The Lame Ducks of Systematics

W M.M. Eddie weddie at SRV0.BIO.ED.AC.UK
Fri Aug 29 11:10:22 CDT 1997

On Thur. 28 Aug. Tom Lammers wrote:

> We musn't lose sight of WHY we do all this
> sequencing, count all these chromosomes, measure all these length/width
> ratios.  These things are of absolutely no value in themselves.  No
> systematist really CARES about the sequence of this gene or that; a sequence
> of A's, T's, C's, and G's is as exciting as reading a phone book (lots of
> characters but no plot).  There are no lists of all land plants with 15
> chromosomes, no lists of angiosperms with ovate leaves, no lists of  flowers
> with pantoporate pollen; who cares?  Those things are of no interest per se.
> They are merely fuel and fodder for our primary mission.  These data are
> ONLY of value for what they tell us about how to divide up and organize the
> biotic diversity we see around us, and about where it has all come from.
> And THAT is only of lasting value to science and society if we codify our
> conclusions in the form of a formal classification.  From my perspective,
> any activity that doesn't ultimately enhance the classification of the
> world's biota is not part of our discipline, it is something else:
> evolutionary biology, molecular biology, ecology, whatever.  All valuable
> fields, all contributing data useful to systematics, and in turn served by
> systematics.  But they are NOT systematics.

> Aside from practical concerns, I reiterate my original conceptual concern:
> that it is illogical for a discipline that has diversity as its centerpiece
> to devolve to a condition where all its practioners MUST adopt just one of
> many possible approaches in order to survive.  Is there ONE graduate student
> out there who was NOT told "You'd better include molecular techniques or
> you'll never get a job."   Even those of us who do not employ such
> techniques reluctantly tell our students that.  Is there a systematics
> position at a major university in this country that has NOT been filled by a
> molecular systematist in the last five years?  Has there been one
> departmental search committee that has said, "By God, what we need around
> here is a good monographer?"  Answer these questions honestly, and you'll
> see why some of us are concerned. We are putting all our eggs in one basket,
> and I fear that will cause us problems someday.

I wholeheartedly agree with just about everything Tom has written but
I think he is doing a lot of people a disservice at the expense of
"the primary mission". I also do not want to get involved in the
semantics of what exactly the discipline of systematics is, but I
will add this to the points I mentioned in my last communication. A
systematist has traditionally been a "jack-of-all trades" and I see
nothing fundamentally different when it comes to embracing new
technologies such as those of molecular systematics. The majority of
seasoned systematists would not throw the baby out with the bathwater
but would use the best approaches for their particular problems at
any given time. Some of us are more inclined towards phylogeny,
biogeography or molecular evolution but would still fight vigorously
to defend our status as systematists. I would not argue that we are
necessarily more important than those who find classification and
nomenclature more exciting. DNA sequences can have relevance beyond
their use as mere taxonomic markers. Patterns of sequences and
genomic structure can give many insights into evolutionary rates,
mutations, functional morphology, etc. as well as the evolution of
genomes, multigene families, etc. This, in itself, is a truly
fascinating area of systematics for many workers who feel less than
enthused with, say, the etymology of scientific names. Okay, so there
is overlap with molecular biology s.s. but we can equally say the
same about methods of classification or rules of nomenclature with
other disciplines.

The point I was trying to make was that molecular systematics is the
best thing that has happened in years although the present situation
is admittedly a little ludicrous. To play one subdiscipline against
another is surely counter-productive for systematics and we could
easily find ourselves repeating the mistakes of the phenetics vs
cladistics era. With current rates of sequencing-kit development
molecular investigation is becoming routine. Some say it already is.

I suspect that, for most of us (without intentionally sounding
mercenary), is one of funding. How can we have a thriving, diverse
systematics community when most of the younger systematists are on
"soft money" with very little hope of a proper career ? The higher
education system is geared to producing a young aggressive elite.
There is no place for the "well-rounded botanist" in this scheme of
things. Maybe this is the natural way of things but it will only
change if and when systematists of vision and with more than a
modicum of political clout begin to knock harder on the doors of
government. If everything is left, as it is a present, to the
vagaries of the marketplace, then the situation, as Tom has stated,
will worsen. The weak will go to the wall. I think someone else (was
it Mrs.T, heaven forbid ?) actually said that in reference to lame

Bill Eddie


William M.M.Eddie
Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology
University of Edinburgh
Daniel Rutherford Building
Mayfield Road
Edinburgh EH9 3JH
Scotland, UK
email: weddie at
Tel. 0131 650 5327
FAX. 0131 650 5392

More information about the Taxacom mailing list