Godfray article

Bill Shear wshear at EMAIL.HSC.EDU
Wed Feb 6 15:08:54 CST 2002

The referenced article by H. C. J. Godfray contains a number of good points,
at least one of which has gone uncommented-upon.

Godfray says in passing that "ecologists, conservationists, pest managers
and amateur naturalists are the 'end-users' of taxonomic research."  How
often we have lost sight of this simple fact!

I know of at least one taxonomist who freely admits and clearly states that
the purpose of his revisions of genera and families are to provide the means
for species identification.  This clear-sighted statement unfortunately
dooms my colleague's papers to the yawns and sometime sneers of more
"advanced" colleagues.  After all, they are "just descriptive."  Yet they
are repeatedly cited by ecologists and behaviourists (for example) who are
vitally interested in this group of animals and who are very grateful for
reliable names to put on their subjects and collections.  A function outside
taxonomy is served by these papers that is not fulfilled by the latest
molecular-evidence cladogram of an eclectic selection of species from
various classes and phyla.  Yet it is precisely these former servicable
papers that are becoming more and more diffcult to publish.

This is not to downgrade the value of phylogenetic analysis--when done on a
well-understood group it takes us to the next level, and the behaviorist in
particular also appreciates a phylogenetic framework in which to place his
own results.  Plus, phylogenetics just as puzzle-solving is great fun for us
as systematists.  But let's not kid ourselves that it is of very great
interest outside the field.

But where I'm going with this is that I think the field has been damaged as
much by narrowly focusing on our own interests and forgetting those
"end-users" of our basic research as it has by the image of the taxonomist
endlessly picking away at the minutiae of tiny insects and burrowing about
in the 19th century literature (of course, the 20th century literature is
just fine!).  We need to be more service-oriented, not less, and that means
more alpha taxonomy.  Godfray's suggestions for the use of the web as
vehicle are an excellent starting point.

I would however disagree with his estimation of the "weight of 19th century
taxonomy."  I view this as a vast resource, not a handicap.  And since he
proposes that new species descriptions and new synomymies can easily be
inserted into the "web revisions,"  there seems to be no compelling reason
why subsequent discoveries made in the literature of 19th (and 20th!)
centuries could not also be incorporated.  I suspect Godfray's peeve with
our late colleagues may have its origin more in his impatience with previous
work in his chosen group of animals than with a percieved impatience on the
part of the wider scientific public.

I wonder how much of the difficulty with taxonomic research are due to our
own hesitations and seeming insecurities about what we do, and our failure
to explain to other scientists and to the general public just how exciting
the discovery of new forms of life can be.  Ladies and gentlemen, we are the
frontiersmen of biological research and our adventures deserve attention!
Until we have the fortitude to trumpet our own accomplishments we can expect
them to go unrecognized.  Contact your university's or museum's PR person
this afternoon and get them to do an article on that new species from
Borneo, Pennsylvania or Midlothian that you just found in the collection!

Bill Shear
Department of Biology
Hampden-Sydney College
Hampden-Sydney VA 23943
FAX (434)223-6374
email<wshear at email.hsc.edu>
Moderating e-lists:
Coleus at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/coleus
Opiliones at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/opiliones
Myriapod at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/myriapod
MilliPEET website at

PS--Regrettably, as an editor, I must also point out a couple of problems in
the Godfray article with language.  In one place, he refers to the "enormity
of the task."  I believe enormousness is the correct word; see the first
meaning of "enormity" in any dictionary.  In another, he refers to rigidity
as a "break on change" when I am sure he means a brake.  I hope these errors
were caught before the article was printed for Antenna.

More information about the Taxacom mailing list