What are we going to do about this?

Dennis Paulson dpaulson at MAIL.UPS.EDU
Fri Oct 25 14:49:48 CDT 1996

I just got a brochure from Norman Myers, the "internationally renowned
environmentalist."  He'll come and give a lecture to your group for $1500.
Dr. Myers is of course a very valuable person in the environmental
movement, but I draw two conclusions from this.  First, fame is fortune.
Second, if you're worth $1500 as a speaker, you must have something
worthwhile to say, so people will pay attention to you.  Why should there
be so few such people in our field of biology?  E. O. Wilson is one of the
few systematists who can name his fee for speaking engagements (and he does
a lot of things in addition to systematics).  The other relatively famous
biologists who aren't in the molecular/medicine sphere are people who have
studied fancy animals (Jane Goodall) or preach about environmental problems
(Paul Ehrlich).  You even see them on TV programs.  They have also written
books that the PUBLIC can enjoy and understand.  Read that last sentence
again for emphasis.

I think one road to the kind of success we are hoping for is to produce
more "famous" (known to the public) taxonomists and then let them be our
spokespersons.  I think this is not at all absurd, because the discovery
and naming of new creatures has quite a bit of inherent glamor.  I'm sure
there is a need out there for major TV specials on undiscovered biota, of
which our world is so full--in fact, let's convince David Attenborough of
the need for such a series!  The Unknown World of Nature.  The field of
taxonomy should be able to cash in in a big way on the publicity of all the
newly discovered mammals in Vietnam, for example.

Unfortunately, this involves a certain amount of unabashed egotism and
willingness to try to sell oneself to sell one's product, and most of us
ivory-tower types aren't very good at this.  Down with humility--it's time
for a little grandstanding!

I agree entirely with Martin Dube that large research centers should take a
part in supporting taxonomy, but, from anything I know about human nature,
there's little chance that any of those research centers would support
taxonomists who weren't associated with the center.  In fact, this sounds
much like the situation elsewhere in biology, in which the biggest
institutions get *all* the pie, not just their share.  And I disagree
entirely with his implication that we shouldn't look to other ways to
improve our lot.  I'd even try selling chocolate bars, if it wasn't that I
would eat up my inventory too quickly.

Dennis Paulson, Director                           phone 206-756-3798
Slater Museum of Natural History                 fax 206-756-3352
University of Puget Sound                       e-mail dpaulson at ups.edu
Tacoma, WA 98416

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