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History as Font of Lessons (Isis, Pt. 3) July 25, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Santayana, yadda, yadda… This afternoon I’m going to write about Andrew Hamilton and Quentin Wheeler’s “Taxonomy and Why History of Science Matters for Science: A Case Study”, which derives lessons from the history of numerical taxonomy (phenetics) for the future of DNA bar-coding. I wasn’t aware of phenetics, which seems to have been a mid-century attempt to measure living things and then group them without recourse to any overarching theory. This has intriguing parallels to the mathematics of the Bourbaki collective that I won’t go into (and don’t actually know much about), but I just wanted to throw that out there. The big point here is that the phenetics movement precipitously collapsed after its haphazard data-collecting failed to produce a believable taxonomy, and the authors argue that the same could happen to DNA bar-coding, which uses DNA arrangements to draw relationships between different organisms.

The first point I’d like to address is the use of the lesson from history. In my first post in this series, I discussed the use of history by filmmakers. Here I’m more reminded of the constant use of history in politics, which is notoriously dicey in its deployment of analogies with past events. Here in America we’re being subjected to fairly sophisticated historical analyses on a daily basis as the Presidential campaign goes forward. Inevitably, we learn why the strategies being deployed are similar to Reagan vs. Carter in 1980 or Nixon vs. Kennedy in 1960, and so on… I think, as with filmmakers using history, this is both inevitable and healthy, but there’s a difference. (more…)