Indigenous and Scientific Kindsby David Ludwig

The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science


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Indigenous and Scientific Kinds

David Ludwig


The aim of this article is to discuss the relation between indigenous and scientific kinds on the basis of contemporary ethnobiological research. I argue that ethnobiological accounts of taxonomic convergence–divergence patters challenge common philosophical models of the relation between folk concepts and natural kinds. Furthermore, I outline a positive model of taxonomic convergence–divergence patterns that is based on Slater’s ([2015]) notion of ‘stable property clusters’ and Franklin-Hall’s ([2015]) discussion of natural kinds as ‘categorical bottlenecks’. Finally, I argue that this model is not only helpful for understanding the relation between indigenous and scientific kinds, but also makes substantial contributions to contemporary debates about natural kinds. 1. Universalist Realism 2. Revisionism 3. Conventionalism 4. A Model of Convergence–Divergence Patterns 5. Domain Transcendence and Categorical Bottlenecks 6. Convergence and Natural Kindness

While philosophical debates about natural kinds often involve folk-biological examples such as ‘tiger’ or ‘fish’ (for example, van Brakel [1992]; Dupre´ [1999];

Soames [2004]; Khalidi [2013]), there is a surprising lack of philosophical engagement with ethnobiological research on folk-biological taxonomies (Berlin [1992]; Ellen [2006]; Hunn and Brown [2011]). Instead, philosophers usually restrict themselves to conceptual analysis of folk-biological terms in ordinary English and do not even take notice of the vast empirical research literature on the complex biological knowledge of indigenous societies.

The aim of this article is to introduce this literature to current debates about natural kinds and to develop a general model of the relation between indigenous and scientific kinds.

Sections 1–3 discuss three models of the relation between indigenous and scientific kinds that are implicit in the current literature on natural

Brit. J. Phil. Sci. 0 (2015), 1–26  The Author 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of British Society for the Philosophy of Science. All rights reserved.

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The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science Advance Access published July 9, 2015 at M ount R oyal U niversity on July 15, 2015

D ow nloaded from kinds: (1) universalist realism, which assumes that indigenous and scientific taxa refer to the same natural kinds; (2) revisionism, which argues that indigenous taxa diverge from scientific taxa because they fail to refer to natural kinds; (3) conventionalism, which suggests that divergence of indigenous and scientific taxonomies undermines the very idea of natural kinds and illustrates the conventional character of biological classifications. I argue that none of these models provide a satisfying interpretation of the ethnobiological evidence about taxonomic convergence–divergence patterns. In Section 4, I present Slater’s ([2015]) account of ‘stable property clusters’ (SPCs) as the starting point for a more comprehensive model. Slater argues that SPCs exhibit a ‘cliquish stability’ that allow probabilistic inferences from the presence of some sub-clusters to the presence of others. I suggest that this cliquishness of SPCs can explain convergence of indigenous and scientific taxa but also leaves room for various forms of taxonomic divergence. Section 5 suggests that an adequate model of convergence–divergence patterns requires an extension of this model through a concept of domain-transcending SPCs and ‘categorical bottlenecks’ in the sense of Franklin-Hall ([2015]). Section 6 evaluates the relevance of these findings for contemporary debates about natural kinds. 1 Universalist Realism

Although there is a striking lack of philosophical engagement with ethnobiological research, universalist realism can be motivated by philosophical debates about the relation between folk concepts and natural kinds in the tradition of Kripke and Putnam. The common picture of a ‘Kripke–Putnam view’ of natural kinds is not without problems (cf. Hacking [2007a]; Williams [2011]; Wikforss [2013]), but I will ignore these difficulties and only focus on the core idea that natural kind terms, like names, are rigid designators. The idea of rigid designation is usually applied to folk categories such as ‘gold’, ‘water’, or ‘tiger’, and can support a realist interpretation of indigenous taxa even in the light of substantial differences between indigenous and scientific beliefs about biological kinds. For example, a folk biologist may successfully refer to a natural kind such as ‘tiger’ even if she has very limited knowledge or even seriously flawed beliefs about tigers. In analogy, consider names as rigid designators: I can successfully refer to Shakespeare even if I have very limited knowledge or even seriously flawed beliefs about Shakespeare.

If we turn from philosophy to ethnobiology, it is attractive to combine the idea of rigid designators with the ‘intellectualist’ tradition in ethnobiology (Berlin [1992]; cf. Hunn [2007] for the historical context) that postulates a universal framework for folk-biological taxonomies. According to Berlin et al. ([1973]), folk taxonomies are based on a hierarchical system of ranks that defines sets and subsets. All natural languages contain linguistically

David Ludwig2 at M ount R oyal U niversity on July 15, 2015

D ow nloaded from recognizable groups of organisms that vary in their inclusiveness: the most inclusive taxa (‘unique beginners’) denote animals or plants in general, and are divided in usually not more than six life forms such as ‘bird’, ‘tree’, ‘mammal’, or ‘vine’. Generics are the most salient entities that refer to natural kinds such as ‘oak’, ‘pine’, ‘catfish’, ‘robin’, ‘bamboo’, ‘pineapple’, and ‘platypus’. Many, but not necessary all, generics belong to a life form. According to Berlin, generics also constitute the most numerous and important taxonomic group with usually around five hundred different taxa. Some generics contain further subsets that Berlin et al. label ‘specific’ (for example, ‘white oak’) and ‘varietal taxa’ (for example, ‘swamp white oak’). To sum up, Berlin et al. postulated a universal hierarchy of folk taxonomies as shown in Figure 1.