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The Utilitarian Factor in Folk Biological Classification

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Abstract

This paper argues that ethnoscientists interested in folk biological classification have paid insufficient attention to the practical significance of such systems of cultural knowledge in their pursuit of general logical and/or perceptual principles governing the form and content of folk biological taxonomies. It is suggested that ethnoscientists adopt an adaptationist stance in recognition of the fact that cultural knowledge is used to guide behavior. The implications of such a shift in emphasis on folk biological classification theory are assessed. Present theory is rent by a fundamental contradiction between a formal taxonomic hierarchy model and one based on the contrast between a general purpose, biologically natural taxonomic core and special purpose, biologically artificial peripheral taxa. The natural core model is advocated as both superior in explanatory power and explicit in recognizing the purposes of classification. C. Brown's life-form universals are criticized for confounding the fundamental contrast between general purpose and special purpose life-form taxa. In conclusion, there is a discussion of the difficulty of developing a valid measure of the practical significance of a taxon, suggesting as a first step toward that goal the systematic description of each taxon's unique “activity signature.” Such activity signatures are then to be evaluated in the context of a culture's system of “routine action plans” which link cultural knowledge and adaptive behavior. The desired result is a new ethnoecology integrating ethnoscientific and ecological theory. [ethnoscience, taxonomy, folk biology]

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