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Tuatara: Volume 24, Issue 1, October 1979

Biological Systematics

Biological Systematics

In the author's words this book aims to be ‘a well-rounded introduction to the nature and promise of systematic research’. The scope of the book as indicated by the chapter titles suggests that the author has fulfilled his aims. There are chapters covering the historical development of systematics, speciation and the interpretation of contemporaneous species, phylogeny construction and fossils, biogeography, classification and the future of systematics. Examples from both the animal and plant kingdoms are used frequently to illustrate the various topics. Entomologists, in particular, will find the book of special interest as many examples are drawn from the author's own systematic work on leafhoppers and caddisflies.

As a reviewer I can only applaud Ross for drawing attention in this book to the work of scientific iconoclasts: Croizat in biogeography, Goldschmidt in evolutionary theory and Carey in geology. The valuable contributions of these workers have been too frequently ignored in the desert of neo-Darwinian ‘New Systematics’.

Somehow, one cannot but suspect that Ross, in attempting to cover the immense field of modern systematics in less than 350 pages, has had to be superficial in his treatment of certain areas. For instance the contributions of systemists who have espoused a non-evolutionary approach to the subject are glossed over or ignored. The important school of numerical pheneticists is dismissed in a couple of pages while the work of classical pheneticists such as R. E. Blackwelder and W. R. Thompson is not even discussed.

The chapter on systematics and its development is very disappointing. Not only are there errors of ‘historical fact’ (it was Weismann, not Cuvier as Ross claims, who attempted to refute Lamarckism by the removal of mice tails) but Ross perpetuates the Darwinian myth: Darwin as Galileo, Lamarck as Copernicus and Cuvier as the Church. I believe that the history of systematics in the nineteenth century was rather more complex than either Ross and others (e.g. Mayr and Simpson who write in the Harvard tradition of all that is not Darwinian in conception and origin is wrong) have made it out to be.

Although I found much to disagree with in this book, I did find it challenging reading. On those grounds alone I can recommend it to all biologists who are interested in systematics.

Robin C. Craw