Friday, January 30, 2009

Shakespeare's catholic connection

Edmond Campion, honourable, but ultimately just another victim of the age of faith

For something completely different, I've been watching a DVD, In Search of Shakespeare, being the first two episodes of a series by that name. The second episode deals among other things with the lost years, now found, according to some scholars. It really is intriguing and highly plausible. It all seems to have started with a book written by E A J Honigmann, The Lost Years. He takes a fresh look at some intriguing old evidence from Lancashire, a town called Lea [which I've possibly tracked down as a part of Preston]. There, a gentleman named Alexander Hoghton mentions one William Shakeshaft in his will, written in August 1581 when Shakespeare would've been about seventeen. The will intriguingly speaks of play clothes and players, and the mention of Shakeshaft fits well with what we know of Shakespeare at the time:
And I most heartily require the said Sir Thomas to be friendly unto Fulk Gyllome and William Shakeshafte now dwelling with me and either to take them unto his service or else to help them to some good master, as my trust is he will
Hoghton was a Catholic, and in those difficult times, Catholics helped their own - for it's likely that John Shakespeare was a Catholic [evidence in fact having been found of this in the form of a Catholic tract secreted in the walls of his home.

Difficult times - the country having switched from Catholic to Protestant under Henry VIII and Edward VI, then back to Catholicism with a vengeance under Mary, and back to Protestantism under Elizabeth. Many Catholics naturally hoped that the tide would swing their way again. Meanwhile the Queen was demanding religious fealty, while the likes of Edmund Campion were demanding that Catholics declare themselves as those of the true faith. It was a tragic period, poisoned by religion. 

The story goes that young Shakespeare was a brilliant pupil, probably at Stratford's best school, King Edward VI Grammar, and destined to go on to university, like his precise contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, but for reasons unclear his father, who had been a prosperous glover and mayor of Stratford, suffered a collapse of fortune, which rather dampened Will's prospects. The theory has it that one of Will's schoolmasters, John Cottam, was an associate of Hoghton who returned to Tarnacre, only a few miles from Lea, probably in 1582 [Tarnacre seems also to be incorporated into Preston]. He is also mentioned in Hoghton's will. Cottam appears to have recommended Will as a tutor with impeccable Catholic credentials, one who could be trusted. Not that this is meant to suggest that William Shakespeare was then or at any time a strict Catholic. He was young and a survivor, and would've been happy to grab this opportunity, for the time being. 
It's an intriguing story, which fills out some of Shakespeare's life, to set against the Earl of Oxford legends etc. I'm vaguely wondering how the religious intrigues can be used by me in VersusReligion. Essentially these are political squabbles, but the religious passions make it all cut so much deeper, as in Northern Ireland. The beauty of Shakespeare's work and his gift, is that he seems so effortlessly to rise above it all. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

we three kings

billy the conk's dominions at his death

And what of the politics of the time, and its nexus with religion? If we focus only on England, and the eleventh century, we find, at the top of the political hierarchy, a succession of Saxon, Dane and Norman kings, all professing Christianity. The three most effective of these monarchs; Canute, Edward [the Confessor] and William [of Normandy] treated Christianity in quite different ways. Canute, a second-generation Christian who pilgrimed himself off to Rome halfway though his reign [he was rarely in England anyway due to his extra duties as King of Denmark and Norway], was, though a renowned warrior, quite possibly sincere in his belief. The famous story told of his humbling of himself before the waves has him saying something like   

Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings. For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey.

The scribe who captured these words for posterity hasn’t been identified. In any case poor old empty and worthless Canute didn’t show any sign of giving up his collection of earthly thrones. Yet he was generous to the English church, repairing and rebuilding churches and monasteries [many of them damaged by his own men] and building new ones. In alliance with Wulfstan, archbishop of York, he supported the popular monastic reforms of the time, begun by the celebrated Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, in the previous century. Once they’d won the patronage of the monarch, these ecclesiastical figures acted as virtual prime ministers at the time. Of course, their downfalls could be as swift as the sudden death or change of mood of their patron.

Edward the Confessor was of mixed background and mixed allegiances. He was the son of the Saxon king Ethelred, but his mother Emma was a Norman, sister to Duke Richard 11 of Normandy and great-aunt of William the Conqueror. After the death of Ethelred, Emma married Canute, through him giving birth to another son who would be king, Edward’s half-brother Harthacanute.

While still a young lad, Edward was taken to Normandy out of harm’s way by his mother. The Danes were making life hot for royalty in England. When Canute finally secured the English throne, he chose to marry Emma, but Edward stayed in Normandy until after Canute’s death, when he apparently returned to participate in an attempt upon the life of Canute’s son and successor, Harold Harefoot. This scheme failed, and Edward returned to exile, but was called back to the English court after Harold’s death, and was designated the successor to his half-brother Harthacanute, the new king. He succeeded to throne two years later, in 1042.

He didn’t have an easy time of it. The English nobility was at this time very powerful, and the most powerful noble was Godwin, whose daughter Edward married in 1045. Godwin had come to power largely through the patronage of Canute, and he represented the main oppositional force to the Normans Edward had installed at his court. There was also bad blood between Edward and Godwin because of the role Godwin played in having Edward’s brother tortured and killed. At one point Edward managed to have Godwin exiled but he returned soon afterwards and forced Edward to reinstate him as Earl of Wessex.

As to Edward’s celebrated piety, little is known for sure and it may well have been exaggerated. He’s famous for having contributed a famous religious monument, Westminster Abbey, to posterity, though it in fact existed before his time and was much rebuilt and remodelled afterwards.

William of Normandy, the conqueror of England in 1066, has less connection with religion than the other two, his reforms being more or less entirely secular. They included the introduction of a European feudal system, the increased administrative regulation of a political system that was already one of the most regulated and efficient in Europe, and the transformation of the aristocracy, as Saxon nobles were dispossessed and exiled in favour of William’s Norman cronies. However his connection with the Italian religious figure Lanfranc, with whom he had dealings in Normandy, helped him in the conquest of England. Lanfranc was an associate of Pope Alexander 11, and secured his blessing for the undertaking. Lanfranc later became William’s archbishop of Canterbury, and was an influential figure at court.

this being entry 2 of part 2


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

religion's no joke either

your typical Talmud scholar

There are many religions, extant or extinct, all with their supernatural beings and occurrences, their creation stories, their rituals and prohibitions. The most popular one in my part of the world is Christianity. Christians take the male god from the Judaic religion and believe that he had a son who he sent down [or up or across, but it apparently doesn’t matter] to the world [which we might now call the planet Earth] in order to have him killed for our sins. To wash away the sins of every human on our planet, I think. I may not have the story quite right, I don’t really understand the concepts involved, though I’ve read the New Testament a couple of times in different versions. In order to be a Christian you have to accept this son, Jesus, into your life, whether as a friend, a kind of guardian angel or a figure of adoration I’m not quite sure. If you do so you’ll have eternal life, apparently through the release, upon death, of a non-material [or perhaps meta-material] part or aspect of yourself, called the soul, which goes then to a better place, usually called Heaven.

Christians try to live by the teachings of the New Testament, the Gospels in particular. They believe – and I’m generalizing here – that the books of the New Testament, and the whole of the Bible, came from their god, who guided the hands of the scribes who actually physically wrote them. So these books are, in essence, an instruction manual for life presented to all humans by the god who created all life, and who, therefore, must know what he’s talking about.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,[2 Timothy 3:16 NIV]

There are some immediate problems with this belief, especially to those of us brought up with some familiarity with the scientific method, which has been applied not only to such physical phenomena as rocks and bones, but also to historical documents, myths and legends, sites of ancient civilizations and the like. For example, the claim that a god guided the writing of all the books of the Bible is very hard to test scientifically. Further, the writings that we find in the Bible don’t include all the writings referring to the god, who is usually called Yahweh, written in the period. It took a long time for the Bible to come together in the form in which we now know it, and there are still disputes and different versions. The process has been called the canonization of scripture. Just leaving aside the New Testament, the exclusively Christian collection of books [which are nevertheless meaningless without the Old Testament texts and the god depicted therein], the other books, which were canonized by the time Jesus allegedly made his appearance some 2000 years ago, have been divided into three sections, the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. The Jews call the Old Testament texts, collectively, the Tanakh. They order the texts differently from the Christians, but they’re the same texts. The Torah [Hebrew for instruction or teaching], the first five books of the Tanakh [Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – books known collectively by Christians as the Pentateuch], are regarded as the most sacred texts of the Jewish religion. This is already a problem, for me at least, for if all these texts are god-breathed how can some be more sacred than others? Perhaps sacred simply means important; but I doubt it. Jewish teachers and religious leaders [rabbis] have explained this by claiming that the Torah contains all that’s essential; the other Tanakh texts are really just god’s warnings and fulminations brought about by the failure of his people to keep to the Torah.

The scientific method, as mentioned, has been very effectively applied to ancient texts, to determine when they were written, and whether evidence can be found on the ground to support the actuality of the events they describe. It had been claimed for centuries by rabbis that the Torah was written by Moses, one of the principal characters in the texts – even though Moses’s death is described in Deuteronomy. Somewhat in contradiction to this, it’s claimed in the Talmud [a collection of writings on rabbinical law and Jewish custom written long after the Torah] that the Torah was written some two hundred years before the creation of the world, constituting a blueprint for that creation. This seems somehow unlikely. Although the scientific method has been around for quite some time, there has been a great deal of reluctance to allow it to be applied to texts regarded by some as sacred. This was, however, simply a matter of delaying the inevitable. It’s now generally accepted, contra the earlier rabbis, that the Torah and its companion texts were completed during the time of Persian occupation of the holy lands, between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE, though some of the writings are thought to date back as far as the tenth century BCE. They certainly were not written by one person. Furthermore, none of the events described in these writings have been backed up by any archeological or other historical findings. Yet despite this complete rout of any historical truth-claims in the Torah, the Jewish religion still persists, as does its highly idiosyncratic outgrowth, Christianity. The apparent  imperviousness of Judeo-Christianity – and I would contend of other religions too - to the scientific method is no joke.

Is it really impervious though?

This is section 2 of part one. It needs a bit of editing down, but I'm happy to keep things moving


Monday, January 26, 2009

science is no joke

The term science is not actually easy to define. Is it a method, an orientation, a set of tools, a body of knowledge or, as some people of faith describe it, just another faith? Some advocates would describe it as a form of inquiry for inquiry’s sake, free from ideological baggage or assumptions, getting up a head of steam as it burrows into things, developing strategies and tools as it goes along, modifying and adapting the tools and strategies of previous inquirers, often within other fields of enquiry, constantly diversifying and yet finding a loose unity in approach, a unity based on what works and bears fruit, which they’ve labeled the scientific method. Critics might respond that there’s no such thing as disinterested inquiry, that all observations are theory laden, that results are already determined by the methods used, methods based on assumptions about findings.

The arguments here can get very abstruse. Scientists, working now within a long-established tradition, just tend to get on with it. The result of their getting on with it is that, in the twenty-first century, we have a fair amount of scientific agreement on a spectacularly rich harvest of data with respect to the universe in which we live, the place of our planet in that universe, the nature of life on that planet, and the nature of our species within the frame of all life forms. It’s hard for us to imagine that, only a few hundred years ago, none of this data existed. Nor did air-conditioners, anesthesia, bicycles, blood transfusions, cars, computers, condoms, electric light, microscopes, movies, planes, refrigeration, robots, skin grafts, solar panels, submarines, vaccination or washing machines for that matter. The scientific method, and the technology derived from it, are so much a part of our everyday lives that we would be utterly bereft without them, a fact which so many of us take for granted it isn’t funny.

This is the first entry in part one, Science


no great shakes

in the early middle ages women practiced medicine as often as men, but with the growth of guilds and academies, women were sidelined

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, in the region loosely described as the West, religion has lost much of the political sway that it had 100, 200 or 400 years ago. Amongst other things, this has a lot to do with comfort levels. If you look around today, and you look back into history, you’ll find that by and large, religion is more vital and necessary to people whose lives are tough and thankless. If we could visit western countries or regions even further back – 1000 years ago say – we’d surely find it hard to connect the discovered lifestyles with anything we experience in 2009, and even bearing in mind the enormous condescension of posterity we would surely think the people of back then to be a scarily benighted lot. No flushing toilets [first known to have been used in the Indus valley civilization in the third millennium BCE, but the technology was lost when the classical era gave way to early Christendom], no books [not even Bibles, thankfully, though at around this time ‘libraries’ existed among Islamic sects in North Africa and the Middle East, with – extremely restricted  - lending rights], no hospitals [unless you were well-heeled, and those places, run almost entirely by monasteries, were fine for rest and recuperation, and some communal chanting, but not for too much else] and no nightclubs [well, probably not – we don’t know terribly much about medieval dance joints; in any case we’re still a few centuries early for the first big craze, the danse macabre]. Life, especially for the poor, was a bitch, and then you died, the life expectancy in Britain at the time being somewhere between twenty and thirty years. If the Vikings didn’t get you, the next famine would. 

The above constitutes an entry, probably the first entry, in part two of a new book I'm trying to write. It has the working title Versus Religion. Part one is called Science, as in Science versus Religion. Part two will be called Politics, or maybe Secularism. I'll be focussing on this project instead of my blogs, since nobody reads my blogs anyway. Time to go for publication again. I'll post much of the stuff on my blog anyway, just in case I get a nibble.

I like the idea of writing in bite-size pieces like this. 


Monday, January 12, 2009

Darwin's struggle

periplus: from Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore. He likes throwing in these bits of arcana. He's discussing a painting, what else, of Joseph Banks by Benjamin West; around him are the trophies oh his periplus, collected from around the Pacific. It comes from the ancient Greek, and is a description, generally in writing, of a shoreline itinerary.

I've been reading, inter alia, the biographies of Wallace and of Darwin, switching from one to the other, like channel hopping, and both men are putting jottings in their journals, Darwin in the late 1830s and early 1840s, Wallace in the mid to late 1850s, tantalising themselves with clues to the great mystery of species variation and connection. 

Now I've read the Darwin book - The Kiwi's Egg. The title refers to the flightless bird whose egg is almost monstrous in proportion to its body, so that the gestation period is long and presumably arduous. It's a metaphor for Darwin's dangerous idea, natural selection. 

One of the most interesting chapters deals with the doldrum period of natural selection - essentially between the publication of The Origin and the rediscovery of Mendel's work. This was touched on too in one of Gould's essays in Eight Little Piggies. Scientists weren't too happy about the toughness of natural selection, its wastefulness and brutality, and some of them didn't want to relinquish the creator, who must be benevolent. Darwin's insistence that there was no deterministic or goal-oriented element in evolution was very much out of step with his time. All sorts of problems were raised - that the planet was too young to have allowed for all that slow evolution [Lord Kelvin's  point of attack, since refuted with the advent of radiometric/isochron dating], that blending inheritance [much touted at the time] would dilute the selected traits over time [since refuted by Mendelian genetics], that soft inheritance [neo-Lamarckism] was more prevalent than inheritance by natural selection, that orthogenesis [an evolutionary approach based on linearity but which could not reveal its mechanisms] was the thing, and so on. Yet the theory of evolution by natural selection has managed to emerge more or less triumphant. 

Interesting reflections on Darwin and Wallace. Darwin the procrastinator, nervous about the implications of his views, finally pushed into action by the emergence of Wallace’s work. Wallace the man in a hurry as he called himself, talking about his theory before he had well worked out the detailed mechanism. Imagine if their positions were reversed – if Wallace had been the older man, travelling on the Beagle, and Darwin the later impoverished Amazonian adventurer. Something like the theory of natural selection, perhaps under a different name, would have emerged as early as 1840, and Darwin would hardly be known at all. But such hypothetical reversals are of course impossible. 


Sunday, January 11, 2009

on to meta-Lamarckism?

Ted Steele at the launch of his book lamarck's signature

Anchsluss: Generally the term used for the merging of Austria into greater Germany in 1938, which was a stepping stone for other incorporations or annexations [the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, the Memelland in Lithuania] prior to WW2.

Neo-Lamarckism, etc continued

Arguably this is a minor error – Weismann certainly did propose that the germ cells alone [the gametes] were the carriers of inheritance [he wouldn’t have called it genetic inheritance], influencing the formation of all the somatic cells to follow, but unable to be influenced by them. Lamarckian evolution must require changes in somatic cells to be transmitted to the germline. The Weismann barrier, if it exists, specifically rules out such transmission, thus ruling out the possibility of Lamarckian evolution.

Dawkins doesn’t explicitly mention the Weismann barrier in his attempted refutation of Lamarckism. He takes a different tack, referring to two ways of looking at the relationship between the germline and the fully fledged organism, preformationism and epigenesis, which he in turn describes as the blueprint model versus the recipe model - and basically he characterizes the preformationist/blueprint model as wrong. 

The idea is that the blueprint model argues that the germline cells somehow contain a blueprint or one to one correspondence for the differentiated somatic cells that are generated from them, whereas the correct model sees those cells as containing a recipe for that differentiation. 

Epigenesis dates back, in most rudimentary form, to Aristotle, but fell out of favour with the dominance of Christian creationism, and the different ways of understanding the problem are still infected by metaphysical/religious biases:

where preformation stated that the germ cells of each organism contain preformed miniature adults that unfold during development, epigenesis held that the embryo forms by successive gradual exchanges in an amorphous zygote. Although both traditions tried to explain developmental organization, religious and metaphysical arguments on the conception of embryonic matter as either active or passive determined the scope of their respective explanations. It is shown that these very arguments still underlie the use of gene-centric metaphors in the molecular revolution of the 20th century. 
Dawkins's argument is that Lamarck's theory relies on a preformationist version of embryological development. As he puts it,

Embryonic development is a process, in which all working genes participates; a process which, if correctly followed in the forward direction, will result in an adult body; but it is a process that is inherently, by its very nature, irreversible. the inheritance of acquired characteristics not only doesn't happen: it couldn't happen in any life-form whose embryonic development is epigenetic rather than preformationistic. 
Dawkins is clearly relying here on the Weismann barrier, which Ted Steele is claiming, at the very least, isn't as absolute as once thought. He's claiming that a new meta-Lamarckism, incorporating both Lamarckian and Darwinian principles, will provide our best understanding of more rapid evolutionary development. Steele's theory of reverse transcription from the somatic cells to the germline, which has of course proved very controversial and has stifled his career as a molecular immunologist through the eighties and nineties, has received some research support in recent years, with Drs Corrado Spadafora and Patrick Fogarty both independently verifying the inheritance of non-germline genetic information - in mice in Fogarty's case, and in 30 diverse species according to Spadafora. Obviously, I'm no scientist and it would be better to follow the research data yourself [anyone who ever reads this], but I may write again about this intriguing issue in order to master it to some limited degree. 


Monday, January 05, 2009

neo-Lamarckism and neo-Darwinism, mainly

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, sittin and thinkin in front of the jardin des plantes, Paris

Oikumene: As used in Karen Armstrong's A History of God, the Oikumene is the Greco-Roman world or civilisation, blended with Christianity. Within the Greco-Roman tradition it refers to the 'whole world', as opposed to the barbarian fringes which were regarded as not really of this world. The derived term ecumenical takes a more modern meaning of the world; creating a religion for all the world and all ages.

Axial age: a term coined by Karl Jaspers, referring roughly to the period immediately preceding the Oikumene, the era that according to him, gave birth to philosophy, but also many of the 'great' religious writings. 

I've wanted for a while to write about Lamarckism as a subject in the history of evolution, a faulty precursor to the theory of natural selection, and my recent reading of The Blind Watchmaker and especially its final chapter, 'Doomed rivals', has spurred me on, but I've been thrown into a bit of a tizz by listening to Radio National's 'Okham's Razor' the other day. The speaker, Ross Honeywell, wasn’t a scientist, and when he started going on about neo-Darwinian dogmatists and the unchallengeable orthodoxy I was ready to switch off after just having tuned in [I didn’t even know it was Okham’s Razor at first, I thought it was one of those summer season new-age crank shows].

Then the name Lamarck came up. As Honeywell pointed out, all too rightly, Lamarck has received a raw deal from history. An outstanding pioneering biologist [and apparently the first user of the term ‘biology’], founder of invertebrate zoology – the term ‘invertebrate’ was also his coinage – he came up with a theory of evolution via the inheritance of acquired characteristics that seemed plausible, and even self-evident on reflection, to most nineteenth century naturalists, including Darwin himself.

But Honeywell was saying far more than that Lamarck was not just a failed theorist. He was saying that recent evidence showed that some characteristics, acquired during a lifetime, could be passed on to the next generation.  Further, he seemed to be saying that the neo-Darwinists were out to suppress and belittle this evidence. Naturally I was sceptical. Dawkins’s treatment of Lamarckism was pretty damning, or seemed so to a layman like myself. Was it too damning, though? Was there a dogmatism I hadn’t noticed within the careful argumentation?

So I thought I would look again at what Dawkins had to say about Lamarckism in the light of Honeywell’s claims. Dawkins isolates two related elements of Lamarck’s theory adopted by his modern followers; the theory of acquired characteristics and the principle of use and disuse. I’m essentially focussing on the former. One example Dawkins gives is that of the soles of the feet becoming tough and horny after a lifetime of walking on hard stony ground. It was thought that the offspring would acquire tougher soles as a result. Dawkins’ response is that no proof has ever been given that such characteristics are inherited. Presumably the soles of babies born to tough-soled parents are no tougher that those born to soft-soled sedentary parents. In fact, according to Dawkins, no evidence of the inheritance of any acquired characteristic has ever been provided, though he is quick to point out that it may be provided in the future, and Lamarck will then regain his prestige and stand up there with Darwin, for the two theories are quite compatible.

But Dawkins seeks to refute Lamarckism more thoroughly by means of embryology. Honeywell also speaks of embryology, without using the term, when he introduces a concept known as the Weismann barrier. Unfortunately, Honeywell’s description of the concept is clearly flawed and brings out my sceptical antennae.

 For neo-Darwinists, hereditary information comes only from DNA in our sex cells: our germline. Our body cells, the building blocks of our entire being, have no say in the matter whatsoever. It's a one-way street with a brick wall at one end. This is known as the Weismann Barrier, named after the 19th century biologist August Weismann, who proposed that DNA in those very few sex cells, sperm and eggs, remains unchanged as a repository of the instructions that determine the next generation.

The flaw being that Weismann, who died in 1914, proposed nothing about DNA because nothing was then known about the properties of DNA [called nuclein when it was first discovered in the nineteenth century], and little was known about genes in general.

 To be continued.


Friday, January 02, 2009

exercising body and mind, largely in vain

willi hennig

I've managed to do 15 kms on the exercise bike for three days in a row now, and my daily steps aren't bad, but my weight keeps increasing. Probably better to measure it weekly rather than daily. Starting to obsess over this, but I really look terrible. Some recent photos have shocked me to the core.

Monroe doctrine. Propounded in 1823 by the USA's 5th President, it was designed to impede any further encroachments on New World territory by European colonial powers - especially Spain. It was audacious for the time, as the USA was hardly then in a position to back up its hand off policy. Niall Ferguson mentions it in the context of Japan's Chinese adventurism of the thirties, in which there might've been a whiff of their proclaiming some sort of Asian Monroe doctrine against Western powers - but with much less likelihood of success. 

2009 is a big year science-wise. It's a big Darwin year of course [I think I've already mentioned that here] and I hope to continue to educate myself [and my many readers] on evolutionary matters throughout the year. Also, 2009 is the year of astronomy. Four hundred years ago, in 1609, Galileo reflected that a new invention, the telescope, could be refined and developed and pointed at the night sky. In so doing he explored for the first time the surface of the moon, observed that the so-called milky way was made of stars, and discovered those moons of Jupiter now called the Galilean moons. Modern astronomy was born.

So to today's topic in evolution: cladistics.
This is a massively complex topic in fact, so I'll just deal with it skimmingly. Cladistics is a taxonomic system based on evolutionary relationships between species. In recent years it has become the predominant taxonomic system. The term clade was first used by Julian Huxley in 1958, but the real 'architect' of the system was Willi Hennig, who began developing the system, which he called phylogenetic systematics, while a POW of the British at the end of WW2. 

The recent success of cladistics owes much to developments in biochemical analysis. The term clade is ancient Greek for branch, and cladograms are trees of connection between species and their common ancestor. The major difference between cladistics and the Linnaean [or neo-Linnaean] taxonomic approaches are that cladistics is strictly about phylogeny, rather than simply observed similarities between species. Cladistic branching can be enormously complex, so much so that the old classifications [family, order, phylum, etc], which suggest that a few fixed levels can be sufficient, has been rendered obsolete. Cladistics presents a more open classification, which can be filled out as more knowledge comes to light. This knowledge can be gleaned from the fossil record, but DNA/RNA sequencing has increased our knowledge of the relations between existing species considerably. 
A clade is also known as a monophyletic group. Other more inclusive groups are discouraged in cladistic classifications.
Finally, taxonomy is something of a ding-dong battleground, a bit like some branches of linguistics, so there are plenty of critics of cladistics out there. Also, there's a question about whether it will ever fully replace the Linnaean system on the popular, lay level.

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