Certainty and Circularity in Evolutionary Taxonomy

Evolution 21 (1):174-189 (1967)
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Certain lines of reasoning common in evolutionary taxonomy have been termed viciously circular. They are quite obviously not logically circular. They do give the superficial appearance of epistemological circularity. This appearance arises from the method of successive approximation used by evolutionary taxonomists. It is argued that this method is not epistemologically circular, even when the only evidence that the taxonomist has to go on is the phenetic similarity of contemporary forms. The important criticism of evolutionary taxonomy is rather that in the absence of fossil evidence phyletic reconstructions are not warranted. It is argued that this charge stems initially from a misunderstanding of the kind of certainty possible in empirical science. When this criticism is couched in appropriate terms, it may be seen to have some force. Many phyletic inferences are not as warranted as one might wish. However, there is a great deal of difference between arguing that a line of reasoning is unwarranted and arguing that it is viciously circular.



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