Status of plant systematics

Curtis Clark jcclark at CSUPOMONA.EDU
Wed Aug 27 15:43:41 CDT 1997

At 03:27 PM 8/27/97 -0500, Thomas G. Lammers wrote:
>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

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.)

I'm not quite as pessimistic, however, because in *my* experience of
meetings (my first ASPT in 1975), there have always been clueless graduate
students, 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. 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".

I wrote a synopsis of a recent symposium at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden
(; my concluding paragraph:

"Systematics faces serious challenges in support, staffing, and public
perception, as well as imminent loss of many of the organisms we study or
hope to study. But, even though we might plead guilty to exacerbating some
part of this, these challenges are external to our science. We cannot
ignore the challenges, but it is important to remember that in the power of
our tools and the scope of our vision, this is a golden age, and
systematics has never been stronger."

Perhaps I overstated things, but I'd like to hope I didn't.

Curtis Clark       
Biological Sciences Department                     Voice: (909) 869-4062
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona    FAX:   (909) 869-4078
Pomona CA 91768-4032  USA                          jcclark at

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