Taxonomy vs. "Molecularists"???

Regis Courtecuisse rcourtec at PHARE.UNIV-LILLE2.FR
Tue Jan 19 11:34:31 CST 1999


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Dear Ken and dear all,

    I am very happy of Ken's statement, which says clearly what I tried
in poorer words.

    I find especially important the following sentences :

Ken Kinman wrote:

> 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, 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.
>

> 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).

    What I would add is that funding descriptive traditionnal research
(I mean stimulating young people to learning and getting involved in
taxonomic descriptive studies as well as allowing the present
researchers of this category to travel and have decent possibilities to
improve our knowledge of the species) is still vital, since so much
remains to be discovered, taxonomically,  in so many areas of our
planet. Using the modern tools we discussed above on a very fragmentary
dataset (that is what we still have at hand at the moment) will lead to
erroneous conclusions about the origin of life, phylogeny of the
Geobiota, systematics of any group and so on. If we don't make it
possible to simply describe more and more species (and it is a true
emergency, regarding the present rate of ecosystems degradation
worldwide), those erroneous interpretations will be impossible to change
in the future. In that sense, I still think that molecular biology is in
a dead-end way, without considering an effective collaboration with
traditionnal descriptors.
    I think we completely aggree Ken, basically, and you must understand
that my expressed opinion comes from a taxonomist working in France,
where the situation is very hard for us to simply survive in the funding
as well as in the universitary job systems. Most probably the situation
is not that bad in the States (although I read and appreciated Steven
Vogel's paper). We feel here as if the molecularists were trained to
deal with some nucleic acid fragments, only knowing a bit about the cell
around and perhaps also a minimum about the organism as a whole (but
don't ask about the ecosystem !). It is frustrating and it finally turns
to have some incidence on the daily humor to be considered as relictuous
researchers on their way to a politically planned extinction. And the
time we fight to defend our legitime certitude that taxonomy must
survive in using all the available tools (traditionnal and modern ones)
is not time we spend in the field nor bent on the microscope...

    Looking forward to hearing other opinions on this crucial problem
for the future of our Sciences, I send my very best regards and
greetings.

    R=E9gis

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<html>
Dear Ken and dear all,
<p>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; I am very happy of Ken's statement, which says clearly
what I tried in poorer words.
<p>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; I find especially important the following sentences
:
<p>Ken Kinman wrote:
<blockquote TYPE=CITE>However, I
<br>personally see two particular areas to be worried about:
<br>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; (1) The "expense of" and "overdependence on"
<br>molecular data, often displacing valuable, more
<br>"traditional" approaches.&nbsp; This is particularly
<br>worrisome at our universities, and this was addressed by
<br>Steven Vogel of Duke University in his recent article
<br>(American Scientist, Nov.-Dec. 1998 issue); and
<br>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; (2) The misuse of molecular data, through
<br>overextrapolation, circular reasoning, and other
<br>"intellectual" contortions.&nbsp; This is not a widespread
<br>problem in terms of numbers of scientists, but when I
<br>see someone with a great deal of influence doing these
<br>kinds of things, I get quite upset (especially when a
<br>lot of people are swallowing it uncritically).</blockquote>

<blockquote TYPE=CITE>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Therefore, I think
molecular data is great, if we
<br>use a balanced approach.&nbsp; The problems we are
<br>encountering are due to "too much", "too fast", which is
<br>making the transition very unpleasant and damaging at
<br>many universities in particular.&nbsp; If traditional
<br>systematic approaches are neglected in this process, we
<br>are going to lose a lot of knowledge because it is not
<br>being effectively transferred to new generations of
<br>biologists.&nbsp; Molecular systematics is much like
<br>cladistics, in that they are both very powerful tools.
<br>But they are two-edged swords that can do a lot a damage
<br>as well if they aren't used properly----and that
<br>includes "overuse".&nbsp; They are tools, not "ways of life"
<br>that should be pushing traditional approaches aside.
<br>&nbsp;</blockquote>

<blockquote TYPE=CITE>I think there is productive
<br>middle ground in both these areas, and although most of
<br>my own attention has been directed at the latter, I
<br>think the former will have greater repercussions down
<br>the line if we don't address imbalances soon.&nbsp; I think
<br>Regis' pessimism may be well-founded if we don't make
<br>some changes in how universities and governments fund
<br>biological research (and Steven Vogel's recent article
<br>in American Scientist is something that we all should
<br>read and consider seriously).</blockquote>

<p><br>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; What I would add is that funding descriptive
traditionnal research (I mean stimulating young people to learning and
getting involved in taxonomic descriptive studies as well as allowing the
present researchers of this category to travel and have decent possibilities
to improve our knowledge of the species) is still vital, since so much
remains to be discovered, taxonomically,&nbsp; in so many areas of our
planet. Using the modern tools we discussed above on a very fragmentary
dataset (that is what we still have at hand at the moment) will lead to
erroneous conclusions about the origin of life, phylogeny of the Geobiota,
systematics of any group and so on. If we don't make it possible to simply
describe more and more species (and it is a true emergency, regarding the
present rate of ecosystems degradation worldwide), those erroneous interpretations
will be impossible to change in the future. In that sense, I still think
that molecular biology is in a dead-end way, without considering an effective
collaboration with traditionnal descriptors.
<br>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; I think we completely aggree Ken, basically, and
you must understand that my expressed opinion comes from a taxonomist working
in France, where the situation is very hard for us to simply survive in
the funding as well as in the universitary job systems. Most probably the
situation is not that bad in the States (although I read and appreciated
Steven Vogel's paper). We feel here as if the molecularists were trained
to deal with some nucleic acid fragments, only knowing a bit about the
cell around and perhaps also a minimum about the organism as a whole (but
don't ask about the ecosystem !). It is frustrating and it finally turns
to have some incidence on the daily humor to be considered as relictuous
researchers on their way to a politically planned extinction. And the time
we fight to defend our legitime certitude that taxonomy must survive in
using all the available tools (traditionnal <u>and</u> modern ones) is
not time we spend in the field nor bent on the microscope...
<p>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Looking forward to hearing other opinions on this
crucial problem for the future of our Sciences, I send my very best regards
and greetings.
<p>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; R&eacute;gis</html>

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