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Species: Beasts of burden


  • Alfred L. Rosenberger

  • One of the author's current projects examines how and why many studies of platyrrhine phylogenetic interrelationships produce both corresponding and conflicting hyptheses. In the Dominican Republic, Rosenberger's cave-diving scuba team is collecting fossil primates from bone-rich freshwater caverns. With Tim Smith and Valerie DeLeon, he is also working on the influence of cranial development on primate orbital morphology. E-mail:


Ernst Mayr (1904–2005) was the twentieth century's most influential writer to wrestle with the species problem.[1-4] The following draws heavily on his work, albeit without presumptuously claiming to mirror his thinking or present any original ideas. As a personal meditation, I am thinking mostly of platyrrhines. Following Mayr, I adhere to what is commonly called the Biological Species Concept (BSC) as a way of thinking about a species in the real-world biosphere as a taxon. I also hold to the idea that the Linnaean category called species has the same function as other categories: a linguistic tool for organizing and retrieving information about biodiversity while embodying evolutionary hypotheses. In other words, alpha taxonomy, the area of systematics that involves identifying, naming, and classifying species, is not purely an exercise in either biology or inventory because it involves communication as well. The burdensome work of the species category stems partly from tension created by the several purposes associated with the concept: the objective observation and examination of a fundamental biological phenomenon, the collection and interpretation of data in a selective context of relevance, and the intention to deploy scientific decisions as a form of communication within a dynamic but highly structured language system.