Moving Past the Systematics Wars

Beckett Sterner, Scott Lidgard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


It is time to escape the constraints of the Systematics Wars narrative and pursue new questions that are better positioned to establish the relevance of the field in this time period to broader issues in the history of biology and history of science. To date, the underlying assumptions of the Systematics Wars narrative have led historians to prioritize theory over practice and the conflicts of a few leading theorists over the less-polarized interactions of systematists at large. We show how shifting to a practice-oriented view of methodology, centered on the trajectory of mathematization in systematics, demonstrates problems with the common view that one camp (cladistics) straightforwardly “won” over the other (phenetics). In particular, we critique David Hull’s historical account in Science as a Process by demonstrating exactly the sort of intermediate level of positive sharing between phenetic and cladistic theories that undermines their mutually exclusive individuality as conceptual systems over time. It is misleading, or at least inadequate, to treat them simply as holistically opposed theories that can only interact by competition to the death. Looking to the future, we suggest that the concept of workflow provides an important new perspective on the history of mathematization and computerization in biology after World War II.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)31-67
Number of pages37
JournalJournal of the History of Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2018


  • Cladistics
  • David Hull
  • Evolutionary epistemology
  • Mathematization
  • Numerical taxonomy
  • Workflow

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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