Why Alpha Taxonomy is Better than Phylogenetics

Richard H. Zander

April 3, 2012


Res Botanica


Why Alpha Taxonomy is Better than Phylogenetics

Richard H. Zander, Missouri Botanical Garden, PO Box 299, St. Louis 63166


Alpha taxonomy and cladistics both attempt the devising of hypotheses about groups of organisms in nature. The hypotheses must be testable, relevant, preferably bold in the Popperian sense, and explanatory. There should be as few as possible that are supported by the same data. The simplest or most easily refutable can be tested first to minimize time and labor.


Abduction, as opposed to induction or deduction, is the process of creating testable hypotheses, usually through educated guesswork or a system of rules. A most impressive example of abduction is that of physicist Edward Tryon (Parker 1988: 190) who realized that the universe’s gravitational potential energy was exactly that of its mass energy, but negative, thus the net energy of the universe was zero. Thus, probabilistic vacuum quantum pair fluctuation could well have been the origin of the universe. A neat hypothesis like this is based on expertise and hundreds of years of standing on the shoulders of giants.


The “creative act” associated with intuition is well discussed by Springer and Deutsch (1993: 312), who give examples of major scientific discoveries associated with hypnagogic semi-dream states. Such eureka events, however, are cited as not “accidental or purely intuitive discovery.” Most are in a scientific context associated with a long term problem, with a background “set by years of rigorous work,” often with a latent period in which, apparently, the unconscious attends to the puzzle.


Alpha taxonomy has, in fact, this same background for its hypotheses, even the grounding in physics. A recent study (Zander, in preparation3) found that the metric dimensional paradigm in descriptions where a usual range of measurements is given along with ranges for extreme low and extreme high measurements in the form (low-)usual(-high), or (a–)b–c(–d). Analysis of actual measurements for several alpha taxonomic treatments of mosses showed that the ideal range proportion was represented by a Fibonacci series in powers of the golden ratio, or 1:1.62:1.6, or 1:2.6:1.6.  (Where 1.6 is approximately the golden ratio.) The geometric mean of the usual range was the same as the geometric mean of the full range including the extremes, which is expected statistically for ranges that cross most of a magnitude or with are a large proportion of the range from zero to the greatest extreme.


Alpha taxonomy is particularly good at identifying conservative expressed traits that are operative in signaling relationships in small or large groups, and in weighting traits according to their covariant value in discerning groups explainable by macroevolutionary transformations.


Morphological cladistics is good at creating branching trees by organizing complex data, but (1) usually weights all data the same, thus rejecting the special value of conservative traits as tracking evolution, and (2) globalizes traits, including the conservative, such that traits that do signal relationship in one group are necessarily forced to track relationships in another in which they may not be conservative. The best one can do is split the data sets into small groups, weight the data, and try to construct a natural key with more precision and detail than one could do without software.


Molecular analysis ignores the possibility of unsampled paraphyly and extended paraphyly by representing at least species and genera by one or few sampled specimens. Thus resolution of a molecular cladogram is not good, limited by the general extent of known paraphyly and extended paraphyly in related well-sampled groups (if there are any). The many possible alternative branching patterns supports many almost equally plausible hypotheses of relationship, and thus the abduction of hypotheses is less efficient than that of alpha taxonomy.


The comparatively large sampling involved in alpha taxonomy allows a focus on one best-by-far hypothesis for testing, in which case classification may be changed based on abduction. But the restriction of sampling distributions in molecular studies to one or very few specimens for species or genera makes changing classifications to reflect molecular cladograms a dubious practice.



Parker, B. 1988. Creation: The Story of the Origin and Evolution of the Universe. Basic Books, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Springer, S. P. & G. Deutsch. 1993. Left Brain, Right Brain. Fourth Edition. W. H. Freeman and Company, New York.