What taxonomy is and is not

Harvey E. Ballard, Jr. hballard at STUDENTS.WISC.EDU
Fri Dec 20 10:04:46 CST 1996

For myself, I disagree that taxonomy (or, in the broader sense,
systematics) is only the naming of organisms.  One fundamentally important
aspect of taxonomy is to assign names to organisms.  Our seeming quibbling
over particular issues represents discussions of details that will
ultimately serve--hopefully--to help stabilize nomenclature, which is also
within the realm of taxonomy and, in itself, a worthy end since all other
disciplines dealing with biological organisms depend on our nomenclature
(whether they know it or not).

A related and far more important function of taxonomy is to CHARACTERIZE
the diversity of life on the planet and, where possible, EXPLICATE
RELATIONSHIPS among them.  This is hardly just "naming the organisms for
other biologists".  While I use the tools of other disciplines to do this,
I devalue and demean my own science (or art) by saying that I merely serve
other scientists.  I take seriously the contributions to society and to
other biologists that I make by naming and characterizing the diversity of
plant groups in which I specialize, or I wouldn't continue doing
monographic and floristic treatments and systematic studies of particular
complexes--practices whose worth are misunderstood by many biologists and a
significant segment of the population.  We do a horrible disservice to our
own profession and the esteem of our work by conveying the misguided notion
that we "only provide names" to things.  I confess that I have a much
broader viewpoint of taxonomy/systematics than that, and if it were only
name-giving I wouldn't be doing it.  Taxonomy does, and should, provide a
critical window onto the biodiversity of the earth.  If we aren't
successfully proselytizing the fundamental importance of the work we do in
naming, characterizing and discerning the relationships (and even inference
of evolution) of the world's biota to other biologists and to the masses in
general, all of whom depend on what we produce, then we will deserve the
demeaning and wholly inaccurate portrayal of our work as "name-giving" and
we can expect commensurate rewards for such trivial pursuits.

That so much money goes to studies that one may well regard as one small
facet of systematics, e.g., phylogenetic investigations of particular
groups which I regard as a luxury in the face of the biodiversity crisis,
and this at the expense of characterizing the biota on which the studies
are done, suggests that many of us taxonomists/systematics have NOT been
successful at advocating the fundamental importance of our work to others.
As I've mentioned before, in perhaps less strident terms: who is assisting
with defining adequate taxon sampling and identifying the taxa of the study
groups and ascertaining the correct application of names and characterizing
the resulting taxa recognized in molecular phylogenetic studies?  If the
investigators are not conducting the necessary monographic and
nomenclatural studies needed for study groups and outgroups to relieve the
problem of taxon sampling and inaccurate identification of study organisms,
then they need a specialist [= a real taxonomist] to collaborate with them.
In my mind, any species-level phylogenetic study that doesn't involve such
"front-end" background research yields dubious results.  And on top of
that, how many phylogenetic studies directly result in taxonomic treatments
that reevaluate all taxa?  Count them on one hand.  While I also engage in
phylogenetic research on my own favorite group, I also recognize that it's
still a luxury, and that the clock is ticking on the plant taxa still out
there awaiting even the first attempts at alpha-taxonomic effort before
they are wiped off the face of the earth.

Sorry for my soapboxing (again).  I simply dislike hearing an inaccurate
and demeaning reduction of the rich and varied--and fundamentally
important--field of taxonomy (or, if you prefer, systematics) which gives
me so much pleasure and through which I feel that I make my own unique gift
to the world.

Enough caustic tongue from me today!

I wish a healthy, peaceful and contented holiday season, with plenty of
time (OK, at least a LITTLE time) with loved ones, to all of you on
TAXACOM.  You've enriched my life a bit and I'm grateful for your patience,
encouragement, sharing and help.

My best to you,
Harvey Ballard


Harvey E. Ballard, Jr.
Postdoctoral Research Assistant, Agricultural Research Service, USDA
Horticulture Department, 1575 Linden Drive, Madison WI 53706
Tel: (608) 262-0159; FAX: (608) 262-4743
Honorary Fellow, University of Wisconsin Herbarium, Botany Department
132 Birge, 430 Lincoln Drive, Madison, Wisconsin 53706
Tel: (608) 262-2792
email: hballard at students.wisc.edu

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