The Difficulty of Defining Species

Dawkins describes the difficulty of defining any species, with missing links making it possible at all; while Frederick William Andrewes describes the difficulty of classifying bacteria, where rapid evolution and gene swapping magnify the issues Dawkins describes.

Folksonomies: evolution biology species taxonomy

Species Divisions are Complicated

Zoologists have traditionally divided the vertebrates into classes: major divisions with names like mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Some zoologists, called \'cladists\',* insist that a proper class must consist of animals all of whom share a common ancestor which belonged to that class and which has no descendants outside that group. The birds would be an example of a good class. All birds are descended from a single ancestor that would also have been called a bird and would have shared with modern birds the key diagnostic characters - feathers, wings, a beak, etc. The animals commonly called reptiles are not a good class in this sense. This is because, at least in conventional taxonomies, the category explicitly excludes birds (they constitute their own class) and yet some \'reptiles\' as conventionally recognized (e.g. crocodiles and dinosaurs) are closer cousins to birds than they are to other \'reptiles\' (e.g. lizards and turtles). Indeed, some dinosaurs are closer cousins to birds than they are to other dinosaurs. \'Reptiles\', then, is an artificial class, because birds are artificially excluded. In a strict sense, if we were to make reptiles a truly natural class, we should have to include birds as reptiles. Cladistically inclined zoologists avoid the word \'reptiles\' altogether, splitting them into Archosaurs (crocodiles, dinosaurs and birds), Lepidosaurs (snakes, lizards and the rare Sphenodon of New Zealand) and Testudines (turtles and tortoises). Noncladistically inclined zoologists are happy to use a word like \'reptile\' because they find it descriptively useful, even if it does artificially exclude the birds.

But what is it about the birds that tempts us to hive them off from the reptiles? What is it that seems to justify bestowing on birds the accolade of \'class\', when they are, evolutionarily speaking, just one branch within reptiles? It is the fact that the immediately surrounding reptiles, birds\' close neighbours on the tree of life, happen to be extinct, while the birds, alone of their kind, marched on. The closest relatives of birds are all to be found among the longextinct dinosaurs. If a wide variety of dinosaur lineages had survived, birds would not stand out: they would not have been elevated to the status of their own class of vertebrates, and we would not be asking any such question as \'Where are the missing links between reptiles and birds?\'


The ancestors are birds are reptiles, but in the fossil record where do we draw the line between them?

Folksonomies: evolution species taxonomy


Are There Bacteria Species?

It may very properly be asked whether the attempt to define distinct species, of a more or less permanent nature, such as we are accustomed to deal with amongst the higher plants and animals, is not altogether illusory amongst such lowly organised forms of life as the bacteria. No biologist nowadays believes in the absolute fixity of species ... but there are two circumstances which here render the problem of specificity even more difficult of solution. The bacteriologist is deprived of the test of mutual fertility or sterility, so valuable in determining specific limits amongst organisms in which sexual reproduction prevails. Further, the extreme rapidity with which generation succeeds generation amongst bacteria offers to the forces of variation and natural selection a field for their operation wholly unparalleled amongst higher forms of life.


With their ability to trade genes and quick evolution, classifying bacteria into species is much more difficult than classifying other species.

Folksonomies: evolution species bacteria