A friend sent me a link to this long piece in The New Republic, What’s a species anyways?. Its subtitle is “The search for the red wolf’s origins have led scientists a new theory about how evolution actually works.” This is wrong. In fact, the article itself admits that there’s nothing revolutionary here. You just need to get to the second half of the piece, where the truth, as opposed to sensationalism, steps front and center. Many types of biologists have different ideas about what a species is. Often they are divided by disciplinary focus; phylogeneticists have different priorities than evolutionary geneticists. My friend John Wilkins wrote a book on the issue, top to bottom, Species: A History of the Idea. John’s a philosopher of science, so he has a precise take. Working biologists are often not so clear, and that’s sort of the point. In Speciation, a book co-written by two evolutionary geneticists (that you should read!), the authors are frank that their idea about what a species is is purely instrumental. That is, what are their end goals, and what does the species concept get us? The biological species concept, which for many is the species concept, is optimal for mammals. But less relevant to most of the tree of life, and even within mammals it’s not absolute, but just a rule-of-thumb.
Bob Wayne is almost certainly right that the red wolf is a stabilized hybrid to a first approximation. He has the best genomes in the business of canids that I know of, and his 48,000 study was broadly persuasive in any case. The major issue isn’t scientific, it’s political. The federal government needs a clear and distinct set of criteria for the Endangered Species Act, but species are not really a clear and distinct concept.
Ultimately the question has to be what’s the point? That’s really how biologists figure out what species concept to use. To put my cards on the table it strikes me that a more honest and useful end goal is to focus on an ecological species concept. That way government bureaucrats wouldn’t be reduced to arguments about “genetic purity.” And I say this as a geneticist!