Cladism Goes To The Chair 02: The Cult And The Creed

Because they’re humans even cladist palaeontologists do learn a fair bit of obvious stuff; but without following scientific principles, at best it’s 19th century-style natural history they’re doing, not modern science. (Just one token, but classic, example amongst a host of other pseudoscience ‘principles’ these problem palaeontologists follow: their use of “proof” in the positive sense. This simply can’t be considered good science anymore. It’s an old bad habit, they’ve had enough time to learn better, and it causes far too many problems.) But that’s just one of a myriad errors. Because they’re doing historical science they can’t benefit from basic ‘learning by experience’ because you get no direct experience of prehistory. That’s why you need proper science on anything non-trivial.

They’re united by a few simple beliefs that they don’t understand the foundation for, but which helps bond them in their ignorance. Anyone who has any background in the technical area concerned can see their mistakes very clearly. They have faith – this is the right word for their predicament – in those computer generated family trees called cladograms. This gives them their group name: “cladists”, coined by the legendary Ernst Mayr. In fact the most legendary biologists all seem to have been anti-cladist, whatever their reasons and whatever side of other arguments they were on, whether it be Stephen J Gould or John Maynard Smith; John Ostrom or Alan Feduccia etc. Cladists have a terrible reputation in science that’s been recognised for so long that even back in 1988 David Hull analysed their cult in “Science as a Process”, and Elliott Sober the same year analysed and criticised the validity of their creed in “Reconstructing the Past”. (That was the non-cladist PDW year of course.) This whole business is understandable and explainable in terms of that cladist creed (a simple system of unifying beliefs that satisfies part of the psychological requirements for a well formed social group):

1: Cladograms are the only scientific approach to working out family trees, i.e. phylogeny.

2: This is justified by claiming they seek the simplest solution, and simplicity is science.

3: Anything else anyone attempts to use to help understand phylogeny must be vigorously branded as pseudoscience.

It’s easy to say “Simple Stuff for Simple Minds” but it’s an accurate and complete enough comment. In my book I explain why genuine experts don’t accept for one moment that simplicity IS science, any more than than ‘motoring IS tyres’. Cladograms have their uses and their problems, but they’ll never work unassisted for large-scale dinobird evolution because they’re poisoned by its parallel convergences. And that’s more of a fact than any principle ever espoused by a cladist. Science did exist before cladograms, and pretty well all of it still exists outside them: it involves finding and choosing the hypotheses that explain the best. It also helps to understand that the supposed experts that cladists have in mind at the root of their beliefs, whether they can name them or not, don’t demonstrate the expertise you’d expect from a research degree holder in the specialist subjects concerned. [see:- Cladism Goes To The Chair 04: Others’ Relevant Expertise Doesn’t Count]

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