Wednesday, August 30, 2006

To be fair...

Whenever I get into a flame war I always find myself doing a little bit of a walk back when I’m done. Let’s just say I can get carried away and that’s not good. So in that spirit let me delve a little deeper into the whole “inherent moral obligation” thing.

An inherent moral obligation has to arise from an inherent property of that thing. The test for inherency seems straightforward – is it conceivable for the object to exist without this property? If so than it’s not inherent – but in reality it’s not all that clear when you’re dealing with something which is not defined very well.

Definitions! Almost all flame-wars end up on this topic. I try to take a strongly relativistic view of definitions: There is no “right” definition for a word; there’s only “right in context”. The context I usually adopt is “what helps you think about things more clearly”. This is why for example I reject both “War on terror” and “islamofascism”.

Ok, enough of that. The question before us was “how do you define a species”. Short answer: it’s hard. I’ll link to dues-ex-wiki. What do you guys think?

22 comments:

Paul said...

My impression had been that disagreement in that previous thread had more to do with the definition of "inherent" than with the definition of a species. I don't recall ever hearing - in that thread, in Wikipedia, or in school - that it is at all common to define a species, even in part, by its relationships to other species.

To expand on your take on definitions, I'd say you can apply the same principle to words (and grammatical conventions in general, for that matter). There is no "right" definition of "inherent" in the sense that it can mean whatever people want it to mean. (That is, "inherent" has no inherent meaning.)

That said, you had sort of set the terms of the discussion with your post, and everything in your argument turned on the difference between "intrinsic" and "extrinsic". There wasn't really a lot of room, in that context, for "inherent" to mean something else - like "wildly improbable", for instance.

Thinker said...

I agree Paul, the definition of a species does not include any relationships it might have to other species. However the viability of a species can be dependent on such relationships.

Clark's Nutcracker may not be inherent to the definition of the Whitebark Pine as a species, but it is clearly an inherent part of its lifecycle (inherent here means an inseparable element). Likewise, the microbe species that line our guts are inherent parts of the lifecycle of Homo Sapiens. Take them away and our species goes extinct.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

2000 years in the future the human inhabitants of Australia are struck by an awful disease which kills all the microbes in their guts. Fortunately their scientists invent a nanobot which performs a similar function. Unfortunatly, the inhabitants of North America have fallen to the religion of "thinkerarianism" which holds that gut microbes are an inherent part of the human lifecycle. No microbes, no human lifecycle. No human lifecycle, no humans. Accordingly they no longer view the Australians as Homo Sapiens.

When the australians plead with the North Americans to allow them to import gut bacteria so they can stop using the nanbots and rejoin humanity, the pope/philospher king of thinkerarianism declares that to do so would wipe out the new species of Homo Nanobotis. Since he has an inherent moral obligation to preserve species he can not let this happen. The Australians are forced to live with indigestion.

Paul said...

In case Tom's point is insufficiently explicit - though I don't think that it is - the nutcracker is not an inherent part of the lifecycle of the pine. We know this because we can imagine the pine's lifecycle without the nutcracker.

Remember, Thinker, inherence is not about what would happen in hypothetical situations. Inherence is about what could or could not conceivably be the case.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Let's not beat this dead horse. I suppose we'll just have to agree to disagree.

Can't we just focus on the things that bring us together? Like disliking the policies of the Bush administration?

Thinker said...

Paul, if your imagining of a situation where the species Whitebark pine exists in the absence of the species Clark's Nutcracker is not hypothetical, what is it?

And Tommaso, while your future scenario is quite clever, it doesn't show much understanding about the nature of species or speciation. Assuming for the moment that one might be able at some point in the future to create nanobots to replace one or more species of human gut microbial life, that would not change homo sapiens. Sexual species such as ours (and the Whitebark pine) are defined by the ability of their individual members to produce fertile offspring. Since North Americans could still successfully reproduce with Australians in your scenario, the species would remain intact and not divide.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Good point. Whitebark Pines which are hand planted can't be fertilized by Whitebark pines which are planted by nutcrackers.

Paul said...

Oh, that test for inherence definitely involves being able to form a hypothetical, but it's not about what happens in that hypothetical, it's enough that the hypothetical can be formed.

So, Thinker, are you agreeing that we can imagine the lifecycle of the pine without the nutcracker?

Thinker said...

As humans, we can imagine all sorts of things, Paul. I can envision people with three or four arms, even people floating around alive and healthy in space without space suits. However, just because I can envision something doesn't mean that we can treat it as if it were plausible.

Paul said...

Right, but inherence has to do with whether a thing is logically possible, not whether it's plausible.

1) We can imagine the life cycle of the pine without its relationship to the nutcracker.

2) If you can imagine a thing X without some thing Y, then Y is not inherent to X.

Therefore,

3) It's relationship to the nutcracker is not inherent to the pine.

I've got no problem with stopping the beating of the dead horse, but I'd still like to get the corpse cleaned up and removed from the premises.

Thinker said...

Evolution and evolutionary relationships play out in evolutionary time, over many generations. It is illogical to propose that an evolutionary adjustment such as yours could occur in a human lifetime or in the lifetime of one generation of Whitebark pine. Symbiotic species are not interchangeable. If the Clark's Nutcracker vanished, so too would the Whitebark Pine. There would not be enough time for an evolutionary adjustment.

Paul said...

Alright, I try to follow the rule that when somebody completely ignores the things I'm saying, I'll indulge myself just by pointing that fact out and then I'll drop it. At this point, I don't even know what conversation you're having.

This leaves us with the rotting remnants of a sad exchange, but there you have it.

Lisa said...

OK, so, I can't seem to wrap my head around these arguements about "what is inherent."

However, I would like to point out that the concept of species is hotly debated by biologists.

There is a definition of species that defines a species, in part, by its relationships to other species. That definition is the Ecological Species Concept, wherein a species is a group of organisms adapted to a particular set of resources--an ecological niche. The niche includes predators, pathogens, and food sources, and the way in which a population reacts to the presence of these resources. (If "reacting to" isn't the same as "having a relationship with," then this debate is hopelessly mired in philosophical pointlessness and I give up.) Via this definition, a Pine isn't a pine without a nutcracker (and damn! I'm sorry I ever mention the fricken' pine!)

The biological species concept, on the other hand, deals with individuals' ability to interbreed and maintain a population. Under this definition, a pine whose seeds are planted by humans (for now and forever after the nutcracker makes its hypothetical disappearance) is still a pine.

Still other concepts of the definition of a species exist, making my ultimate conclusion that "species" is a fuzzy set and all of y'all need to deal. Yo.



Just sayin'.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Well put.

Thinker said...

Let me try it this way Paul. Imagine that the Clark's Nutcracker disappears and humans take on the task of burying its seeds, but despite all of our efforts (or even the efforts of other species we can imagine who might try to fill the gap) the Whitebark pine goes extinct. If that happened would you be willing to accept that the nutcracker would be an inherent part of the pine's lifecycle?

Paul said...

The pine is just a convenient example. It could as well be anything else.

As I understand the ecological species concept - and, admittedly, my evolution instructors were not sympathetic to it - it does not define organisms as a species by their relationships to other organisms, but rather by their relationships to one another. In particular, the extent to which organisms compete with one another is what determines whether they belong to the same species. What they compete for, specifically, is basically contingent on geographic location, but you want to be able to account for multiple populations of the same species occupying different niches. (Not for any principled reason except that that seems like an intuitive sort of factor to include in the consideration. Species concepts are necessarily arbitrary things.)

Again, though, that's from the foggy recesses of my memory. I would also anticipate problems with circularity of classification, but who knows.

At any rate, it's possible that was the source of the disagreement, but I still get the impression it had more to do with the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

No look, "inherent" doesn't depend on probability or how things happened to have turned out. If golden girls gets canceled and later you die we don't go around saying that golden girls was an inhrerent part of thinker.

The real problem here is that you, thinker, wanted to have it both ways. You can't say that the whitebark pine can exist without the nutcracker *and* also hold at the same time that the nutcrcker is inherent to the whitebark pine. Don't deny it. You yourself admitted that in a fit of optimism you imagined the long-term survival not depnding on the nutcracker. Clearly then, you were using a definition of whitebark pine that didn't rely on having nutcrackers around.

Now, adopt the definition lisa mentioned and the answer is pretty straightforward: you define a whitebark by the presence of nutcrackers. No nutcrackers, no whitebark pines. Very well then. Define it this way and the nutcracker is inherent.

BUT!

When the nutcracker goes extinct and someone comes to your door raising money for the whitebark pine make sure that you give them a hard time before they leave "here's some money to hand plant those trees... but let's not call them whitebark pines anymore. Let's call them something else."

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I suppose we could also think of it in terms of fuzzy sets. Lakoff talked about those. For example, looking at it one way we define mother as having any inherent properties. A prototypical mother is a biolgical female concieved you with your biological father and who is married to him, who took care of you as a child and cares about you and loves you deeply. But take any one of these legs away and the stool continues to stand up. An adopted mother can have nothing to do with you genetically, nor does a step mother. You don't even have to ever meet your biologicial mother, much less have her care for you. Etc.

So if you applied the Tommaso-Paul test of inherentcy you'd get that *nothing* was inhrerent to being a mother. Now that certainly sounds weird.

Paul said...

I'd have just defined "mother" as "a female parent". So being female would be essential, and being a parent would be essential, but we wouldn't have to sweat it over things like conception which, as you point out, are contingent features of motherhood.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

But how do you define "parent", Paul? I mean, contrast: a woman who donated the eggand carried it to term, a woman who raised the child as her own. Which one is the real mother? Well, it's not clear. One is the "adoptive mother", one is the "biolgical mother". Neither fully qualify as mother since they both need modifiers like "adoptive" and "biological". But both partially qualify as mother. If the child said "this is my mother" no one would blink an eye reguardless of which one the child was pointing to.

Lakoff's "Women, fire, and dangerous things" goes into this. it's an interesting topic.

Paul said...

I wouldn't say that adoptive and biological mothers both "partially" qualify as mothers, I'd say they both completely qualify as mothers. They have some features in common - namely, being female and being parents - but they also have additional features that aren't essential to motherhood. They "need" modifiers to distinguish them from one another, not to signify their deficiencies as mothers.

Similarly, there are tall bachelors and short bachelors, but we don't say that tall bachelors only partially qualify as bachelors.

I think the "real mother" issue is sort of a red herring - those sorts of conversations usually only arise in situations where there's a normative disagreement about the relative value of the roles being played by each mother. It's really just a convoluted way of talking about who is the better mother, not who is actually the mother.

Thinker said...

Like most words in the English language, mother and parent can be used in more than one sense. In this case both can be used in at least two different senses - biological and social.

When the biological and social mother/parent is the same person, there is no reason to distinguish between the two senses. In cases of adoption, IVF, or surrogacy, the roles are split - the genetic mother can be different from the birth mother, and both can be different from the sociological mother (the individual who raises the child).

In those cases, it is not that one mother is more or less real than another, just that different individuals play out different senses of the word mother.