Biography26 Jul 2010 11:26 am
The Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus remains one of the most important figures in the history of science. The system of Latin names still used today — for everything from “Paramecium aurelia” to “Homo sapiens” — is indebted to his original system, as laid out in his 1735 book “Systema Naturae.” But can individual organisms really be divided so neatly into “species”?
The Austrian-English philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would have argued “no.” In 1953, he published his magnum opus, the “Philosophical Investigations.” It’s a favorite work of Devoted Intellectuals, but Wittgenstein’s subtle ideas still haven’t made their way into the mainstream, the way that Linnaeus’ have. The idea with the greatest bearing on the “system of nature” is what Wittgenstein called “family resemblance.” Here’s his description, in the context of classifying and defining “games”:
“Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? — Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ “-but look and see whether there is anything common to all. — For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!
“Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships.
“Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear.
“When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.– Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis.
“Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! sometimes similarities of detail.
“And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.
“And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and cries-crossing: sometimes overall similarities.” (I.66)
So if all “games” don’t have one or a few specific things in common, how do we know to call these various activities by the same name? In the next section, Wittgenstein proposes a brilliant solution:
“I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and cries-cross in the same way.-And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.” (I.67)
This is one of Wittgenstein’s most influential ideas, but it has never been rigorously applied to the field of biology. Should we stop thinking of “species” in terms of rigid hierarchies — and Linnaeus’ systems — and start building networks of “family resemblance”?
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