NATURE to save taxonomy!

Eric Dunbar erdunbar at MAC.COM
Thu Jun 6 14:23:57 CDT 2002

[reminder to self... remember that "Replying" to a message doesn't go to the
list but goes to a person instead :)]

> Despite a few strident voices, I think the vast majority of practicing
> taxonomists are pretty well satisfied with how the system presently works.
> Like organisms themselves, it has evolved (evolution is a tinkerer!) to meet
> emerging needs, and so far the equilibrium of that evolution has not been
> punctuated.

To readers of this thread:

I am merely an observer in the game of taxonomy but I do see a *desperate*
need for a centralised taxonomic repository (even if the repositories are
different for different disciplines).

Perhaps the current situation is acceptable to the 'vast majority of
practicing taxonomists' but I question how *useful* it is outside of the
field of taxonomy/systematics itself.

Taxonomy does not exist in a vacuum and taxonomies inform and guide the rest
of biology (that's quite a responsibility, and it demands that work is
available and as accurate as possible). If biologists specialising in other
fields are unable to access current, and accurate taxonomies, taxonomic work
is of no use (for all practical purposes, _USELESS_). Yes, a publication may
be valid if it's in the teeniest and most obscure journal around, in a
language spoken by a handful of people, or even if the valid description is
disseminated by photocopy to enough people to validate it, but how do
non-taxonomists access and use it if they can't find it?

Researchers in all disciplines are expected to survey the literature for
publications relevant to their own work, but there is a limit on how much a
person can, and can be expected to, dig up from available literature.

If a particular taxonomy *seems* only peripherally important to your
research, the likelihood of you digging through [obscure] literature is
minimal (what if a revised taxonomy or new description may prove to be
crucial? Tough luck is one response that comes to mind.). If, like in
GenBank or EMBL, this researcher could access the current literature and
thinking on a particular group in a centralised location, quickly and
conveniently, there is a likelihood they'll *also* take notice of the work
of taxonomists, and perhaps value that work more highly.

A slightly different thought comes to mind: such a repository could (and
should?) be cross-referenced with GenBank since molecular sequences now form
a powerful (the singly most powerful?) taxonomic tool and are regularly
being used to tease apart particularly onerous relationships where
morphological and chemical techniques failed.

Computers, databases, and particularly the web now offer tools and uses that
were unimagined a scant 10 years ago, before the wide-spread adoption of
HTML. What is it about them that makes some people reluctant to use them?

Sincerely, Eric Dunbar

MSc candidate, Dep't of Botany, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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