Phailure oph phenetics

Mon 24 Jan 2011 08:56 PM

My paper with Christy Mag Uidhir has finally appeared in Metaphilosophy.

Unfortunately, it's already one of those papers that I think about and cringe. Not for the paper altogether, but for one vocabulary failure. (Although it's a co-authored paper, the glitch that makes me cringe is totally my fault.)

In the paper, I use the word 'phenetic' to describe species concepts which distinguish species in terms of the characteristics of individual organisms. This reflects the dictionary definition of the word. The OED definition of 'phenetic', for example, begins: "Designating or relating to the classification of organisms on the basis of their observed similarities and differences..."

However, biologists and philosophers of biology use the word more narrowly to distinguish a specific movement: people who self-identified as employing a phenetic approach and who distinguished species just by doing statistical analyses of observable features. Reading the paper with this narrower reading in mind, the descriptions of species concept pluralism are just wrong.

My usage in the paper resulted partly from my being less familiar with the literature when writing it than I am now. The paper has been forthcoming for a long time.

Yet my usage also resulted from needing a word for the broader, dictionary sense of 'phenetic'. There are a whole range of character-based approaches which distinguish species in terms of features of individual organisms, including both pheneticists (in the narrow sense) and contemporary pattern cladists. These character-based approaches contrast with biological species approaches (which consider reproductive relations rather than characters of individuals), ecological approaches (which consider environmental relations), and evolutionary approaches (which consider historical relations).

As far as I can tell, there is no single word for 'character-based approaches' either in the biological or the philosophical literature. So the fact that I glommed onto 'phenetic' is not entirely vicious. (Boneheaded? Yeah, but not vicious.)

Moreover, this is really incidental to the paper. It could be rewritten in terms of 'character-based approaches' rather than 'phenetics'. The argument that Christy and I make about ART would go through regardless, and the paper is ultimately about ART.

I regret letting a paper out into the world with such an infelicity, however, and I hope that readers who notice it will be forgiving. And when I think about it, I'll cringe.

LATER: John Wilkins tried to write a comment, was thwarted by a glitch in my blog, and went to the trouble of contacting me by other channels. He writes: "I've done that myself, but that doesn't stop me from taking advantage of your mistake here." He went to great lengths to let me know that he was excoriating my article, and I appreciate that.