Godfray article

Wed Feb 6 15:39:30 CST 2002

At 03:08 PM 2/6/02 -0500, Bill Shear wrote:
>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 don't know what the origin of his peeve is, but I do know that it can
take an inordinate amount of time tracking down obscure names in 19th
century (and earlier) publications to satisfy the rules of priority in
nomenclature.  It is conceivable that this is what he meant when he
referred to the "weight of 19th century taxonomy".  Regardless, the weight
of 20th century, 19th century and earlier nomenclatural research is, in my
opinion, a handicap.  I agree that later discoveries (or earlier ones
discovered later) could be incorporated.

>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.

P.P.S.  Those aren't the only language problems in the paper.  But after
all, they keep the reader alert in trying to decipher them and you can't
expect those British scientists to write perfect American English!

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