A recurring question in both scientific and public discourse is whether any given property of an organism is innate or learned. This debate, usually framed in terms of Nature vs. Nurture, often centers around properties of human behavior and cognition: intelligence, language, morality, mathematics, and so on. But while this dichotomous framing perhaps seems obvious to us now, when did the question first arise? And is it really the best way to investigate these properties?
Science faces a replicability crisis. This is well-known among scientists and even the general public. Various explanations have been proposed as to the cause of this crisis – some of them on this blog – but these proposals have usually been informal in nature. Recently, two scientists (Smaldino & McElreath, 2016) built a computational model to explain the replicability crisis.
Science is a framework for understanding the world. We observe a phenomenon, ask questions about it, and build models to describe and predict it. Crucially, this process is iterative. We’re constantly refining our experiments, theories, and models, in an effort to improve our understanding of some phenomenon. Instead of accepting the results of a study as “fact”, we ask whether those results can be replicated reliably under similar and different conditions, what theories can be extrapolated from those results, and how we might extend those results to new domains or new questions.
Iteration is how science fosters dialogue. Without it, science isn’t really science; it’s just a bunch of people shouting over one another, with nobody listening. Or even worse, it’s like a game of telephone, in which nobody checks whether the last person got the message right.
People like to label things.
One of the best-known examples of a classification scheme is our biological taxonomy, which is meant to show the relationships of different organisms to each other. But no taxonomy is set in stone; even our biological taxonomy has undergone many changes in the last century.
This got me thinking: how does our method for classifying organisms work? And what’s the point of a taxonomy, anyway?