Status of plant systematics

Thomas G. Lammers lammers at FMPPR.FMNH.ORG
Wed Aug 27 15:27:50 CDT 1997

          "[At] the 1996 meetings of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists
             ... Most contributed papers were lock-step following the
current fashion
             -- molecular systematics and phylogeny.  ... I want to call
into question
             the effects these preoccupying fashions have on the training of
             aspirants in taxonomy.  ... Will the 'gel-jocks' be able to key
out a plant
             or recognize a phlox from a penstemon?  And even if  they may still
             possess these venerable skills, will they take the time away from
            electrophoretic grantsmanship to keep 'field-fit'?"

                                        -- A. R. Kruckeberg, Systematic
Botany 22(1): 181. 1997.

Just back from the 1997 edition of the same meetings, I found Dr.
Kruckeberg's essay to be of more than a little interest.   At the risk of
coming across as a fossilized curmudgeon, I thought I would deposit my two

Anyone in attendance, or glancing at the abstracts (American Journal of
Botany 84 (6, Suppl.):170-253. 1997), will see that this year's meetings
were similar to what he describes for the preceding year:  three days of
contributed papers dominated by those who utilized data from nucleic acids,
cladistically analyzed.  This is a pronounced shift from the first ASPT
meetings I attended in the early 1980's.  Then, there seemed a preponderance
of what I consider wholistic talks: resolution of some taxonomic problem
(usually at or below genus rank) through synthesis of data from morphology
and a couple other kinds of data (cytology, secondary chemistry, palynology,
anatomy, reproductive biology, etc.).  At the end of 15 minutes, you'd had a
nice overview of the group, often with a proposed revision of its
classification.  You felt as though you had some idea what the plants looked
like, where they grew (both geographically and ecologically), how they
reproduced, where they fit into the envoironment and into the Greater Scheme
of Things.  Now, at the end of 15 minutes, you've only seen a bunch of stick
figures.  Stick figures, which, it seems, no one has much confidence in as
yet.  Time and again, presenters seemed unwilling to take a stand on
precisely how existing classifications should be modified to account for
these new data, for the patterns embodied in the stick figures.

Much has been said about WHY molecular data has come to such ubiquitous
prominence so quickly.  Reasons (accusations) range from the nobly
scientific to the crassly mercenary.  I will only add one reason that occurs
to me, which I have not heard voiced previously.  Many of the studies of
this sort deal with problems of familial and ordinal relationships: to what
family is the Whateveraceae most closely related?  Is the Whateverales a
monophyletic group?  The systematics community had made just about as much
headway as possible on these questions, utilizing morphology, anatomy,
embryology, secondary chemistry, cytology, and so forth.  Most of us decided
to stop beating our heads against the wall and to concentrate on generic,
specific, and infraspecific levels,  leaving such higher order undertakings
to brave souls like Cronquist and Takhtajan, Dahlgren and Thorne.  Then,
with the advent of molecular data, there was an opportunity to  reopen such
investigations, to shed new light on problems long thought intractable.  In
this light, a mad scramble to take up  the new technique can be seen as a
natural consequence, at the very least defensible if not laudable.  It's
been an exciting, heady time, even for those looking in from outside.    I
know that I for one was pretty damn excited to see molecular data on the
relationships of Lactoridaceae, and to see the monophyly of Cyphioideae

Nonetheless, I am concerned that we are putting all our eggs in one basket.
If there is one thing that systematics is about, one key word that describes
us best, it is DIVERSITY.  We are the science of biological diversity.  We
organize it, name it, catalogue it, and try to understand how it has
developed over time.  In so doing, we are probably the single most synthetic
science there is.  It's been said that there is no such thing as systematic
data, that systematics takes its data from other disciplines --  morphology,
anatomy, cytology, and yes, molecular biology.  It takes diverse data from
these diverse fields and synthesizes it.  So, if there is ANY discipline
that ought to understand and appreciate the concept of diversity, it is us.

And yet, it seems that  nucleic acid data cladistically analyzed has become
a sine qua non for plant systematists; "molecular" is the new shibboleth.
It seems as though there is no longer room at the trough for the
monographers and their revisions, the floristicians and their checklists,
the biosystematists and their experimental crosses, the cytotaxonomist and
their chromosome counts, the chemotaxonomists and their spots, the
nomenclaturalists and their Code.  We are rapidly losing our diversity.  If
the graduate students and young professionals  presenting papers at the
annual meetings are any indication, we as a community are going to be VERY
homogeneous in not too many years.  Will there be room in our fold for the
Peter Ravens and Charlie Heisers, for the Sherwin Carlquists and Shirley
Tuckers, for the Art Cronquists and Billie Turners and Herb Wagners and Tod
Stuessys and Ed Voss's?  Will their subdisciplines within systematics fade
away, becoming so much lost knowledge, as inscrutable as hieroglyphics
without a Rosetta Stone?

Perhaps most disturbing to me is the lack of depth I perceive in many
(though by no means all) of the talks that I attended.   These graduate
students and young professionals frequently exhibit a pronounced lack of
knowledge about the plants with which they are dealing.   Many evince a
seemingly complete ignorance of  biological fundamentals in their organisms.
I enquired of one presenter as to how data from chromosome numbers fell out
on his molecularly based cladogram of a group that I knew to include
diploids and several levels of polyploids.  The speaker replied that  he
hadn't done any chromosome counts -- apparently unaware of the many indices
to previously published counts.  Similar questions on breeding systems,
pollen morphology, biogeography, secondary chemistry, and other types of
data in other talks were likewise unanswered or badly fumbled.

I am very afraid that we are replacing a diverse community schooled in
multiple disciplines with a cadre of lab technicians.   Will the taxonomist
of twenty years hence be someone who can only follow protocols  from a
cookbook and run packaged software, generating stick-figures ad infinitum?
Worse, will he or she be someone who doesn't know plants as living organisms
integrated in their environment?  I hope not.  But the reluctance to take a
stand on a revised classification, the unwillingness to effect the changes
suggested by their data, which  I mentioned above, suggests that this is
indeed the case, that we are neglecting to bring up our neophytes in the
ways of traditional taxonomy and the rules of nomenclature.

In his essay, Dr. Kruckeberg concludes by recommending that we maintain a
diverse systematics community, that there be room at the trough for not only
the latest vogue, but also for those who elect to stay the course.   I can
only add an enthusiastic "Here!  Here!"  to his recommendation that our
students, apprentices, and journeymen be trained in both the classical and
the latest approaches, so that the coming century will be characterized by a
stimulating mix of the alpha and the omega.   In order to achieve this,
there must be professional positions available for systematists of all
sorts, and funding agencies must likewise offer support to taxonomic
research of all sorts.  Otherwise, I am afraid that when society comes to us
with questions about the botanic diversity we watch over -- what plant is
this?  how is it different?  where does it grow?  what is it good for?  --
we may look pretty damn stupid.

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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