The attitrion of taxonomic expertise

Dennis Paulson dpaulson at MIRRORS.UPS.EDU
Thu Oct 17 09:54:28 CDT 1996

Alan Harvey wrote:

>        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.

One answer to this is that, even though systematics as such is undervalued,
*molecules* have great PR, as the study of them in any context parallels
the trend in biology to study molecules rather than plants and animals.
It's a world of increasingly large grants to increasingly fewer
investigators, and the larger grants are in part a consequence of the
tremendous costs of laboratory biology.  I agree with Doug Yanega; it seems
more likely that a grant will be funded if it involves big bucks for lab
equipment than a piddling sum for someone's salary, a microscope, an insect
net, and some pins and storage cabinets.  My wife works in a molecular
biology lab, and I agonize whenever she talks to me about her budgets.  I
could do several year's research for the cost of one of her minor pieces of
lab gear.  Her lab does important work on human ageing, but I'm not
convinced they've improved the state of science or humanity any more than
my work on dragonfly behavior/systematics, proportionate to money spent
(fortunately, our discussions about this are benign).

The loss of classical taxonomists is part of the larger picture of the loss
of naturalists and natural-history knowledge.  Read the editorial "The
naturalists are dying off" by Reed Noss in Conservation Biology 10: 1-3,
1996.  My university is just like many others these days, where a student
can get an undergradate degree in biology without knowing the name of a
single plant or animal.  Then some of these students end up working with
environmental firms or state or federal agencies, doing biodiversity
surveys and EISs.  The *depth* of their lack of knowledge is profound.  I
don't suppose any of them are going to become systematists....

There's no question that the advent of molecular systematics, while
extremely important, moved still another field further into the laboratory
and further out of nature.  There is a clear trend toward systematists
wearing lab coats rather than rubber boots.  I know full well there are
molecular systematists who are great naturalists and who spend a lot of
time in the field, but this doesn't change the overall picture.  For both
systematics and environmental biology, the world may be poorer for this
trend.  The solution seems easy:  train more people in classical
systematics, with a good founding in natural history, and these
systematists can then adopt molecular techniques as well to study their
organisms.  But as long as our society (=ourselves) undervalues natural
history as science, I think there's little hope to accomplish this.

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

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