Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 84.djvu/75

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71
THE BIOLOGIST'S PROBLEM

THE BIOLOGIST'S PROBLEM
By Professor T. D. A. COCKERELL
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO

THE problem is, to be free without being absurd. Confronted by a series of types, or a series of phenomena, one attempts to classify in an original and accurate manner. In the natural sciences, it is never possible to have the whole of the facts before us. Thus, in paleontology, there is never a complete series of fossiliferous strata; in taxonomy, the materials are always more or less insufficient and must be so. Moreover, were our series of specimens complete, we should still have to reason and speculate about their history and relationships. Still again, if we could assemble and correctly arrange all the data on a given subject, the borderlands of this subject would still remain nebulous, and this no matter how far our researches might extend, unless they compassed all reality, which is impossible.

Artificially, we devise a system which, bounding and restricting facts, gives us the appearance of great precision. We solemnly discuss whether this or that fact falls within this or that artificial category, as if the category were the more real and substantial of the two. We come to know our pigeon holes better than we know the pigeons which inhabit them; and as for those birds which nest in the trees or rocks, we will have nothing to do with them. Thus there arises a species of orthodoxy, quite analogous to that of the churches. A recent writer, referring to the desire of biologists to refer the vital phenomena of certain organisms to mechanical causes, frankly expresses the opinion that "this is a laudable desire." It is laudable to try to make your facts roost in the pigeon holes already provided, rather than elsewhere. In the classification of animals and plants, workers are sometimes divided into two camps, known as the lumpers and the splitters. The lumpers say, let us use large pigeon holes for our data; for all practical purposes, fine divisions are equally useless and unnecessary. The splitters say rather, let us discriminate as finely as we can; but even they have to draw the line somewhere. It is a singular thing that the lumpers actually pride themselves on their lumping; regard it as a virtue to ignore the little facts. The splitters are never quite so self-satisfied, because they are breaking new ground, and are not so sure of themselves. Nearly every naturalist has had a queer feeling when confronted by a long series of apparently new species; a sense of the uncanny, almost a