of Western tonality, Arnold Schoenberg was the Neil Armstrong of composers. In the last movement of the second string quartet, composed in 1908, Schoenberg took the giant leap of composing music with no key signature at all.

It would be an understatement to say that Schoenberg’s atonal music was controversial. Indeed, Schoenberg’s music was—and still is—widely hated. Why? Why is that?

Well, one reason—and it’s a big reason—has to do with personal taste. To be blunt about it, many people just don’t like the sound of Schoenberg’s atonal music. That’s fine. Some people don’t like the sound of Mozart. Some people don’t like the sound of McCartney. Some people don’t like the sound of John Coltrane. Some people don’t like the sound of Ravi Shankar. That’s all well and good. It’s personal preference—no more, no less—and I ain’t goin’ there.

But there’s another reason, and this one is going to bring us back to the matter of “pack nuthatches” and Red-shouldered Hawks. The other reason is that Schoenberg’s music—even to a great many folks who have never heard it!—represents something sinister. The objection to Schoenberg is more ideological than aesthetic. In this view, the music of Schoenberg is destructive and degenerate. According to this view, Schoenberg took something wonderful—the great “classical” tradition of Mozart, Schubert, and others—and degraded it. The old way was ordered and beautiful; the new way was chaotic and ugly.

Enter The Sibley Guide.


In my opinion, The Sibley Guide is the greatest field guide ever.

06 The Sibley GuideI think a lot of people would agree with that assessment of mine. From time to time, though, I do hear a particular gripe about The Sibley Guide. As critics note, The Sibley Guide, in its very extensive treatment of geographic variation in birds, abandons the age-old practice of assigning “trinomials” to regionally distinct populations. Other guides refer to the occidentalis and wymani subspecies of the Western Gull, but David Sibley simply calls them “northern” and “southern.” Willow Flycatchers get a whole bunch of names (adastus, brewsteri, campestris, extimus, traillii…) in other guides, but they’re simply “western” and “eastern” in The Sibley Guide. And in Sibley’s account of the Dark-eyed Junco, even though it shows thirty-one individuals spread across three large pages, there is nowhere to be found mention of a trinomial.

I’ll come right out and say that, unlike many of my birding friends, I strongly applaud Sibley’s decision to forego the use of trinomials.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First things first. Why? Why did Sibley do that? Why are trinomial names absent from The Sibley Guide?

Well, a great start would be to read Sibley’s own words. Check out his essay, “In Defense of Listing, and Subspecies, but Not Listing Subspecies,” which appeared in the February 2004 issue of Birding.

In the meantime, here are three thoughts of my own:

1. I favor Sibley’s decision because it promotes knowledge of and understanding about what we really see in nature. I think it’s realistic for experienced observers to distinguish between generalized and somewhat fuzzy groupings of “western” vs. “eastern” Willow Flycatchers. Many—although certainly not all—of these birds can be said to possess a suite of traits that correspond to one regional grouping or the other.

07 Willow Flycatcher2. Conversely, when we start to get into campestris Willow Flycatchers vs. traillii Willow Flycatchers, we’re courting disaster. Well, that’s a bit strong. But I think we can certainly say that we’re flirting with fantasy. According to part 1 of Peter Pyle’s magisterial Identification Guide, any differences between campestris and traillii may, in fact, be fantasy. They may simply be two different names (“synonymns”) for the same population. (Right: Willow Flycatcher by © Bill Schmoker.)

3. So why all the grousing about no trinomials in The Sibley Guide? I think it’s because The Sibley Guide is analogous, in some sense, to Arnold Schoenberg’s second string quartet. Just as many people would say that a work of music has to have a key signature, so many people believe that a bird population has to be attributable to a certain taxon.

I need to be crystal clear about something. I am not saying that birders want every single bird to be attributable to one taxon or another. We all know about Thayer’s Gulls. We know that not every individual candidate Thayer’s Gull can be definitively called by that name. That’s not what I’m talking about. Rather, I’m talking about the entire population. I believe that many birders believe that the Thayer’s Gull ought to be either its own species or “just” a subspecies. But that’s missing the point, I believe. The fundamental debate, as I see it, is not whether the Thayer’s Gull is or isn’t a full species. Rather, the debate is about something deeper than that.

Think back now to the example of the Red-shouldered Hawk. The question is not whether the California population is a full species (I called it the “California Buzzard”) or “just” a subspecies of the Red-shouldered Hawk. No, the fundamental question, as I see it, is whether the Red-shouldered Hawk has to be either one species or two species (or more). I don’t think it has to be one or two. I believe that that view of mine comes from a faithful reading of On the Origin of Species. And I believe that that view is an exciting—and, ultimately, deeply liberating—consequence of what I consider to be one of the most useful and revolutionary features of The Sibley Guide.


We’ve arrived now, if provisionally and tenuously so, at a new sort of avian taxonomy—one without names. To be sure, it’s just a start. The Sibley Guide, of course, makes use of scientific names, or “Latin binomials,” for those taxa which enjoy full-species rank. Even though Sibley discards elegans as the trinomial for the California population of the Red-shouldered Hawk, he most assuredly does employ Buteo lineatus for the species as a whole.

So it’s just a start.

And, truth be told, Schoenberg’s second string quartet was just a start. Only the last movement of the work is atonal. And even that last movement ends on a major-key tonal chord. But he’d let the genie out of the bottle. There was no stopping what was to come—the full-on atonality of what has come to be known as twelve-tone serialism.

Now hang on a second! As I noted earlier, lots of people hate Schoenberg’s music and legacy. And in some sense, Schoenberg has to be rated a failure. Although there are certainly exceptions, most “classical” composers have not followed in Schoenberg’s footsteps. Most of the “classical” music of the 20th century is not atonal. Meanwhile, there are all the other musicians who are generally said to work outside the “classical” milieu: Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, and many others. Their diverse music-making has proceeded largely without reference to the legacy of Schoenberg.

Aren’t we likewise entitled to ignore, perhaps even to hate, this new avian taxonomy—this abomination without names?

Not so fast.

Musical preferences are, in the first and final analysis, all about personal taste. I have a friend who professes to love the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. (Google him.) I think that’s weird of my friend, but I wouldn’t say she’s wrong (or right) for enjoying Stockhausen’s Gruppen.

08 AristotleIt’s different, though, with science. If someone were to profess that the world is flat, I would say that that person is wrong. Same thing with a profession that the Earth is at the center of our solar system. That’s not mere personal preference. Rather, that’s a matter of reality. I suppose there are those who would like for the world to be flat. And we all know that there were many persons who wanted the Earth to be at the center of our solar system. They felt so strongly about it that they executed someone—his name was Giordano Bruno—who disagreed with them. But that action, as drastic as it was, had no bearing—none whatsoever—on whether or not the Earth is at the center of our solar system.

So it is with “belief” in evolution.

No, I’m not about to bark up that tree. I’m not going to touch the evolution vs. Creation debate.

Rather, I’m going to address the following remarks solely and squarely at those who profess to, ahem, “believe” in evolution.


Just about the most brilliant insight of Charles Darwin is inarguably his least appreciated insight. Darwin clearly understood that evolution operates not at the level of groups or populations but rather at the level of individual organisms. Yes, evolution influences the traits that distinguish one population from another. But, again, evolution operates at the level of the individual.

09 The Selfish GeneIt took fully a century for that great insight to be firmly and finally accepted by the scientific establishment. And the idea wouldn’t be transmitted to the general public until the publication in 1976 of Richard Dawkins’ dazzling and incendiary manifesto, The Selfish Gene.

Why? Why was there such resistance to the insight that evolution operates not on groups, but rather on individuals, or even their individual genes?

Darwin hints at an answer in this tease from that ominous Chapter 2 of Origin:

“Hence I look at individual differences, though of small interest to the systematist, as of high importance for us, as being the first step towards such slight varieties as are barely thought worth recording in works on natural history.”

Darwin isn’t just going up against those folks whom today we know as Creationists. Darwin is also going up against a powerfully entrenched scientific tradition of biological systematics.

10 LinnaeusEver since Adam, we’ve been true believers—believers, that is to say, in the concept of the species. I’m not talking about this particular species concept or that particular concept, but rather in the more general notion that the species itself is somehow real. The idea of the species resonated perfectly with Plato’s vision of order and beauty in the universe. And the idea was eventually beatified in the scientific canon by that arch-Platonist, Carl von Linné—Latinized (of course!) to the more familiar Linnaeus.

Don’t get me wrong. I totally accept that the species concept is a useful way of organizing information about the world around us. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. That doesn’t mean it’s true. In this regard, I note that it’s useful, to be sure, to think in terms of sunrise, sunset, and the arc of the day—terms which constantly reinforce the impression that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Unquestionably, we think, as Isaac Newton did, in terms of “absolute” space and time. Yet we also know, thanks to Albert Einstein, that the distance between two objects depends on an observer’s position and velocity.

Aristotle’s geocentric solar system and Newton’s absolute space and time are, in some sense, alive and well. We live our daily lives according to Aristotelian and Newtonian precepts. We set our clocks according to events that play out on the Earth, not on the Sun. We operate motor vehicles, build bridges, and send rockets into space according to the principles of “classical,” or pre-Einsteinian, mechanics.

But we’re living a lie, so to speak.

We know that Aristotle and Newton—as brilliant as they were, and as useful as they still are—erected systems that are not, in an objective sense, true.

Shouldn’t we hold the Adam–Plato–Linnaeus concept of the species to the same standard?


11 SleddingThe other day, my kids and I went sledding near our home in Boulder County, Colorado. We were having a grand old time, but the Sun was slipping under the western horizon (as per Aristotle!), and it was time to head home. As we trudged back through the new-fallen snow, we passed a big flock of birds roosting along the shore of Waneka Lake.

Naturally, we wondered what they were.

Not all that long ago, we would have shrugged them off as Canada Geese.

Then came the American Ornithologists’ Union, which in 2004 “split” the Canada Goose into two species—one called the Cackling Goose, the other retaining the old name of Canada Goose. Immediately, there was speculation, still ongoing—still downright rampant, I would say—that the “white-cheeked goose” complex might consist of yet additional species.

Let’s not worry about that right now. Let’s return to Waneka Lake.

What were those birds?

Well, there were big ones and small ones. There were medium ones. Some had long necks, others had short necks. Some had dusky-gray breasts, others had nearly white breasts, and a few had sandy-brown breasts. A few had bright white bands across the breast, but most did not. Some had short, stubby bills; others had long, sloping bills. Many of them said hink, but some of them said honk.

It was like something out of Dr. Seuss.

Well? What were they? The really big ones were perhaps moffitti Canada Geese. The really small ones were probably nominate hutchinsii Cackling Geese. The medium ones may have been mainly parvipes Canada Geese, but who knows?—big Cackling Geese and small Canada Geese overlap in morphology, plumage, and everything else. Which brings us to the bugaboo of the taverneri group of intermediate “white-cheeked geese,” doubtless present in small numbers—and maybe present in substantial numbers—in Colorado in the winter. Nobody knows. Nobody knows what taverneri is—or what they are. One subspecies? Two? Three? Are they Canada Geese? Or are they Cackling Geese?

(An aside to my birding pals who are way into the evolution and identification of “white-cheeked geese”: Why, I haven’t even touched the problem of paraphyly vis-à-vis the Barnacle Goose of Europe and the Nēnē of Hawaii!)

Dr. Seuss would have loved this.

12 GeeseOur decision out there at Waneka Lake was to enjoy the geese one bird at a time. Over there, the big one with a sandy-brown breast emblazoned with a white band. Right here, the medium one with a stubby bill but a relatively long neck. Out there in the water, the small one with the unmarked dusky-gray breast. Another medium one, this one with a shorter neck but an undeniably long bill. That group over there, of variably sized birds but mainly with white bands across their breasts. Those two big ones standing together, the ones with the pale breasts. Oh. They’re calling now. One of them is higher-pitched than the other. And here comes another medium one, this one with a stubby bill but a long, thin neck. (Right: Geese by © Bill Schmoker.)

The experience of studying those geese, one bird at a time, was exhilarating. And it was, as I hinted earlier, liberating. It is exhilarating and liberating to engage life on earth as it really is.

I accept that folks of my generation will continue to debate species concepts and species limits for as long as we’re alive. But I wonder about my kids. What about them? Will their generation finally throw off the shackles of Platonic thinking about the concept of the species? It is exhilarating and liberating to think that maybe, just maybe, they will do so.


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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

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  • Jacob Socolar

    I enjoyed this article immensely. It’s a hugely important point and the writing is just brilliant. But I disagree with the statement “evolution occurs a the level of the individual.”
    *Natural selection* occurs a the level of the individual organism or even the individual gene, but evolution occurs at the level of the population and metapopulation. Evolution deals with changes in traits over time, and this, of course, does not happen in the individual.
    Evolution involves changes in the mean or variance (or some higher moment of the distribution) of trait values from one generation to the next. Thus, evolution acts at the level of collections of organisms (such that one can describe the distribution of trait values) and across generations.
    I agree completely that there is often no objective way to determine exactly what collection or organisms should constitute a population or a metapopulation or a species (or a genus, family, or order for that matter!).

  • Joe

    Thank you for your article. I enjoyed the read tremendously and could not agree more. Nicely done.

  • Apologies for cannibalizing a bit from the comment with which I shared this post on Facebook.

    It’s no mean feat to make something this challenging this fun. Bravo, Ted!

    And special kudos for sharing the completely charming and disarming photo of you and Hannah, racing down a snowy slope together (if anyone reading this hasn’t done so already, click on it to see it larger). The contrast between your look of terror and Hannah’s look of pure delight wonderfully sums up the tension that you explore in the post: the divergent reactions people have to the inherent messiness of reality, biological, musical, and otherwise.

    Sometimes all of us wish for order. We need it to function. There is certainly beauty in it and at times a fierce satisfaction. But Hannah’s face is a lovely reminder that we can enjoy a wild ride that flirts with being out of control and chaotic, especially if we’re in the company of someone we love and trust. Just don’t look back, Hannah!

    Again, Ted, great job.

  • You’re absolutely right, Jacob. Thanks for making the important distinction between natural selection (operating on individuals) vs. evolution (expressed in populations). It was just sloppiness, plain and simple, on my part.

    (If this were a traditional print manuscript, I’d just sneak your fix into the text!)

    My blunder aside, we are in complete agreement, I believe, on the broader point: Individuals (or their genes) are the fundamental unit of selection.

  • Well said, Ted. I’ve worked with ex situ propagation of corals for many years and I’m no stranger to the human demand for well-ordered taxonomy. Quite guilty of it myself, actually. In coral, as you might suspect with such a primitive group, there is enormous plasticity of form and behavior. As could be predicted, there are morphologists, geneticists, and everything in between. (Can taxonomists be as ambiguous to categorize as species?)

    A few years ago, some esteemed folk from the genetic party selected some genes and decided to settle the matter once and for all. (Because validity of data is clearly directly proportional to the expense of the equipment and manpower used to collect the data.)

    Anyway, to make a long story really short and simple, for several accepted genera of soft corals there appears to be a continuum of number of base pair divergences among individuals with no clear divisions. Do three differing base pairs a species make? How about 10? 26? Where to draw the genus lines? Any choice was arbitrary at best.

    The result of this was something that is unpalatable to both cnidarian academics and hobbyists. As a malacologist friend of mine said, “If you see a binomial for an Alcyonid (soft coral) in popular literature, it’s fiction. If you see it in the peer reviewed literature, it’s science fiction.”

    That made me laugh heartily, but squirm a little on the inside. As you suggest here, perhaps it should be nothing more than liberating.

  • Jeff, just you wait ’til you see the pix from yesterday’s sledding expedition! First, I gotta get ’em from Kei’s camera. That might take a day or so. It will be worth the wait, I promise. Stand by . . .

  • I want to start by saying that I’m picking up what you’re putting down, but from a purely editorial point of view, this would have been more digestible if broken into parts. There’s a lot here to think about. I’m a guy who still prints stuff out to so I can get out my highlighter. You write like a guy who still expects his readers to get out there highlighters. I mean that as a compliment, honestly. You write smart. But the blog-o-sphere doesn’t always lend itself depth. I’m afraid many of the people you want to reach won’t get past Schoenberg…

    On to species and subspecies:

    The birding game is all about trees. Population biology is all about the forest.

    I have previously mentioned (I forget the specific context) Schroedinger’s Gull. A species that exists in multiple states until some birder comes along and decides what is it. Birder’s making observations from different frames of reference may reach different answers to the identity of that gull and each can be equally correct. It’s hard to tick a bird that can exist in more than one state and most birders will resist the notion by claiming it’s impossible. Bird ID is a simple, binary decision…

    But the term species only really makes sense at the level of population and the picture(s) in a field guide represent the most common state or states of the “species wave function”. Obviously, this is metaphor. Any metaphor, if pushed too, far breaks down. On the other hand, most of us see birds all the time that do not look EXACTLY like the illustrations in the field guide and “round to the nearest species”.

    As we make our way down that slippery slope toward the identification of “recognizable forms”, which seems to be coming back into vogue among birders, we will increasingly run into “poorly defined and clinal”. This is population biology speak for the fuzzy edges between forms. It is not always possible to be certain about an ID. An individual can exist in what we might, at least metaphorically call, multiple states.

    Most of the recognizable forms of junco diverged from Yellow-eyed Junco less than 10,000 years ago. (see: ) This is a blink of the eye on the geological time scale and boundaries between forms not brightly marked. The world is full of juncos that look like “pink-sided” or “Cassiar” that have never been with 1000km of the type location. We cannot be certain of their origins, yet there will be birders who will confidently claim certainty. It’s a cultural thing…

  • Andrew Haffenden

    Ted, not sure about a need to apologize. While evolution can only act through time – across generations – it is still the previous individual organism that gives rise to the newer, evolved individual. A population is a collection of individuals, each of whom has evolved by means of natural selection. Evolution is still expressed in individuals. A population (and any measurements thereof) is just a human construct, not a fundamental living unit susceptible to natural selection or evolution. Populations change due to the evolution of individuals from one generation to the next, yes, but evolution as a biological force is not acting on the population. Individuals, natural selection,and evolution care not one whit about, nor do they need, the human invention of statistical methods to measure things; they continue on their merry way regardless. Yes, a tree falling in the forest makes a sound even if there isn’t a statistician to measure it.

    So, are we to take from Darwin’s own words that he spent half his life writing perhaps the world’s second most famous and controversial book (and the creating the fundamental theory of biology) about how something that doesn’t exist came to be?

  • They’re up now.


    And as if to validate Jeff’s premise, see especially images #8, #9, & #10 in the series.

  • Andrew, I’ve given some thought, over the years, to something that is perhaps implied within your question.

    My take on it is that the title of Darwin’s great book is rather unfortunate. (If only the guy had had a publicist…) The word Species is a bit unfortunate, and, in light of what we’re discussing in this forum, the word Origin is a bit unfortunate. And anybody in his right (ahem, 21st-century) mind would strike that silly word On at the beginning of the title.

    If I were Darwin’s publicist, I would have called the work Evolution by Means of Natural Selection.

    Which brings up a little-appreciated and fascinating piece of trivia about On the Origin of Species. Guess how many times in Origin the word EVOLUTION (or any of its derivatives, e.g., EVOLVE, EVOLVED, EVOLVING, EVOLUTIONARY…) appears?

    Your first instinct would be to assume that the word must appear all over the place, right?

    Nope. It appears exactly once! It’s the LAST word in the book. That’s the ONLY place in Origin in which the word (or any of its derivatives) appears.

    Origin is the Waiting for Godot or great scientific treatises.

  • Thanks, Mike, for these comments.

    Re: “Schrödinger’s gull.”

    I don’t disagree with you, but I’m also wondering if maybe I didn’t get across a particular point.

    My point here isn’t about the problem of any particular INDIVIDUAL Thayer’s Gull. Rather, it’s about the entire POPULATION of individuals. When it comes to Thayer’s Gull, we often find ourselves barking up the wrong tree. We tend to ask, “Should this population of birds be called Thayer’s Gull or should it be called a subspecies of Iceland Gull?”

    And my answer to that question is, “Yes. Iceland and Thayer’s. And more than that, neither Iceland nor Thayer’s. All at the same time.” They’re not one or the other; and at the same time, they’re both. That’s the beauty or the horror (depends on your ideology) of “Darwin’s dangerous idea.”

    I remember an earlier discussion, in another online forum, about this topic. One well-known correspondent wrote, in response to something I had posted, “If you focus too closely on Darwin’s ideas, you could end up believing that there’s no essential difference between species and subspecies.” I agree. I agree that that’s exactly what Darwin teaches us.

    As I see it, my correspondent’s argument is precisely analogous to the following: “The problem with Darwin is, it presents challenges to my prior belief in Young Earth Creationism.” Or: “The problem with Copernicus is, it presents challenges to my prior belief in the geocentric Solar System.”

    No question about it, a faithful reading of Darwin has serious consequences for how we bird!

  • Interesting post, Ted, and lots to think about. I just wanted to clarify that I’m not against the use of scientific names for subspecies, nor the subspecies concept in general. My main reason for not using scientific names for subspecies in the Sibley Guide is that it implies a level of precision that simply doesn’t exist in the field. Looking at a Song Sparrow specimen in a museum where you can measure it and compare to other specimens you can match it up to subspecies saltonis with reasonable confidence. But looking at an identical bird in the field you can’t really be sure which of the pale, reddish, southwestern subspecies you’re looking at, so it’s wrong to label it saltonis.

    I have the same issue with birders casually using the terms “alternate” and “basic” to describe the plumage of birds they see briefly in the field. This becomes merely a synonym of “breeding” and “nonbreeding”, and essentially meaningless.

  • I’ll take the opportunity again to encourage folks to read David Sibley’s excellent essay on the matter: Birding, February 2004, pp. 80-84.

    I’ll also note that, on the matter of the subspecies concept, I’m not in agreement with what David writes above. For me, the problem with the subspecies concept applies just as much to birds in museums as it does to birds in the field.

    The problem with Red-shouldered Hawks and “pack nuthatches” (two examples from my original post) is just as acute in the museum as it is in the field. The common ancestor (“Pack Nuthatch”) of the Brown-headed and Pygmy nuthatches didn’t split into two species at one instant in time. Analogously, we can’t say that the Red-shouldered Hawk consists at the present time of one taxon or two taxa. Rather, it’s a population of organisms, in the process of evolving, right now, before our very eyes.

    In the year 10,000 A.D., we’re not going to look back and say, “On December 5th, 2012, the California Red-shouldered Hawk suddenly went from being a subspecies to being a full species, the California Buzzard.” No, we will say that, on December 5th, 2012, that population was evolving.

    And as we look back upon our life lists from December 5th, 2012, we will note that we had both one tick (Red-shouldered Hawk) and two ticks (California Buzzard, Swamp Buzzard) on our life lists at the same time.

    That, to me, is the essence of the problem with the subspecies concept–and, as Jacob Socolar notes, with taxonomic rank more generally.

    Imagine for a moment, if Charles Darwin had preceded Carl von Linné. If that had happened, I very much doubt anybody would ever have come up with the profoundly Platonic system of scientific nomenclature that bears Linné’s name. We wouldn’t have “Latin binomials.” We wouldn’t have hierarchical taxonomy (kingdom, phylum, class…). We almost certainly wouldn’t have subspecies. And, if we’re honest about it, we wouldn’t have biological systematics.

    The Linnean system is deeply appealing to our Western culture’s perceived need for order. Adam’s and Plato’s “memes” persist because they affirm our “need” to be able to say that something is this or that. But then along came Darwin, Einstein, Schrödinger, and others.

    To be sure, a large chunk of humanity has resisted the anti-Platonic thinking of such persons.

    But I find their thinking to be refreshing, at the very least, and, as I said in my original post, ultimately liberating.

    To quote Darwin again:

    “When the views entertained in this volume on the origin of species, or when analogous views are generally admitted, we can dimly foresee that there will be a considerable revolution in natural history. Systematists will be able to pursue their labors as at present; but they will not be incessantly haunted by the shadowy doubt whether this or that form be in essence a species. […] Hereafter we shall be compelled to acknowledge that the only distinction between species and well-marked varieties is, that the latter are known, or believed, to be connected at the present day by intermediate gradations, whereas species were formerly thus connected. […] In short, we shall have to treat species in the same manner as those naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merely artificial combinations made for convenience. This may not be a cheering prospect; but we shall at least be freed from the vain search for the undiscovered and undiscoverable essence of the term species.”

    I read those words, and I think to myself, “Free at last! Free at last!”

  • I think it was Dante who wrote that angels have intercourse by passing completely through each other. Ted is producing taxonomic progeny through similar methods, generating one of the more interesting posts I have seen for a while. And to think what he could have done with TWO bottles of wine !

    My objection to the lack of AOU-selected Latinate names in the Sibley guide is purely mechanical – I can’t make the Sibley illustrations or ranges “track” with the populations described in Birds of Oregon or other major references. Part of Ted’s point is that such “tracking” is chimerical and immanent anyway – it is forever just out of reach and even if you get the pulsing thing in your hand, it won’t sit still.

    That is all very well, but I am not really interested in the relation of subspecies to species in the abstract, because I am not a taxonomist or even a biologist – my interests lie in distributive ornithology and I want to be able to determine what is happening to particular populations of birds – the ones that Joe Marshall noted are permanently marked by nature.

    For example, if I want to find out the movements of northwest interior towhees as opposed to northwest coastal towhees, I need a method to label them separately. Without such a method, it is much more difficult to determine what is happening to particular populations or to show differences among them. True, I can in theory band enough of them to get some results in ten or twenty years, but if all towhees are simply thundersparrow, sp., the utility of the data is limited. We are all thundersparrows now.

    The fact that my separate labels represent a short-term snapshop of a limited reality does not, it seems to me, reduce the utility of the information as long as everyone who is using it understands its limitations. My calling a group of 100 warbler specimens “myrtle” and another set of 100 “audubon’s” seems to me to pass the test of basic utility when what we are talking about is geographic movements.

    Perhaps we need a separate label-series to replace subspecies, something like Field Identifiable Form (FIF), which has a nice birdy sound like a flock of bushtits. However, identifiability is not that important unless it is coupled with a geographic space. The biological relationships of various micro-taxa are also not very crucial if what we are talking about is the disappearance of a bird from a place, or its expansion.

    Thanks again to Ted for a very interesting discussion. May it continue.

  • Josh Kamp

    Just want to make a point about the comment on Creationists. It would be incorrect to say that they believe that all species were created at once. They believe that archetypes or “kinds” of animals were created and then speciation happened after that. So their opinion on this topic is precisely the same as your own, as far as the speciation debate is concerned.

  • Morgan Churchill

    I have been mulling your thread over for the last few days. I have to say that while I agree with some aspects, I do disagree with others and think some of your statements are not very accurate.

    The messiness of species has been a continuing problem in biology, but biology is messy. Darwin commented on this, but I think this was actually somewhat known before his seminal work. However species have a functional utility which is why many hardcore phylogenetic systematists continue to use them. Linnean taxonomy’s obsession with ranks is going away, but instead is being replaced (slowly) with tree based systems of nomenclature, which recognize formal “clades”, some of which correspond to traditional ranks and some which do not.

    Similarly, I would say that almost all of the modern taxonomists, including those who sit on the AOU, would argue that species are not concrete entities, but rather populations exist on a continuum. Something missing from this discussion, and an important element, is discussion of species concepts. The AOU uses the biological species concept, which basically based on whether two populations can interbreed and assortatively mate with other populations. In the case of the Red-shouldered Hawks, would a California bird recognize an eastern bird as the same animal? If so then no, they are not different species. They are “one” species. Might the two groups eventually diverge enough so that they can no longer breed or recognize one another? Maybe, but you can’t really say at this point. One population may go extinct before this happens, they may merge back together, or they may continue on with the status quo for thousands of years more.

    I might have oversimplified this, but I don’t think you can say different populations WILL become different species. A potential exists, but many other outcomes are possible.

  • Max

    When you mentioned it being useful to to think in terms of sunrise, and sunset, I thought perhaps you were heading toward Edmund Burke’s “No man can draw a stroke between the confines of day and night, yet light and darkness are upon the whole tolerably distinguishable.”

    Which I guess is pretty much is how I think of the species boundary issue.
    (Here’s something to try: Pick any two individual birds on earth at random- the great majority of the time, they will UNAMBIGUOUSLY be members of different species!)

    I will also say, that while probably few people would object to the idea that taste is art has a right and a wrong, I recently read Steven Pinker, The Denial of Human Nature. The penultimate chapter (the weakest chapter, by far, of a generally fabulous book) of this argues, more or less, that modernist art (Schoenberg would be a prime example) is wrong in a fundamental sense. In Pinker’s view, human aesthetics are adaptive. Not just that having an aesthetic sense is adaptive, but that particular aesthetic preferences are adaptive and have been selected to be intrinsic to human nature. He argues that much modern art runs counter to these universal elements of human aesthetics, and has (often intentionally) turned its back on universal standards of beauty.

    I enjoyed your article (and imagine that Pinker would not quarrel with this).

  • Paul Ostler

    I don’t think anyone disputes that there is a continuum of speciation, or even that there are borderline cases in that continuum that are “on the fence” if you will. That is one of the functions of the AOU, to make a call in those cases. A case may not be clear cut, but that doesn’t mean there is no value to classification. I really doubt Darwin would be against classifying species or subspecies, even though he recognized there is no absolute truth in the classifications, and there is a continuum of variation. Darwin recognized the value of a species concept.

    So if at some point the AOU decides that there are 2 species of Red-shouldered Hawk, then so be it. The AOU decisions are not meant to represent absolute truth, just good working classifications.

  • Michael

    Interesting article! One small correction though, Carl Linnaeus was born with the family name Linnaeus; when he was born, his father was named Nils Linnaeus. It was only later in life (1761, when he was 54, several years after his main taxonomic publications) that Carl took the ‘Swedicised’ form of his family name von Linné, when he was ennobled by the King of Sweden.

  • Thanks, Morgan.

    Several responses:

    1. You say that “[s]omething missing from this discussion, and an important element, is discussion of species concepts.” That reminds me of a quip by the mathematician William Dunham. I’m paraphrasing, but: “People who don’t believe in unicorns aren’t going to sit around having conversations about the mating habits of unicorns.” First, we need to establish whether the species concept itself is valid; then we can get into the details, e.g., this species concept vs. that species concept.

    2. You invoke the Biological Species Concept to ascertain whether a population consists of “one” or some other number (zero, two, three…) of species. Again, I go back to Pete Dunne’s “pack nuthatches.” Today, we say, they are two species. Long ago, they were one species. Did they instantaneously go from being one species to being two species? I suspect you would say “no.” Now shift gears to Red-shouldered Hawks. Are they, at the present time, one species or two (or more)? For sure, it’s interesting to ask about gene flow among populations of Red-shouldered Hawks. But I don’t see how the amount gene flow (how much, how fast, how extensive–all good questions) informs the question of whether there is such a thing as a species.

    3. And on that note, you point out that “Linnean taxonomy’s obsession with ranks is going away.” I sense that, for certain (non-avian!) taxa, you’re right. And, of course, the strict cladists (they’re like strict twelve-tone serialists!) long ago divorced themselves from Linnean ranks.

    But what about the rank of species?

    To quote Darwin once again:

    “In short, we shall have to treat species in the same manner as those naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merely artificial combinations made for convenience. This may not be a cheering prospect; but we shall at least be freed from the vain search for the undiscovered and undiscoverable essence of the term species.”

    Yes, some of us are increasingly willing to discard such ranks as “kingdom,” “subspecies,” and “genus.” But what about the rank of “species”? Why do we give the “species” a pass? Why is the rank of “species” privileged?

    You already know my answer to that question: We do so, because that’s the capital-T Truth handed down to us by Adam and Plato.

    4. You say, “I don’t think you can say different populations WILL become different species. A potential exists, but many other outcomes are possible.” Never say never. That said, it is worth noting that all populations of organisms on earth are subjected to various “selective pressures.” And they respond to those selective pressures by evolving. Some do so very slowly (think of coelacanths and gingkos). But most (many insects, many plants, most bacteria) do so relatively quickly.

    In the case of California Red-shouldered Hawks, it is easy to imagine some event that would reunite them with eastern Red-shouldered Hawks, perhaps reversing whatever incipient speciation we may be seeing right now. Fine. I get that. Nevertheless, those two isolated populations are, right now, this very instant, experiencing different selective pressures; they are subjected to the inescapable biological force that results in the process of speciation. Whether they become their own species, or not, or even two or more species, isn’t the point. The point, rather, is that they are notstatic, notunchanging, not“fixed,” right now, this very instant. It is not useful, I believe, to say that they just are; it is not useful to say that they have to be this or that.

    5. You say that you “think some of [my] statements are not very accurate.” Which ones? Seriously, I would be grateful if you could point to inaccuracies, or even mere imprecision, in what I have written. I’m forever striving to improve, y’know! Thanks!

  • Good stuff, Alan.

    You’re ever the pragmatist, aren’t you?

    Part of me is inclined to downplay the importance of pragmatism. Newton’s conception of absolute space and time is highly pragmatic; Aristotle’s conception of the Solar System as geocentric is highly pragmatic; the Adamic (Platonic, Linnean…) conception of the species is highly pragmatic; and so forth. But those things aren’t correct, so a part of me is inclined to move on–to the more-accurate formulations of reality given to us by Einstein, Copernicus, and Darwin, respectively.

    But another part of me says, “I hear ya, Alan, loud and clear!” And that’s especially the case where bird conservation is concerned.

    Which raises an important question. Does a pre-Darwinian conception of the species really advance the cause of bird conservation? Is conservation helped by our “privileging” of the taxonomic rank of species?

    I would say no.

    In this regard, a great read is Jim Rising’s “Ecological and Genetic Diversity in the Seaside Sparrow,” pp. 490-496, in the September/October 2005 issue of Birding. PDF dowload available here:

    Rising argues in his article that the extinction of the highly distinct Dusky Seaside Sparrow was contributed to by the view that the Dusky Seaside was “just” a subspecies. That alone is bad. But Rising notes something else. The decision to demote the Dusky Seaside Sparrow to the rank of subspecies was arbitrary. The AOU handed down its ruling, and…

    “And it was done. No reason was given as to why [the Dusky Seaside Sparrow and other sparrows] were conspecific–just that [Ernst] Mayr and [Lester] Short had said so, and that [William] Beecher had suggested it. In reality, Beecher did not ‘suggest’ this.”

    It is possible that we would still have the Dusky Seaside Sparrow–if we weren’t so wedded to the old concept of the species.

    The Adamic (Platonic, Linnean…) conception of the species is bad, then, for two reasons: It’s not true, and it’s bad for bird conservation.

  • What, Ted, there are no Universals? I’m reeling (or maybe Realing?).

    I love this essay–it should indeed be the core of a book–and find little to argue with. I do note the irony, though, that even you find yourself bound by the language we’ve grown accustomed to over the last 2500 years when you speak of, for example, the Red-shouldered Hawk becoming two species of Red-shouldered Hawks: you’re right when you say that evolution, divergence and convergence, are phenomena of the present as well as of the past, but I wish you’d said outright that they are also phenomena of the future. As long as there’s life, change will continue. As I read Darwin (and as I read you, above), it isn’t that one “species” “becomes” “two species,” but rather that natural selection operates on individuals and populations to create a sort of systole and diastole of variation, organisms approaching each other and then retreating, diverging and converging. It’s really very beautiful, and we miss some of that beauty if we admit of fixity for even a moment. Panta rhei, das Ewige regt sich fort in allen.

    The Schoenberg analogy is brilliant, and you could push it even further: later serialist atonality is every bit as much about discovering variation and the gradual filling in of apparent difference as is Darwin’s notion of the variety. A tone, in the sense of an acoustic frequency, is linked to the next by an infinite number of intertones. By the way, it’s bizarre that this is not the first time the ABA Blog has mentioned Stockhausen, of all people.

    Alan finally, and well, raises the question that I think needs asking: can birding, with its essential reliance on typological classificatory thought, really carry on if we accept these radical new ideas from 1859? I think it can, but I don’t believe that fif’s are the solution; instead we need a radical type of outdoor nominalism, in which every individual is accounted an individual. I think we used to call that birdwatching.

  • Morgan Churchill

    I think part of my problem is that you suggest a movement away from species concepts which doesn’t exist. As someone who is a taxonomist by training, and follows the literature, I don’t see any sort of movement away from species, and I don’t get a feeling scientists adhere to it from any sort of platonic ideal (although that certainly was a major influence on early classification). Darwin argued about the vagueness of species, but remember this didn’t stop him from creating taxonomic treatises on species. Future workers including Ernst Mayr and others also realized that species were fuzzy, but none argued for their abolition.

    Species might be a fiction, but they are a useful fiction:

    1. People need labels to refer to things, and binomial species name provide a universal system for this. Abolishing species concepts would make it difficult to refer to given forms in the literature.

    2. Conservation (whether for good or ill) is set up at the species level. If we discard species, we discard easy to understand brackets for conservation effort.

    3. Species provide a useful taxonomic unit for studies of evolution. Most studies can not look at every “population” that ever existed, however species (and subspecies) can be useful way to target your sampling

    4. Speciation, regardless of whatever concept you support, exists. Maybe you define it as the development of reproductive isolation. People are interested in why and how you get closely related taxa occupying a given region. Species provide useful units for such study, and it’s hard to imagine you could research the topic without an acceptance of the idea that these two groups are separate entitites.

    Several other points: One, you can get instantaneous speciation; this has been recorded in numerous plants and also exists in some bird groups, namely Widowbirds. Secondly, any population could at some point give rise two a “new species”, given enough time. Laramie is pretty isolated, so are people who live here on separate evolutionary trajectories? Probably not.

  • Thanks, Josh, for this reply.

    I happen to agree that “those” Creationists aren’t all that from different from “us” evolutionists.

    For sure, we differ on a million little details, for example–and for starters–the age of the Earth.

    But I think we’re the same, just as you say, in terms of our fundamentally Platonic conception of the world around us. Like the Creationists, we tend to see the world as black and white. Thus:

    1. A woman is either black or white.

    2. A person is either male or female.

    3. A particular religion is either right or wrong.

    4. A particular idea is either good or bad.

    5. A subatomic particle is either here or there.

    6. Either two events happen simultaneously or they don’t happen simultaneously.

    7. Either a population of organisms is a species or it isn’t a species.

    Inasmuch as we think that way–and I think a great many of us do–then you’re right, “we” are not all that different from “them,” i.e., those Creationists.

  • Can you provide evidence (e.g., from On the Origin of Species or other of Darwin’s writings) for this:

    “I really doubt Darwin would be against classifying species or subspecies…Darwin recognized the value of a species concept.”

    I’m not saying you’re wrong. And I’m not looking for a fight. Rather, I’m genuinely interested in the basis for your claim. My read on Origin (see, in my original post, extensive quotations from Chapters 2 and 14) appears not to be the same as yours.

    My read is that Darwin was cautious, at the very least, about “classifying species or subspecies” (“Certainly no clear line of demarcation has as yet been drawn between species and subspecies…”), and that he was skeptical about the whole conception of the species (“…but they will not be incessantly haunted by the shadowy doubt whether this or that form be in essence a species”).

    But I could well be missing something. And you know me!–I’m always looking to update my worldview. I would never want to be the same tomorrow as I am today.

  • Abrahm

    I agree with Morgan, you really appear to be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It is true that science should hold no sacred cows and that we should be willing to change our paradigm if it increases our understanding of the natural world. I don’t see how your suggestions really do that at at all. You quote Darwin but what about 150 years of experiments and refining of the theory of evolution? What about genomics, proteomics, molecular biology, archaeology and other tools that have deepened our knowledge of evolution and the species of animals and their place on the phylogenetic tree.

    Your post seems to ring with the notion that “since we can’t nail things down we shouldn’t bother to categorize them.” How does that help increase understanding? Of course the nomenclature we apply to species is arbitrary but it serves a useful and important purpose. It allows scientists (and non-scientists) to accurately and precisely talk about populations of living forms. Giving the two populations of red-shouldered hawks subspecies status puts an ear mark on those populations that says they may be in the process of differentiation. Of course climate change could force those populations to interbreed and end the subspecies, but they could of course be fully differentiated.

    Mostly when it comes to evolution and species we’re looking at genomics. We can use various parts of the genome including mitochondrial DNA and now full genomes to see the mutations that begin the speciation process, to understand the relatedness of life forms and to possibly find populations early in the process of speciation.

    To use an analogy (which I’m loathe to do) it would be like looking at a pail of water that’s partially frozen and saying “It’s both ice and water but defining it as either would be useless since it is in the process of changing.” Yet, we can look at that ice water right now and we can say that crystal structure (ice) makes up 40% of that solution and sampling in ten minutes time reveals that it’s now 60% ice and thus the bucket is freezing, not melting.

  • Wonderful to hear from you, Max.

    Two quibbles, if I may.

    1. Love that ditty by Burke! I’m sure I’ll have occasion to refer to it, in the not-too-distant future. It’s a great way of thinking about the that fuzzy, indeterminate time-period between when a population is one species and when it has become two species.

    But it’s not analogous, in a key respect, to differences among species. Yes, I think we would all say that it is unambiguously nighttime at midnight, and that it is unambiguously daytime at noon. But that is not how it is with real populations of organisms on this planet. In evolution, it is never night, and it is never day; it is always dawn or dusk. Yes, the “Pack Nuthatch” is no more; instead, we now have the Pygmy and Brown-headed nuthatches. But the story doesn’t stop there! It’s not as if it’s high noon or the stroke of midnight. Rather, it’s dawn or dusk, all over again. No, it’s dawn anddusk. (Love it.) Those nuthatches are still evolving, still in the process of speciation. They’re still changing. Theyr’e not static. They’re not “fixed.”

    (An aside. I agree that one ought not to “draw a stroke between the confines of day and night.” And yet so many of us attempt to do so. We have precise definitions for astronomical twilight, nautical twilight, civil twilight, and, of course, sunrise and sunset.)

    2. “Pick any two individual birds on earth at random…”

    Is that a tad specious?

    I mean, “Pick any two electrons in a region of space. Chances are, they are not entangled.” But they might be! It takes only one black swan…

    Back to your two individual birds. Well, neither are they turtles, spiders, or clouds.

    Yes, there are things (objects, populations…) in this universe. But the boundaries among those things are fuzzy. It’s true that a brush-finch in Ecuador isn’t a gull in Canada. But there’s an awful lot of fuzziness around the edges of “brush-finch” and “gull.”

    “Brush-finch” and “gull” can be heuristically useful. But “Herring Gull” and “Rufous-naped Brush-Finch” are–more often than not–problematic.

    Again, yes, any two random objects or populations on earth are, probabilistically speaking, distinguishable from one another. A Herring Gull is not the same thing as a human male. A Rufous-naped Brush-Finch is not the same as an electron. An electron is not the same thing as a human female.

    But we get into trouble when we start to say that a particular population of gulls is or is not attributable to Herring Gull; that a particular population of brush-finches is or is not attributable to Rufous-naped Brush-Finch; that a particular person is male or female; or that a particular electron is here or there.

    That’s the radical import of “Darwin’s dangerous idea.”

  • Abrahm

    Now here it doesn’t look like you’re talking about science at all. You’re talking about psychology. Every thing on your list has shades of grey. There are transgendered people, mixed race people, different denominations of the same religion, etc. If you want to argue that the species concept causes some psychological reactions in people (e.g. “just a subspecies” disregard) I could get behind that and it really speaks to the general public’s lack of scientific literacy.

    A subspecies is a distinct population that is worthy of note and scrutiny by the scientific community. It’s a way for scientists and taxonomists to say, “This right here? It’s definitely closely related to X, but it may be in the process of differentiating into Y. It is special.” We have words (and numbers! and genomic, etc. tests!) to describe the shades of evolutionary relatedness, just like we do with color.

  • A quick comment here, and then I gotta sign out for a while. (Got Birding manuscripts to edit!)

    Abrahm says, “Now here it doesn’t look like you’re talking about science at all. You’re talking about psychology.”

    Not psychology, I would say, but rather ideology.

    For sure, we all bring our biases, our assumptions, our worldviews, our “prior commitments” (in the notorious words of Dick Lewontin) into the discussion.

    One such bias or ideology is the deeply entrenched Platonic mode of thought, with its “essentialist” or “typological” view of the universe.

    Another bias or ideology–mine, and if I dare say so, Rick Wright’s, it would appear–resists such thought, preferring the vision of “panta rhei” attributed to Heraclitus.

    Is the essentialist worldview right or wrong? Is the Heraclitan way right or wrong? I’ll not go there–not now, anyhow.

    But I will say this. Essentialist thinking leads to the point of view that a population is either this or that, but not both or neither. Typological thinking forces us to say that a population is either one taxon or two taxa, but certainly not both one taxon and two taxa at the same time, or even no taxon at all.

    Ask yourself–as I ask myself all the time–are you conforming reality to your “prior commitment” to a particular worldview? Or are you starting anew–as I try to every day–with a good, hard look at the facts?

    Thanks to everybody–especially those who disagree with me–for a fantastic discussion.

  • Morgan Churchill

    During the time period that Darwin formulated his theory of natural selection (which was early in his career…he just held off on publishing for quite a while), Darwin published the following works:

    “A Monograph of the Sub-class Cirripedia, with Figures of all the Species. The Lepadidae; or, Pedunculated Cirripedes.”

    “A Monograph of the Sub-class Cirripedia, with Figures of all the Species. The Balanidae (or Sessile Cirripedes); the Verrucidae, etc.”

    After he published his thesis on natural selection, he also published this:

    “The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species”

    So I think it is evident that Darwin did believe in the use of species, but rather believed that species were not “fixed” and could change and split into new species over time. The first two works specifically are taxonomic treatises; I doubt he would go through the effort of classification and describing species if he didn’t think species “existed” at some level.

  • Paul Ostler

    Hi Ted, Darwin was up against a completely different mentality than we have now… the mentality that species were static. That’s the mentaility that Darwin was arguing against, and he shattered that mentality. Darwin was not trying to argue that there are no identifiable lumps in the continuum… there clearly is a lump in that continuum for Humans, and a lump for Chimpanzees… and to a lesser extent, there may be a bell-curved lump for eastern Red-shouldered hawks, and a bell-curved lump for western Red-shouldered hawks, with possible overlap, I don’t know. Classification of a lumpy continuum is not black-and-white, and at times requires DNA analysis, but the continuum is indeed lumpy, and it is clearly useful to give names to the lumps in that continuum.

    Ted, you asked for evidence from the Origin of Species for why I believe Darwin would not be against classification of these lumps. Here you go from Chapter 6…

    • p. 171:
      Firstly, why, if species have descended from other species by insensibly fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms? Why is not all nature in confusion instead of species being, as we see them, well defined?

    • p. 177:
      To sum up, I believe that species come to be tolerably well-defined objects, and do not at any one period present an inextricable chaos of varying and intermediate links: firstly because new varieties are very slowly formed…

    • p.179:
      Lastly, looking not to any one time, but to all time, if my theory be true, numberless intermediate varieties, linking most closely all the species of the same group together, must assuredly have existed; but the very process of natural selection constantly tends .. to exterminate the parent-forms and the intermediate links.
  • Abrahm

    I look at facts critically. I try to be critical and not credulous. Science is my job and that sort of rational and critical world view is part of my life.

    Ted Floyd says, “Essentialist thinking leads to the point of view that a population is either this or that, but not both or neither. Typological thinking forces us to say that a population is either one taxon or two taxa, but certainly not both one taxon and two taxa at the same time, or even no taxon at all.” [Italics not reproduced]

    Which reads to me as so much waffling. Take your red-shouldered hawk, Buteo lineatus. This species consists of many taxa. It is Animalia, Chordata, Aves, Falconiformes, Accipitridae, Buteo, lineatus and one of a handful of subspecies. Yet it is not Plantae, Ambystoma or even Ardea. Taxonomy itself is a spectrum. A species can be one or two taxa. Each level defines a smaller and smaller populations of greater relatedness. Subspecies are buds on the tree of life.

    Thousands of critical eyes and minds have been turned on species and taxonomy and yet the structure stands. Our understanding is constantly changing but we have not formed a new method. You offer no alternatives only some 150 year old quotes and philosophy that further muddles a field that a general public has misunderstandings about.

  • Can you provide evidence (e.g., from On the Origin of Species or other of Darwin’s writings) for this:
    “I really doubt Darwin would be against classifying species or subspecies…Darwin recognized the value of a species concept.”

    Darwin wrote the original draft of chapter IV during the period from mid December 1856 to late January 1857 according to his Pocket Diary. A year later he wrote a fifty sheet section on the contrasts in variation in genera with large and small numbers of species, which he intended for insertion towards the end of his original chapter…
    Having appealed to Hooker for a loan of these Floras so that he could rework them Darwin continued his tabulations and calculations of ratios of variation and speciation in parallel with his writing of successive chapters of Natural Selection, and he frequently mentioned this statistical work in his letters to Hooker. On August 22, 1857, he wrote:
    I am very glad to hear that you have been tabulating some Floras about varieties. .

    To our disappointment the little pits in the Sandstone contained scarcely a Gallon & that not good. — it was however sufficient to draw together all the little birds in the country. — Doves & Finches1 swarmed round its margin. 1This appears to be the only mention made by CD, either in the Diary or in his pocketbooks, of the family of finches that came to bear his name and to he most closely associated with the development of his ideas about speciation. However, the relative lack of interest in the Geospizidae displayed by CD when he was actually collecting birds in the Galapagos is consistent with the conclusion of Sulloway (‘Darwin and his Finches: The Evolution of a Legend’, Journal of the History of Biology 15: 1–53, 1982) that it was not until the Beagle’s specimens were classified by John Gould early in 1837 that the true significance of their variability between the individual islands first became apparent to him. .

    Lastly we have the class “Race”, corresponding with “Abarten” of Bernhardi/ 8/& with subspecies of some authors, in which the form is strictly inherited, often even under changed conditions; of this class we know there are plenty under domestication, some known, & more suspected in a state of nature, as in the geographical races of some Zoologists. But the term subspecies is used by some authors, to define (& corresponds in this sense with “unterart” of Bernhardi) very close species, in which they cannot determine whether to consider them as species or varieties. The existence of these doubtful forms has lately been explicitly admitted by M. Alp. Decandolle in regard to plants, & by implication by Mr. Wollaston1 in regard to insects: M. Decaisne & Dr. Hooker use the term without expressing more than that the difference between such subspecies is slight, yet permanent. As these authors are of the highest authority, this admission is important as sub-species fill up a gap, between species, admitted by everyone & varieties admitted by everyone. Between varieties & individual differences there seems a gradual passage but to this subject we shall recur. In species we should remember how extremely close some undoubtedly distinct forms are, as many plants, & as in some of the willow wrens, which are so close that the most experienced ornithologists can hardly distinguish them except by their voice, & the materials with which they line their nests; yet as these wrens inhabit the same country [? county] & always exhibit the same/9/ difference, no one can doubt that they are good species. So that between individual differences & undoubted species naturalists have made various short steps.
    In the above classification of several varieties the main difference rests on the hereditariness of the characters. Though the classes blend insensibly into each other, this classification is of some use when applied to domestic productions; & no doubt it holds good in varieties in a state of nature, which we are here considering. But it seems to me that we are far too ignorant to apply it to varieties under natural conditions, more especially in regard to animals. We have seen in our first chapter that the same character is inherited in very different degrees by different species, & even in different individuals of the same species; we have reason to suspect that a character becomes more fixed by long continued generation; although on the other hand, a character suddenly appearing is sometimes strongly inherited. Who can tell how much
    1 On the Variation of Species. p. 185.

  • Paul Ostler

    Hi Ted,
    Darwin was up against a completely different mentality than we have now… the mentality that species were static. That’s the mentaility that Darwin was arguing against, and he shattered that mentality. Darwin was not trying to argue that there are no identifiable lumps in the continuum… there clearly is a lump in that continuum for Humans, and a lump for Chimpanzees… and to a lesser extent, there may be a bell-curved lump for eastern Red-shouldered hawks, and a bell-curved lump for western Red-shouldered hawks, with possible overlap, I don’t know. Classification of a lumpy continuum is not black-and-white, and at times requires DNA analysis, but the continuum is indeed lumpy, and it is clearly useful to give names to the lumps in that continuum.

    Ted, you asked for evidence from the Origin of Species for why I believe Darwin recognized a species concept, and why he would not be against classification of these lumps. Here you go from Chapter 6…

    • p. 171:
      Firstly, why, if species have descended from other species by insensibly fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms? Why is not all nature in confusion instead of species being, as we see them, well defined?
    • p. 177:
      To sum up, I believe that species come to be tolerably well-defined objects, and do not at any one period present an inextricable chaos of varying and intermediate links: firstly because new varieties are very slowly formed…
    • p.179:
      Lastly, looking not to any one time, but to all time, if my theory be true, numberless intermediate varieties, linking most closely all the species of the same group together, must assuredly have existed; but the very process of natural selection constantly tends .. to exterminate the parent-forms and the intermediate links.
  • Yet geographically distinct populations are affected differently not only by things people do but by the flow of natural events. It seems perfectly appropriate to pay attention to those distinct populations as such.

    This is not mere vanity, as another blogger wrote regarding the recent discovery of a “new” thrush in South America. Without a labeling system our ability to speak with clarity, even about things that cannot be made perfectly clear, is damaged.

    I am a pragmatist in some things, that’s true. When you write with publisher’s deadlines, it’s hard not to be ! Et tu, Ted?

  • Alrighty, y’all, I’m gonna make a sweepingly conciliatory offer here.

    I’m gonna say that I basically am at peace with everything that’s been put out there by Abrahm, Ostler, and Morgan.

    I think it’s safe to say that the four of us agree that “species,” whatever they may happen to be, are fuzzy and indeterminate. If we’ve succeeded in conveying that message, in getting that “meme” out there, then I think we’ve performed an important service.

    Ironically (cf. Arnold Schoenberg), the discussion has taken on an ideological–even an aesthetic–tone. (And perhaps more than anything else, a semantic tone?)

    On the one hand, I see great merit in a population-level approach to appreciating nature; I continue to resist labels (e.g., “species”), but I heartily agree that it is meaningful to speak of, and to appreciate, populations.

    On the other hand, I suspect (although one ought always be to wary of efforts at mind-reading) that Abrahm, Ostler, and Morgan would agree that it is valuable to look at individual organisms; and that, specifically, it is important to view variation among individuals as the engine of evolution.

    To me, it is simplistic and misleading to insist that a population is either this species or that species, that it has to be either one species or two species (or zero or three), but not some combination of those possibilities.

    To Abrahm, Ostler, and Morgan–if I may presume–there is heuristic value in applying categorical, hierarchical modes of thought to understanding pattern and process in biology.

    To me, it is simplistic and misleading to say that the Pygmy Nuthatch is a species, but the California Red-shouldered Hawk is not. To do so causes people–people in my experience anyhow!–to be ignorant of the dynamic nature of evolution. It would be better, I would say, to scrap “species” and “subspecies” in these two instances, and instead to focus on the fundamental biological processes (allopatry, genetic drift, gene flow, genetic distance, etc.) that give rise to a deeper understanding of how populations of organisms change through time.

    To Abrahm, Ostler, and Morgan–again, if I may presume–it is important to frame the discussion with such terminology as “species” and “subspecies.” The term “species” specifies some property (or properties) of the population of birds called Pygmy Nuthatches; the term “subspecies” specifies a different property (or properties) of the population of birds called California Red-shouldered Hawks.

    I suppose it “bothers” me that such terms as “species” and “subspecies” create the illusion of boundaries where there are none. Such terms cause many people to imagine that there is something fundamentally and qualitatively different about how Pygmy Nuthatch populations work vs. how California Red-shouldered Hawk populations work. Evolution is at work on both of those populations, right now, this very instant. Speaking for myself, I am struck by how evolutionary biology provides a unifying picture of pattern and process for life on earth.

    Our culture’s concept of the “species” is ancient. It goes back to Adam, as I have said. It was formalized by Plato. It was beatified by Linnaeus. I accept that a properly trained scientist is probably capable of an enlightened conception of the “species.” For the rest of us, though, that word reinforces Linnaean hierarchies, Platonic types, and Adamic nominalism.

    My ideological leanings (I admit it!) and my own sense of aesthetics (I admit it!) are aligned with this, from Rick Wright:

    “Alan finally, and well, raises the question that I think needs asking: can birding, with its essential reliance on typological classificatory thought, really carry on if we accept these radical new ideas from 1859? I think it can, but I don’t believe that [field-identifiable forms] are the solution; instead we need a radical type of outdoor nominalism, in which every individual is accounted an individual. I think we used to call that birdwatching.”

  • Quick reply to this:

    I’m totally fine with such labels as “California Red-shouldered Hawk” and “Pygmy Nuthatch.” Very useful! Highly pragmatic!

    But I’m a bit more wary of “subspecies” for the hawks and “species” for the nuthatches.

    On the one hand, I’m not convinced that those labels are accurate. On the other hand, I note that those labels can put obstacles in the way of research and conservation. (Cf. the Dusky Seaside Sparrow.)

    Pragmatically Yours,
    T. Floyd

  • May I make a (relatively) lighthearted observation?

    From an artistic perspective, Schoenberg challenged the entire canon of Western (a rather general term used here for convenience) music practice and its cultural appreciation – hence his aural controversy, even today. The Sibley guide, while certainly revolutionary within the parameters of the field, did not challenge any such artistic or visual paradigms; it resides firmly within Western traditions. By saying this, I am not implying that it has any need to do so!

    I am only mentioning this because 1. I respect your article very much and would hope to see the ideas published in a longer format, and 2. I have a general wish that the arts associated with field guides are considered very seriously in their larger artistic contexts. This would include drawing analogies that hold up under artistic scrutiny as well as ornithological.

    Thank you very kindly for your post.

  • Abrahm

    I think we can agree that species are fuzzy to a point, and in a constant state of flux due to our ever increasing knowledge which can shift animals within taxa or create new taxa. Natural selection is always acting on species but this is generally in geological time when you’re speaking of birds, other vertebrates and even more advanced invertebrates. Defining the populations as we know them is useful. Hell we define populations (serotypes, etc.) of bacteria (which is also very useful!) despite natural selection acting upon them at very rapid time scales.

    There are functional differences between your pygmy and brown-headed nuthatches and the California red-shouldered hawk and it’s parent species. The two nuthatch species are fully differentiated. They have huge geographical separations, they have different behavior, morphology and genomes. The California red-shouldered hawk is genetically nearly identical to other subspecies, they are behaviorally and morphologically similar as well as having contiguous ranges. These are distinct and quantifiable differences. The idea of subspecies and their practice is a lesson in evolution for those willing to learn as it identifies those populations subsets of species that are possibly in the process of differentiation.

    I honestly don’t even understand what you’re point is anymore. You agree that populations are important but you refuse the labels and want to discuss the “fundamental biological processes.” I agree about discussing but those fundamental biological processes are the subtext for taxonomy. The taxonomy tells you about the fundamental processes affecting the life form in question. The fundamental processes help you understand what the taxonomy is and why individuals (as species are populations) can be varied.

    The language of science already folds these principles into the taxonomy. Trying to create new language or discarding the current language that is both specific, detailed and well defined seems not only pointless but detrimental to understanding. I don’t see how it’s useful or productive to not call an apple and apple. Teach the general public the language of science (this is sadly neglected in most general educations) so that they can be conversant.

  • Abrahm

    As an addendum to my last post, I would say that “pygmy nuthatch” and “California red-shouldered hawk” are not useful. They’re very airy affairs, they have very little context. The taxonomic names, on the other hand are positively brimming with information. They elucidate relationships much more clearly, we know that as a subspecies the California red-shouldered hawk is not highly differentiated from it’s parent taxon, Buteo lineatus, but has some traits that differentiate it. The pygmy nuthatch does not contain any such daughter taxa denoting distinct closely related populations and is clearly a separate populations.

    P.S. The common convention is not to capitalize common names (unless they are proper nouns.)

  • “There are functional differences between your pygmy and brown-headed nuthatches and the California red-shouldered hawk and it’s parent species. The two nuthatch species are fully differentiated. They have huge geographical separations, they have different behavior, morphology and genomes. The California red-shouldered hawk is genetically nearly identical to other subspecies, they are behaviorally and morphologically similar as well as having contiguous ranges. These are distinct and quantifiable differences.”

    Just the facts:

    * The breeding ranges of the California and Eastern Red-shouldered Hawks are separated by 2,000 kilometers.

    * The two populations differ in molt, morphology, behavior, habitat, and management needs.

    * The are genetically distinct. See

    Yet we call them subspecies. Why? How is that helpful? How does it promote understanding?

    My point was, and still is, the following:

    “And that brings me to what I consider to be one of the great ironies of modern thought. Many of us snigger at Creationists for imagining that all species came into being, perfectly formed, in an instant, at some point in the not-so-distant past. And yet many of us–we non-Creationists–do the exact same thing in our view of ‘species’ at the present time. We demand that a population of organisms be this species, or that species, or these two species, or those two species, or three species, or four species… Like the Creationists, we cherish the idea of the fixity of species. The Creationists say that species were fixed at the moment of Creation. We say they’re fixed right now.”

    Earlier today, it was brought to my discussion that they’re having pretty much this same discussion, right now, over at Frontiers of Bird Identification. Evolutionary biologist Shai Mitra got the ball rolling with this:

    “This idea looms eternally over bird identification discussions, where a much tidier–but biologically unreasonable–typological view of species is stubbornly popular.”

    See for yourself:

  • I haveta say, Abrahm, I’m with you on this one:

    “The common convention is not to capitalize common names (unless they are proper nouns.)”

    I don’t like capitalization of species names. I believe that that practice contributes to the reification of the Platonic conception of the species.

    That said, the convention in birding and ornithology is to capitalize common names (what we call “standard English names”). For now, I’m sticking with convention.

    i look forward, by the way, to the day when capital letters are no more. they serve no purpose in modern written english.

    all the best,

  • Well, Catherine!

    You’ve stolen my thunder, I have to say. I’ve been planning a big ole blog post on the future of field guides vis-à-vis existing artistic and visual paradigms.

    Stay tuned…

    (But don’t hold your breath. It’ll be a while.)

  • Diana Doyle

    Ted, your essay reminds us that we are in the midst of the process of speciation. We tend to forget that fact at the deepest level, taking for granted a relative stability of species except for a handful that happen to be in the split or lump limelight. But it’s all in flux, an endlessly dynamic complex system of individuals attempting to maximize their chances of survival and in turn creating an aggregate evolution of populations. It reminds us that the notion of a species is just one more scientific construct—a mental model that allows our brains to categorize a complex and dynamic real world.

    This species concept “shake-up” is one thing I liked about Kroodsma’s book, The Singing Life of Birds, which also suggests an underlying tension in the endless regional variety and evolution of birdsong.

    Perhaps the old paradigm of species is showing signs of strain as our avian knowledge increases. Remember the now-almost-hackneyed Thomas Kuhn book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that we all had to read in college? As our knowledge of regional breeding populations, migration patterns, and hybridization advances, this information is taxing our existing scientific paradigm of nice, clean-cut species. As Kuhn’s book points out, at some point the misfits and contradictions become so overwhelming that a new scientific model must be created to accommodate the new knowledge.

    I wonder if we’re just beginning to see that on species taxonomy?? If so, wow, what’s next? What might be along in the future? At first I thought: how can we not have species categories!? We must have a grouping or we can’t describe and communicate that we saw something like a Canada Goose.

    Like Abrahm, I thought about an analogy with describing colors. Of course we have color groups that are simple categories: “yellow ochre,” “brick red,” and so on. (As in that Crayola crayon 64 pack.) We need color names to communicate with others. But we all know that it’s not that simple; colors are in fact an infinite continuum, as shown by modern physics and color theory. But colors are described at a layperson’s level with commonly understood category descriptors, while being able to be described in a more complex continuum by scientists in terms of light waves.

    So what might be a continuum description of bird types? Maybe we still have species groups (equivalent to “yellow ochre”) so we can simplify a complex world enough to classify and communicate. But then there would be an equivalent parallel scientific description that didn’t rely on species but instead on some continuous dynamic descriptor of avian life. Like light theory for color … At this point all I can imagine is that it would be based on DNA sequences, something that could be wildly possible in the future and, like light theory, can accommodate both the infinite diversity of subpopulations and their constant evolution.

    Pretty wild to try to imagine…! Thank you for encouraging us to think outside the box.

  • Paul Ostler

    I’ll try make this my last comment on Ted’s post, but I would like to say that I whole-heartedly share the sentiment that individuals should be seen as individuals, and respected as individuals. But the notion that we shouldn’t bother to apply a label to an entire genetic population, an entire group of related genes, that may have taken a million years to evolve, is very disrespectful to those living things in my eyes. For me personally, whether the referee (AOU) calls it a species or a sub-species isn’t the significant call. What’s significant for me is “Here is a beautiful population of related individuals that share some common genetics, and wow, they’re really cool, and wow, they’re beautiful, and wow, I certainly hope they don’t go extinct soon” AND “wow, what are they called, how can I refer to these beautiful birds when I tell my friends about them”.

    I’d hope to see more people connecting to nature and the life around us, and if all I can tell my kid is “that’s a bird, isn’t it pretty”, then that is a very sad reflection of our modern times in my eyes.

    Even if I can’t tell one Empidonax from another, even if they all look the same to me… for me I’d still want to respect and protect the individual population groups within the Empidonax. I feel these populations deserve our respect, and these populations have a genetic heritage that is worthy of respect and admiration and protection. Maybe knowing there are different population groups within Empidonax would motivate me to learn their songs. And even if I have to rely on a geneticist to tell them apart, I will embrace that!

  • Paul Ostler

    OK, one last thought regarding the use of Schoenberg in your blog… since we’ve discussed Darwin so much 😉 … I love his music and was really excited when I saw you had put his name in your blog post… its interesting how many birders are also classical music buffs. But whether one likes Schoenberg or not, he was standing on the shoulders of giants like Mahler, who stood on Wagner, who stood on Beethoven, who stood on Mozart, who stood on Haydn & Bach… I’ve personally never felt like he was trying to challenge tradition…. rather, it felt to me like he was extending the language of music, not toppling it…. it has never occurred to me before that he may have been trying to abolish tonalism, and I don’t think he was. In so far as Schoenberg added to the language of classical music, he was a success. In so far as Schoenberg was trying to challenge the traditions that preceded him, he was a failure. But I don’t believe Schoenberg was trying to abolish anything…. though admittedly, I’ve not read a lot about Schoenberg even though I listen to his music.

    In my opinion, there seems to be a new age pop-culture where its cool & artsy to topple traditional thought…. I’m a little surprised at myself for writing that, because I’m not a conformist by any stretch… but I think it stems from a misconception about this pop-culture’s heroes. Perhaps people like Darwin, Mozart & Einstein toppled the traditions in their day too, right? I think ‘wrong’ to a great extent. Einstein & Mozart had a deep respect for the traditions of Newton & Galileo & Haydn & Bach, and they used their languages to their full extent, and took them a step higher. They stood on the shoulders of giants… they didn’t topple them. I suspect even Schoenberg wasn’t trying to abolish tonality. Even without reading a thing about Schoenberg, I’m almost certain Schoenberg had a deep appreciation for the tonal traditions of his predecessors, and was not trying to undo them.

  • Morgan Churchill

    Hello again.

    I agree with you that ultimately, most of us don’t disagree with the main ideas, but as I like to say, Species are a convenient fiction. There are all sorts of shades of gray, but it mostly works, and facilitates communication.

    To me, many of your complaints still seem to be complaints more aimed at the Biological Species Concept (BSC). under the PSC (Phylogenetic Species Concept), the California Red-shouldered Hawk is a good species. In a recent paper, Remsen even argued that all “good” subspecies should also qualify as good PSC species.

    The PSC would I think reconcile a lot of your problems with species, except for perhaps the philosophical ones 🙂

    Perhaps the bird community as a whole should embrace a pluralistic approach to species, and create different taxonomic lists for each concept, and make birders more aware that just because something isn’t a “species” under one concept, it might be one under another.

  • It occurs to me, Catherine, that I’ve drawn an analogy not with one of Schoenberg’s full-on atonal (serial, twelve-tone) works but rather with his earliest, rather tentative foray into atonality (the second string quartet). Same thing with The Sibley Guide‘s eschewal of trinomials?

    Compared with what was to come, Schoenberg’s second string quartet is but a tease. It’s just a glimpse. But there was no stopping what came next.

    So what’s next for field guides? Will we move quickly toward a radical new conception of the field guide?–one which will lead us in turn toward what Rick Wright has termed “a radical type of outdoor nominalism”? Or will we retreat, and continue indefinitely in the sacred tradition established in 1934 with the publication of Peterson’s first field guide?

  • Ken Schneider

    Hi Ted,

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article. I was hoping I could actually read Sibley’s thoughts on listing in that 2004 issue of Birding, but the link you provided and the archives on the web site don’t seem to provide the text. Is there any way to get access to that essay by Sibley, other than buying a back issue of the magazine?


  • Floyd Hayes

    A few comments:

    First, speciation occurs instantly and a precise date can be given–when the majority vote is received by the AOU’s North American Classification Committee to give species status to a previously recognized subspecies. 😉

    Okay, I’ll be more serious.

    Second, Richard Dawkins doesn’t deserve the credit for recognizing that natural selection operates more strongly on individuals that genes, groups, or species. He borrowed greatly from George C. Williams, who published “Adaptation and Natural Selection” in 1966 and edited “Group Selection” in 1971. Here are some sources:

    And third, to be fair to so-called “creationists,” there is a continuum of beliefs, which makes it difficult to apply labels (analogous with binomials and trinomials). Nevertheless, I will label three groups. Theistic evolutionists (TEs) believe God created the first form of life and directed its evolution of billions of years; they fully accept evolutionary theory but reject abiogenesis, which makes it difficult to label them as either “creationists” or “evolutionists” (they’re both!). Young life creationists (YLCs) believe the universe and Earth are billions of years old, but life on Earth was created within the last 10,000 years. And young earth creationists (YECs) believe the universe, Earth, and life on Earth were all created within the last 10,000 years. All TEs and even most YLCs and YECs believe that new species evolve, but there is no consensus among the latter two groups on the extent of evolution.

  • Sorry, Ken, but ya gotta buy a back issue of the magazine!

    Or, better yet, join the ABA! I’m surely overstepping my authority here (hi, LeAnne; hi, Liz), but when you call them up (800-850-2473) to join or renew, see if they might send your a freebie Feb. 2004 Birding. I can’t guarantee it. For one thing, I honestly don’t know if the ABA still has any old copies of that particular issue.

    Already a current member in good standing? Then pledge to the 2011 end-of-year appeal!… 😉

  • Thanks, Floyd, for the shout out to ole George Williams.

    My point, which appears to have gotten lost, is that Dawkins is the one who successfully popularized Williams’ earlier idea.

  • Morgan Churchill

    Is there any movement at all to create a online archive of back issues of Birding for members? This would be a great resource and also a selling point for membership. As a member, I admit to getting a tad annoyed at links or discussion of articles that predate my interest in birding, or in some cases my ability to even read.

  • I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking on such things, ranging from the successes of various modes of representation to the interesting things that might/could be done – one of my favorite topics!

  • Ken Schneider

    Hi Ted,

    I’ve been a member in good standing for about four or five years. I’ll see if any old copies are available.

    Very sorry to go off on a tangent here (and feel free to reply off-line or suggest a separate thread), but what are the obstacles to providing open access to older issues of Birding? As you know, past issues of quite a few ornithological journals are accessible for free on SORA. Birding, to its substantial credit, has published a lot of very useful papers on the field identification of birds in the ABA area, and it seems like these should be made available to all after a period of a few years?


  • Hi Morgan,

    It’s high on our list of “nice to have,” for sure. As you mention, a members-only archive of Birding (especially more recent issues, see my comment on Ken Schneider’s comment below) would be a real selling point.

    The barriers, as usual, are time and money. But we are looking for ways to make more of our content available online, especially to current members.



  • Hi Ken,

    As I said in my reply to Morgan Churchill’s comment above, the barriers are time and money. It would likely cost less (but still tens of thousands of dollars) to do online versions of relatively recent issues where digital files already exist but there would be good reason to keep those members-only access.

    The larger costs would come with older issues, precisely those which the case might be made to give access to all, member or no. Those would all have to be scanned. And posted. No rocket science there, just hundreds of hours of work.

    On the plus side, this is the sort of effort that might be quite fundable. If you know of any good prospects for getting this sort of support, by all means get in touch. We would love to get the ABA’s history of innovation out more widely.

    Thanks for commenting and I’m happy to continue the discussion here or offline. My office number is 719-884-8226.



  • Wayne Hoffman

    I’d like to challenge one of your main points: that evolution is continuous through time. I look at the statements you quoted from The Origin of Species, and those that Paul Ostler gleaned in response, as propositions to be evaluated, or more formally as hypotheses to be tested. We should not be looking at either as revealed truths: that is too much like the common misuses of the MOST controversial book.

    So, if we try to evaluate the proposition that lineages of organisms change gradually and continuously through time, versus the alternative that evolutionary change comes in short bursts separated by long periods of relative constancy, the evidence is pretty equivocal, and I would suggest varies a lot from lineage to lineage.

    As pointed out by Eldredge and Gould’s, the fossil record, particularly for marine organisms, is dominated by lineages that appear unchanged for millions of years, then appear to change substantially in geologically short periods.
    I do not subscribe to all of Gould’s explanations for this, but examples are not hard to find among recent organisms as well. “Living fossils” really do exist. Among birds, Sagittarius, Balaeniceps, Opisthocomus, are pretty well-defined as species in spatial dimensions, and I suspect have not been evolving continuously in the sense suggested by Darwin.

    On the other hand, the Grants’ demonstrations of continuous responses to natural selection in the morphology of Geospiza provide good evidence of fairly continuous change.

    Lewontin and others hypothesized a lot in the 1970s about the structure of genomes and gene pools as entities somewhat resistant to perturbation – prone to long periods of little change, the experiencing “genetic revolutions” that produced substantial change in much shorter time frames than can normally be measured in the fossil record. I think these people may have been very impressed by the recognition that species of Drosophila and certain other organisms could be extremely distinct genetically, yet difficult to tell apart morphologically.

    Both of these lines of investigation, of course were undertaken in the relative infancy of understanding of molecular genetics and evolution, but I am not convinced that our current understanding of mtDNA rates and pattenrs of change, or of rates and patterns of change in micro-satellites, really alters the conclusion that some non-splitting lineages show impressive resistance to natural selection through time.

    I therefore conclude that for some organisms, species are pretty well-defined both in time and space, and others are more like Geospiza or large Larus – fluid in 4 dimensions.

    So, throwing out the concepts of species and subspecies as typological misrepresentations of nature, may seem justified when looking at gulls or ground finches, but devalues the apparent integrity of gene pools of many other birds.

    So my take is that for some lineages, definition of species is pretty arbitrary in both space and time (corals, Geospiza,) for others species are mostly well-defined in space but not so much in time, and some, perhaps a minority, are well-defined in space, and pretty well-defined in time as well.

  • The true sacrilege of the Sibley Field Guide is that it’s not the National Geographic Field Guide. Therefore I have never used it.

  • Hi Ted,

    Another thing occurred to me: natural selection acts on the individual level (most of the time), but much of the variation we see in natural populations (i.e. as birders) occurs because of recurrent biased mutation or genetic drift. Take the example of Eastern versus Western Red-Tailed Hawks. When I lived in Colorado, Red-Tailed Hawks never looked like those in the field guides, and if asked to describe a Red-Tailed Hawk, I probably would have used size and shape rather than coloration. However, after living in the east for eight years, every Red-Tailed Hawk I have seen looks exactly like the cover of the Sibley Field Guide, and they are easy to discriminate in flight, while I’m driving. This is probably due to a combination of genetic drift (fixing the typical RTHA plumage in the East) and mutation and non-random mating maintaining diversity in the west. Drift is an aggregate process that can only be described on the level of populations, since what we are talking about is fixation of alleles. Unfortunately the situation of western RTHAs is not settled by taxonomy or Sibley’s method, unless Sibley has fifteen different Red-Tailed Hawks under “Western.” As I said, I don’t own a copy, so I can’t check it.

  • “Unfortunately the situation of western RTHAs is not settled by taxonomy or Sibley’s method, unless Sibley has fifteen different Red-Tailed Hawks under ‘Western.'”

    Under “Western” Red-tailed Hawk, Sibley shows 25 different birds. He also shows 4 more under “Southwestern,” an additional 4 under “Krider’s,” and yet 9 more under “Harlan’s.”

    Joel, you definitely want to pick up a copy of The Sibley Guide! Being a birder in North America and not owning The Sibley Guide is rather like playing hockey without a hockey stick.

  • Tony Leukering

    First, I greatly enjoyed the essay that got this discussion rolling, despite my ignorance of most of the details of his musical analogy (but, I know what I like when it comes to music). Simply put, the essay is a tour de force!

    I note that despite Ted’s apparent interest in jettisoning “species,” he willy-nilly uses the concept to get his point across. I mean, what is “Red-shouldered Hawk” but a species? And, not even the only species of “red-shouldered hawk,” which is why capitals are so wonderful.

    Having spent a lot of time looking at Red-tailed Hawks, and other birds, in eastern Colorado, I suggest that “eastern” and “western” Red-tailed Hawks make for another good example of one of Ted’s points — species are messy. However, without anthropomorphic alteration of the Great Plains, these subspecies/groups might be more clearly different, at least in Colorado.

    In fact, to come back to one of Ted’s points in an analogical way, eastern Red-tailed Hawks are both more eastern and more western than are western Red-tailed Hawks — all at the same time! And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that some eastern Red-tailed Hawks breed farther west than some western Red-tailed Hawks.

    And if we’re jettisoning typology, what, really, do the terms “eastern” and “western” mean on a round(ish) planet? They are arbitrary terms that are useful only if both speaker/writer and listener/reader accept the same meaning for the terms. In fact, language is dependent upon arbitrary terms — we cannot convey information without such.

    I agree with Ted’s above comment about The Sibley Guide, but I am leery of his use of the term “North America” — the use to which he puts the term is quite egocentric. The Sibley Guide would not be as useful on Barro Colorado Island as would Robert Ridgely’s field guide and if usefulness is not one of the most critical aspects of “the greatest field guide ever,” then Ted and I will have to agree to disagree about the meaning of the phrase. I do share his seeming incredulity at an ABA-area birder not owning the best ABA-area field guide. Even with the extensive revision of plates that has taken place in the evolution of the NGS guide (and I own all six editions), there are still illustrations that leave a bit to be desired as far as their usefulness. A guide that purports to assist in identification of “species” is at least somewhat suspect when an illustration that it presents as representative of that species bears little resemblance to that species.

    Finally, I loathe the fact that so many do not understand the differences (and am loath to understand why) between the verb ‘loathe’ (soft ‘th’) and the adjective loath (hard ‘th’). Or, Ted, should we just jettison parts of speech as too typological?

  • Ted Floyd

    Good stuff, Wayne. I like all the fuzziness and realism that you bring to the proceedings.

    I would only add that your various examples (corals, fruit flies, Darwins’s finches, gulls, etc.) are all animals. All the animals on earth, though, are but a tiny sliver of the full range of genetic diversity on this planet. Don’t get me wrong: I feel a certain affinity for my fellow animals (humans in Colorado, corals, Goliath beetles, Chipping Sparrows, flatworms, etc.), but I also recognize that we animals are a mere blip on the biological radar screen.

    Here’s a schematic that puts things in perspective:

    Do Linnaean-Platonic-Adamic species concepts apply to slime molds and cryptomonads? Do they apply to glaucophytes and choanoflagellates? And even if they do (they don’t…), what about the stupendously diverse archaea and bacteria?–do species concepts apply to populations of organisms in those groupings?

    Species in biology are a bit like miratives in linguistics. What’s a mirative, you say? Well, that’s rather the point: English, Japanese, Arabic, and most of the other languages spoken by contributors to The ABA Blog don’t have miratives. A few languages have miratives, but most don’t. Same thing with species concepts: They apply to a few populations of organisms, but not to most of them.

  • Robert kyse

    Luckily our experience of birds as representations of species is unaffected by time. Or at least minimally so for even the most rapid instances of perceivable evolution. We experience life in the present, insensitive of the influences changing it. And it is therefore rationally acceptable for birders to analyze and order the world of avifauna in the most advantageous manner, regardless of any evolution paradigm in science.

    Advantageous manner – this thought occurred to me as I was considering how to translate the Genus separations of bird families on my spreadsheet checklist into birder helpful language (ex: Podilymbus – small blunt billed, Aechmophorus – large dagger billed, etc) – not an easy task. I gave up when it became obvious that many of the genus distinctions were not discernable to the birder in the field. I concluded that the sensible thing to do was come up with a new genus level organization although keeping the species names. But that will need to done by someone far more experienced in field identification than I. Say Pete Dunne and his “pack nuthatches”. You might say it would be instance of punctuated birder evolution.

    But evolution theory is an interesting topic for bird watchers. And I can’t help but wonder if there are underlying mechanisms of evolution aside from “survival of the fittest”. Yes, I know that at the macro level survival advantage is the obvious driver of adaptation. But, using a physics analogy, just as gravity seems to organize matter at a macro level, there are also subatomic forces at play. Or perhaps there is no organization to the forces in nature, just a set of aggregators of different strengths. Either way, the analogy suggests that the Darwinian understanding of evolution may be a simplification just as Newton’s physics is simpler than Einstein’s.

    I think we should go ahead and order our world from our own perspective – even if it is just a functional interpretation of a more complex, amorphous reality.

  • Tony Leukering

    And, of course, I meant “anthropogenic” rather than “anthropomorphic.” If anyone took the comment about loath/loathe too critically, I didn’t intend it as such — just trying to be witty. Ah, well.

  • Geoff Malosh

    Hi Ted. I’m late to this discussion and a lot of what I have to say has already been touched upon by others. As you know, you and I agree on this topic more than we disagree, and it goes without saying that I agree with you on the basic points about the limits of Platonic thinking. I like to be as iconoclastic as the next guy, but that said, I struggle to offer a workable alternative to the Linnean system, or perhaps more specifically to the concept of a “species”, even as I recognize that “species” is flawed. In your blog above I find that you do not really offer an alternate system either, other than to speculate that your kids might come up with something someday. To wit: when you and your kids were confronted with the geese, after you liberated yourself from the oppression of words like parvipes and taverneri, you found an exhilarating experience observing and enjoying the birds on a one-by-one basis. That’s fine for hobbyists who have thrown off the old shackles of obsessively listing bird species, but I’d suggest that, in the realm of science, using terms like “big one with a flat head” and “little one that ‘hinks’ instead of ‘honks'” instead of “moffitti” and “hutchinsii” isn’t going to cut it either.

    The best alternative I can suggest is that a “species” is more accurately expressed as a kind of spatially arranged probability cloud that may or may not overlap with other probability clouds, and while this seems like it would indeed be more correct than the current system, I am at a loss as to how the language of this “new taxonomy” (for lack of a better term) would really work, let alone function as an applied science. Because in the end, and many on this blog have argued this point, there is still a need to describe groups and populations, and give them common names for common usage and understanding, and while you and I and others agree that the current lines we want to draw on populations to demarcate “species” and “subspecies” are increasingly shown to be not applicable in some cases, there still is a need to communicate which group of geese you happen to be talking about without invoking Dr. Seuss.

    The species concept has been called here a “convenient fiction” that serves a purpose, but I think it is better thought of as a “convenient approximation” and recognize it as such. “Fiction” is too strong a word as it implies that the system is flatly false, in the same way that saying the earth is flat is false. Yes, the earth isn’t flat. Yes, Linnean thinking is looking more and more like bunk. And yet, working in a flat earth system can be a convenient and entirely functional approximation while still acknowledging that it’s just that: an approximation. I know the world is round and I also know it’s not technically correct to disregard the curvature of the earth when measuring the area of my plot of land, but the approximation made by neglecting the effects of curvature is perfectly fine for the application of tax assessments and many other endeavors. Naming distinct populations of organisms (with trinomials or whatever), while known to be imperfect, is actually a good, workable approximation of these ambiguous probability clouds that seem to defy accurate description.

    Another interesting question is raised if you’re OK with considering “species” as merely an approximation: why is it so hard to elucidate a more accurate view of things than an approximation? Is it really just because we’re lazy Western-style thinkers suffering from 150 years of inertia, or is there another reason? If I may I’d like to diverge into another related but completely separate line of argumentation, that of the behavior of complex systems. We observe that at a fundamental level complex systems tend to self-organize, even in the complete absence of what we call intelligence. (Whether you attribute this tendency to God or a god is another discussion entirely.) We may be able to describe the fundamental units of a complex system and describe some of the rules that govern their behavior as individual elements, but we are totally unable to fully describe or predict the observed behavior of the overall complex system. I’d suggest this is because these types of systems are fundamentally not describable nor predictable. They’re not simply not measureable due to the quantity of variables or limitations in computing power, but fundamentally not describable nor predictable. The examples are legion: hurricanes spin up, honeybees socialize and build lots of little hexagons, proteins manage to fold up on themselves and become useful in the context of the proteins that surround them, humans establish nation-states and write music and play ice hockey… on and on. Do we have any formulas or constructs that completely describe and predict the behavior of any of these systems in total? Not even remotely close, and I’d suggest we never will. Yet we still have need to describe hurricanes and proteins and honeybees and, well, species (or whatever word you want to use) in a practical and understandable way, even as we acknowledge that our systematics are incomplete and perhaps cannot ever be complete.

    You brought up Schoenberg and the fact that his music is generally disliked, at least in the west. I have more thoughts on this which are perhaps beyond the scope of this discussion, but suffice to say here that music itself is a complex behavior exhibited by a complex organism. Our individual reactions to music are similarly complex, are not quantifiable nor predictable, and the best we can do at describing this complex behavior called music is to toss in a tired cliché like “there’s no accounting for taste” as if “taste” is some wholly arbitrary construct. I don’t think it is. We, as a species (ha ha), constantly strive to separate our consciousness and our intelligence — and subsequently our actions — from the rest of the universe. What we do is “unnatural”, “manmade”, “artificial”, while the rest of the universe is “natural”. This is to our great folly, and perpetuates our gross misunderstanding of what we really are and why we do what we do. Our cultures, our languages, our perceptions, our behaviors, our arrangement of knowledge, all are merely expressions of self-ordered, unpredictable complexity, just like a hurricane, a protein, a honeycomb. (Again, whether God or a god is behind “us” is a different discussion.) In all cases, we cannot fully describe or predict the system. If we accept that complex systems can self-organize, as our observations suggest they do, and further that humans and their behaviors are just as much a naturally occurring aspect of the universe as anything else (many will debate this, but go with it for now), then we can say that music “works” (is preferred or not preferred) for specific reasons, even if we can’t precisely describe why brains react to music they way they do. Nor can we account for individual variation in those reactions among individual brains. But one thing is for sure: music preference is most decidedly *not* merely a matter of completely arbitrary, “artificial” taste. It’s just that we cannot describe the behavior (the complex system) we call “taste”.

    Bottom line: Evolution (used as a big all-encompassing word) is also a complex system, and we fail just as utterly in accurately and completely describing it as we do with the other complex systems. We can sense it intuitively, and we can even describe observations in the context of evolution, and we can conduct controlled experiments on individual elements of the evolutionary system, but when we try to apply a complete description to the system of evolution (for example, determining what is a “species”), we come up short of the mark as surely as we would trying to create a systematic description of musical taste. At this point I am butting up against epistemology and the limits of knowledge, in addition to having already rammed the ship headlong into the deepest mysteries of existence, so perhaps I should call it a night.

  • Ted Floyd

    This was just brought to my attention:

    It’s very cool, and worth the read–especially if you “believe in” species. It’s always good to be exposed to contrary viewpoints.

  • Anonymous

    I realize this post is a couple of years old, but I’ll chime in quickly. I’m really glad so many birders are interested in these kinds of ideas, but, with all due respect, I agree with Morgan. Mr. Floyd conveys a lot of general inaccuracies, mostly about the collective opinions of modern scientists, with a deceptively confident air.

    A quick example from one of his comments: “…you’re right. And, of course, the strict cladists (they’re like strict twelve-tone serialists!) long ago divorced themselves from Linnean ranks.” After reading this, I would be shocked if Mr. Floyd has ever had an actual conversation with a cladist. Most of them continue to fervently defend the transitional Linnean system (I don’t think any of the systematists that don’t would call themselves cladists). It’s ok to have not followed the collective opinions (either from from personal conversations or from keeping up with the thousands of papers that make up the relevant literature) as they have evolved over the last 40 years, but don’t act like you have.

    Concerning the reality of species. How, Mr. Floyd, can you say that species don’t exist and continue to coexist with so many distinctly different organisms? Why are there humans and dogs and blue jays instead of one homogenous gene pool? You seem to insist that because speciation doesn’t take place instantaneously, that species can’t be real. One could well argue that nothing comes into existence instantaneously–this is all a matter of one’s spatiotemporal perspective.

    For example, you would probably agree that a room (without windows) can be classified as either dark (lights off) or light (lights on). Although flipping a light switch seems like a instantaneous process that transforms the room from one binary state to the other (light to dark and vice versa), this is actually a trick of our spatiotemporal perspective. If we slowed time down, we would see that it actually takes time for the electrical signal to reach the light bulb and then for the light to leave the bulb and fill the room. Just because a process takes time doesn’t mean it can’t transform something from one distinct classifiable state to another.

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