Taxonomy vs. "Molecularists"???

Ken Kinman kinman at HOTMAIL.COM
Mon Jan 18 10:56:27 CST 1999

>Regis Courtecuisse wrote:
>    The present balance between the number of reliable
taxonomists and the legions of molecularists make me
very pessimistic about the very future of molecular
 Dear Regis and other TAXACOMERS,
      Although I completely understand the sentiments
expressed above, it makes me very uneasy to make this
into some kind of battle between "us and them" (so to
speak).  I've already seen too much unproductive and
unnecessary posturing and bickering in another "us and
them" debate (cladists vs. eclecticists) which has gone
on since the 1960's.
     I'm just beginning to become more optimistic about
resolving that conflict.  Therefore, I would hate to see
it replaced by another decades-long conflict, this time
being traditional taxonomists vs. molecular biologists.
I am not quite so pessimistic about this, however, for
the are many traditional taxonomists using molecular
biology in their work.
     It does not help to use overgeneralizations like
"legions of molecularists".  I think it would be better
to narrow the focus of what one is being pessimistic
about.  I have been studying molecular sequences since
the early 1970's, and find such information of
increasing value as data accumulates.  However, I
personally see two particular areas to be worried about:
    (1) The "expense of" and "overdependence on"
molecular data, often displacing valuable, more
"traditional" approaches.  This is particularly
worrisome at our universities, and this was addressed by
Steven Vogel of Duke University in his recent article
(American Scientist, Nov.-Dec. 1998 issue); and
     (2) The misuse of molecular data, through
overextrapolation, circular reasoning, and other
"intellectual" contortions.  This is not a widespread
problem in terms of numbers of scientists, but when I
see someone with a great deal of influence doing these
kinds of things, I get quite upset (especially when a
lot of people are swallowing it uncritically).
Therefore, my tendency to concentrate on the
pronouncements of Carl Woese, who demonstrated the
importance of rRNA molecular data in particular, but
then used this data to virtually "shove" a lot of
nonsense down our throats (how hard it was shoved
depends on subjective opinion, of course).
      One small, but important, aspect of that whole
mess, is the supposed thermophilic origins of life (but
see the recent Jan. 8 or 9th issue of Science for more
dissenting views).  Hopefully NASA will not make some
very foolish and costly mistakes by concentrating its
search for extraterrestrial life in thermophilic
habitats.  Life (at least life on Earth; for which I
coined the term Geobiota) almost surely began in
mesophilic or psychrophilic habitats (just ask people
like Stanley Miller, not Carl Woese).  This is just the
tip of the Woesian iceberg, but you can always find out
more about that on my internet homepage (URL address
given at the bottom).
      Therefore, I think molecular data is great, if we
use a balanced approach.  The problems we are
encountering are due to "too much", "too fast", which is
making the transition very unpleasant and damaging at
many universities in particular.  If traditional
systematic approaches are neglected in this process, we
are going to lose a lot of knowledge because it is not
being effectively transferred to new generations of
biologists.  Molecular systematics is much like
cladistics, in that they are both very powerful tools.
But they are two-edged swords that can do a lot a damage
as well if they aren't used properly----and that
includes "overuse".  They are tools, not "ways of life"
that should be pushing traditional approaches aside.
     Everybody has their own interests and concerns, and
there's never enough grant money to go around, so there
are always going to be squabbles over that.  But I hate
to see a dichotomy of molecular vs. "non-molecular"
biology even more than I dislike the dichotomy of
cladist vs. eclecticist.  I think there is productive
middle ground in both these areas, and although most of
my own attention has been directed at the latter, I
think the former will have greater repercussions down
the line if we don't address imbalances soon.  I think
Regis' pessimism may be well-founded if we don't make
some changes in how universities and governments fund
biological research (and Steven Vogel's recent article
in American Scientist is something that we all should
read and consider seriously).
                            Ken Kinman

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