ATBI "Self-Destructs" and what we do

Thomas G. Lammers lammers at FMPPR.FMNH.ORG
Wed May 21 06:19:41 CDT 1997

At 02:03 PM 05-20-97 +0100, Andrew Whittington wrote:

>No they are not.  They are creating one-off lists of taxa from local
>areas, which cannot be crossreferenced with other areas.  The end result
>is a jumble of morpho-names, which the rule of nomenclature aim to
>And yet they have failed in their hurry to get there, becuase they will
>not be able in a few years time to tell anybody anything about these
>nameless taxa, other than that they are confused by the overwelming
>number of morph-species 1 that exist.

Well, I didn't say they were doing it RIGHT.  But they are doing it
nonetheless.  The point is, WE could do better, given the chance.

>However, I do agree with you that perhaps more alpha-taxonomy is
>required.  We need to speed it up.  We need to ask ourselves for example
>"Do the processes by which we describe new taxa take too long?"; "how can
>we reduce this lenght of time, or harness more personnel?".

I don't think the length of time required to detect and describe novelties
is inordinate.  I began last summer on a large stack of suspected new
species of neotropical Lobelioideae, and by late winter had satisfied myself
that there were indeed 18 previously undescribed species in the pile.  The
manuscript has been submitted and is under review.

What takes time is revisionary/monographic work:  looking over all that is
known about a given group and re-evaluating (1) circumscription of the basic
units and (2) how those units relate to one another in light of (a)
additional data and (b) additional methods of data analysis.  There have
been ENORMOUS improvements in (a) and (b) in the last 30 years.  We can
assess kinds of data undreamed of by Asa Gray et cie., and analyze those
data in ever more perceptive ways.  The trouble is that these improvements
consume a great deal of money and resources.  The cost of a single gene
sequencer would keep me in the field collecting for a decade.   The time it
took to describe 18 new spp. could easily have been gobbled up playing with
different algorithms for parsimony or different types of multivariate
statistics.  We have to look at the product and decide, as a community, if
we are getting a proper return on the time and resources invested.  Are the
cladograms generated from molecular data in the last 10 years worth what
they have cost us as a community?  Maybe the answer is yes, maybe the answer
is no, but the point is, it is the question that we as a community have to

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

"The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do,
   but how we behave when we don't know what to do."

                                                  -- John Holt

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