The attitrion of taxonomic expertise

Alan Harvey aharvey at AMNH.ORG
Thu Oct 17 11:15:17 CDT 1996

James Lyons-Weiler wrote:
>Part of the reason why molecules have overrun morphology (which is clearly
>not dead!) is that statistical techniques have been devised to study the
>pattern in molecular characters with some degree of sophistication.
        I disagree with the causality here. Molecules overran morphology
long before the sophisticated statistical techniques arrived on the scene.
It's my impression that these techniques began to appear when the molecular
folks realized they needed to be able to explain unusual (i.e., highly
discordant with morphology) results, and could neither simply claim
inherent superiority of molecular data nor re-examine their characters in
the manner of a morphologist. For example, if my morphological data set
produces an odd result, I can identify the specific characters that support
the odd branches, and evaluate those characters (or any other, for that
matter) using either a priori or a posteriori criteria, and I can
re-examine the characters on the organisms with respect to homologies, etc.
Secondary structure (a recent and scarcely used development) aside, this
approach is not available for most molecular data sets.

        I'm NOT trying to start a "morphology vs. molecules" war here.
Rather, I'm interested in the historical question of why and how molecules
overran morphology, especially in light of the severe and worsening lack of
taxonomic expertise in most taxonomic groups.




Alan W. Harvey (aharvey at
Assistant Curator of Invertebrates
American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West at 79th Street
New York, NY 10024
(212) 769-5638; fax (212) 769-5783

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