Species concepts and floras: what are species for?


E-mail: s.knapp@nhm.ac.uk


In 1992, in a special paper in the American Journal of Botany, Ernst Mayr attempted to ‘prove’ the biological species concept (BSC) worked as well in plants as it did in animals by analyzing the flora of the Concord region of northern Massachusetts. He concluded that there were minimal difficulties when applying the BSC for the plants of this particular area, and concluded that botanists were misguided in not accepting the BSC. He suggested that what he called ‘typological’ thinking was prevalent in the taxonomic community, and that this was a factor in botanical resistance to the BSC. Typology, as defined by Mayr in his 1992 foray into botany, is to a certain extent a straw-man and, by the late 20th Century, no longer a way of thinking in widespread use in the taxonomic community in any organismal group. Here, I examine his analysis in the light of current interest in plant diversity. Species can be characterized as hypotheses about the distribution of variation in nature, subject to test with new data of many kinds. Species concepts like the BSC, although of interest philosophically and to researchers looking at mechanisms of speciation, may actually get in the way of achieving a baseline understanding of the diversity of life on Earth. © 2008 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2008, 95, 17–25.