Status of plant systematics

Thomas G. Lammers lammers at FMPPR.FMNH.ORG
Thu Aug 28 06:45:30 CDT 1997

At 03:43 PM 08-27-97 -0700, Curtis Clark wrote:

>I agree with much of what you say, and your reasoning about the previous
>intractability of family-level questions makes good sense. (I might add to
>that the observation that species-level problems are commonly proving
>intractable with the current set of molecular tools.)

Yes, that's true, though it seems only a matter of time before genes are
found that will yield suitable data at this level.
>I'm not quite as pessimistic, however, because in *my* experience of
>meetings (my first ASPT in 1975), there have always been clueless graduate

Well, that's certainly true.  And to be certain, there were several talks at
the meetings that included molecular data that were masterpieces of the
synthetic art -- everything good taxonomy should be.  The old adage is true:
a tool is only as strong as the workman who wields it.  ("A fool with enough
money can buy anything he wants -- however, he's no less a fool." -- Henry
Gregor Felsen).

> and there have often been vogue techniques. I remember when 75%
>(perhaps I exaggerate) of the papers were chemosystematic, and
>chemosystematics was being pushed as the solution to all our problems.

Very true.  A point Dr. Kruckeberg's essay addresses well, and which is also
highlighted in an excellent essay by Duane Isely entitled "Plant Taxonomy:
Sequential Saviors"  [pp. 473-475 in A. E. Radford, Fundamentals of Plant
Systematics (Harper & Row, New York, 1986)]; I highly recommend it.

> Many
>of those chemo grad students, the ones more focused on blots than on
>plants, faded from view, but others are now among the top people in the
>profession (one of their professors just got the Asa Gray award).

>What I noticed at the meeting, and elsewhere recently, was an increasing
>perception of the limitations of molecular studies, and carefully
>constructed ways to get around them. DNA systematics is maturing, and those
>grad students who knew much of sticks and little of either plants or
>nucleic acids won't have a place at this new table. I agree that we need to
>nurture diversity, but I think in this case it's "rare" but not "endangered".

Yes, I saw this too, and took some hope from it, but it seemed to me the
exception and not the rule.   Still, I'll go along with your assessment that
it's not endangered -- yet.  Perhaps we could settle on rating it "of
special concern"?


Thomas G. Lammers

Classification, Nomenclature, Phylogeny and Biogeography
of the Campanulaceae, s. lat.

Department of Botany
Field Museum of Natural History
Roosevelt Road at Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, Illinois 60605-2496 USA

e-mail:     lammers at
voice mail: 312-922-9410 ext. 317

"One must remain aware of the
 real-world consequences of his philosophies."

                -- Phil Mole

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