Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 21, Issue 3, pp 353–367 | Cite as

Taxa, individuals, clusters and a few other things

  • Donald H. Colless


The recognition of species proceeds by two fairly distinct phases: (1) the sorting of individuals into groups or basic taxa (‘discovery’) (2) the checking of those taxa as candidates for species-hood (‘justification’). The target here is a rational reconstruction of phase 1, beginning with a discussion of key terms. The transmission of ‘meaning’ is regarded as bimodal: definition states the intension of the term, and diagnosis provides a disjunction of criteria for recognition of its extension. The two are connected by a spectrum, with purely theoretical definition at one pole and purely ‘operational’ diagnosis at the other, with the more operational elements explained by the more theoretical. The current plethora of species concepts provides a good example. Accepting the Ghiselin–Hull thesis, that a species is an individual, a basic taxon is therefore also an individual with organisms as its parts. In a generalised synchronic individual its parts are conceptually integrated by an integrating principle (IP), which consists of a relation applying within a plan or rule. Fully developed, such an IP ensures the maximisation of the information content of the individual. A diachronic individual is then the set of its component synchronic parts, and its IP is provided by near-identity in an appropriate space-time (not necessarily physical).

The integration of parts of an individual is illuminated by Gasking's concept of a proper group (in this case a chain-group), whose members are related by the relation serially fitting together with, the IP completed by an appropriate plan or rule. Gasking also applied the term cluster to a proper group persisting over a substantial period of time, individuated by any member acting as focus. A basic taxon is therefore a cluster of individuals, integrated by the relation significantly taxonomically similar and the rule in character-space-time. The nature of those concepts is discussed and defended. A species will inherit certain of the attributes of the preceding basic taxon (taxa). In at least the synchronic version its parts (individuals) will resemble each other significantly, providing the intuitive applicability of ‘members of’ and ‘instances of’ a species. Also, the notion that a species’ name is given by pure ostension, via a name-bearer (holotype) is empirically incoherent: the name cannot be applied in practice without an appropriate set of diagnostic traits.

Key words

Cluster Individual Meaning Parts Similarity Species 


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Copyright information

© Springer 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of EntomologyCSIROCanberraAustralia

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