Parsimony arguments

Alan Harvey aharvey at AMNH.ORG
Mon Oct 21 11:23:06 CDT 1996

Roger Hyam writes:
>My understanding of the problems in taxonomy are that the only way
>to carry out an alpha taxonomy is to spend some time getting it all
>in your head, do a bit of specimen shuffling, see them in the field
>and then write it all down. If you get time you can do a
>phylogenetic analysis of it as well (once everything is in nice
>little boxes that you can use as terminals). The problem is that for
>larger groups it may take longer than 3 years to get it all in your
>head. As it is rare for research grants to last for even three and a
>half years the larger groups just aren't going to be studied and the
>majority of "species" are in larger groups.
>What are we going to do about this?

I used to think that phylogenetic systematics, by virtue of its logical
superiority, repeatability, etc., etc., would help save alpha taxonomy,
because "people" (you know, non-systematists, particularly those that fund
grants and offer jobs) would recognize 1) these virtues, 2) the importance
of phylogenetic information to, well, all other biological disciplines, and
3) the absolute necessity of reliable alpha taxonomy to reliable
phylogenetic construction. Well, obviously THAT didn't happen! Furthermore,
while phylogenetic systematics is still regarded as "better" than alpha
taxonomy (I guarantee I wouldn't have gotten this job if I told them I was
going to spend my time describing new hermit crab species!), its standing
in the broader community isn't what it could be. I've given a talk recently
at a couple of universities on combining phylogenetic, developmental and
ecological information to examine the evolution of shelter use in hermit
crabs, and at both places folks told me that they were so grateful to see a
systematist doing something _useful_ with their phylogeny. In other words,
phylogenetic reconstruction is, at best, seen as an ends to some other
mean, but is not worthy of being an end in and of itself. We need to figure
out how to better present both alpha taxonomy and phylogenetic systematics
as worthy ends. One would have hoped that the biodiversity crisis would've
provided a shot in the arm for alpha taxonomy, at least, but I've seen no
sign of it.




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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