The folks love new species

Bill Shear wshear at EMAIL.HSC.EDU
Fri Jul 27 13:08:04 CDT 2001

On 7/27/01 12:57 PM, "Thomas DiBenedetto"
<tdibenedetto at OCEANCONSERVANCY.ORG> wrote:

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Deborah A Lewis [mailto:dlewis at IASTATE.EDU]
> I'll "rise to your bait" -- I have yet to be asked by Mr./Ms. Joe/Jane
> Public to "link names to lineages", and THEY are the ones who pay my salary.
> Deb, I don't know what your line of research is, but if you describe
> species, then you are certainly linking names to lineages (coherent terminal
> brances of lineages), and if you do systematics of any kind, then you are
> linking names to
> lineages (either accurately or approximatly), and if you are doing neither,
> then I guess I wasn't referring to you.
> I dont know what Mr/Ms Public is paying you to do, but I would guess that
> they figure that you are to do good science, even though they dont really
> know what that means. Putting names on real, distinct parts of life, be that
> extant species-level taxa or historical higher taxa seems to me to fill the
> bill quite nicely.
> Tom DiBenedetto
I've found the public to be very, very interested in the discovery aspect of
systematics.  The fact that there are previously unknown species lurking
perhaps in their own backyards is news to most folks, and very exciting to
them.  We (my undergraduate students and I) have found two new milliped
species right here on campus.  The first of these was worth a full-page news
story, complete with an introduction to the taxonomic heirarchy in general
and to millipeds in particular, in the major metropolitan newspaper for our
region.  The second species was of course old news, but the people who
endowed my professorial chair were very pleased by it and as a result made
an additional gift to the college (maybe that was helped along by my
proposing to name the new species for them, since they paid for the research
that turned it up!).

A colleague in North Carolina had a very similar experience.

On the other hand, while phylogenies interest me very much, it is usually a
snoozer with the press and the public (unless we can come up with a really
novel relationship between well-known groups, like dinosaurs and birds).

We species-describers need to get the word out more often.  Perhaps funding
for our kind of research, which after all provides the basic data for all
other systematic work, could be easier to argue for if the public interest
in it could be made more obvious.

Bill Shear
Department of Biology
Hampden-Sydney College
Hampden-Sydney VA 23943
FAX (434)223-6374
email<wshear at>
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"Preaching?  Lecturing? Who are ye that ask for these things?  What do ye
want to hear, ye puling infants?  A trumpet-sound that would train you up to
mankind, or a nurse's lullaby?  The preachers and lecturers deal with men of
straw, as they are men of straw themselves.  Why, a free-spoken man, of
sound lungs, cannot draw a long breath without causing your rotten
institutions to come toppling down by the vacuum he makes....I will not
consent to walk with my mouth muzzled, not till I am rabid, until there is
danger that I shall bite the unoffending and that my bite will produce
hydrophobia."  --Henry David Thoreau, Journals, Nov. 16, 1858.

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