Where are all the systematists?

Eric Dunbar erdunbar at MAC.COM
Wed Jun 19 13:56:58 CDT 2002

> In plant systematics, I don't think the problem is necessarily a lower
> number of systematists, but rather a change in emphasis from working at the
> level of species and describing new species to working at much higher
> levels where phylogeny is employed to analyze whether genera or families
> are monophyletic.  Here at UC Davis, some graduate students are being
> trained, but most of them are not using museum specimens for anything more
> than sampling for DNA.  They are not looking at whether or not there are
> new species out there to describe.  This emphasis on working at higher
> levels discourages many students from taking on a "messy" understudied
> group where exploration is needed, because they need to produce a neat
> phylogeny in order to get a university job.  I could fill out the
> questionnaire, but the answers I give would be misleading.  Ellen

As a current MSc student (not involved in taxonomy/systematics (though, my
supervisor is)), I'd have to say that dealing with the "messy" groups isn't
that academically enticing anymore and seems not to lead to opportunities in
academia. The two taxonomists I've seen retire at local universities (south
western Ontario) have been replaced by much more sexy molecular biologists
or plant physiologists not at all involved in taxonomy/systematics.

I can't speak for the faculty comprising the hiring committees but it seems
like the ability to identify (an expertise of a skilled
systematist/taxonomist) existing organisms or detecting (& thus describing)
novel taxa or relationships isn't highly valued in a highly artificial
experimental environment (how much of a taxonomist do you have to be to tell
your _Arabidopsis thaliana_ from your _Oxalis_ in the glasshouse ;)

Plus, it's quite an investment of a student's life to work in a "messy"
group that may not lead to a career in taxonomy, especially when (whether
rightly or wrongly) the perception among the general biological population
(students certainly; faculty too?) is that these relationships will
[eventually] (the ugly head of mechanistic philosophy raises its head again
;) be resolved by throwing DNA into a sequencer, running them through PAUP*
and generating phylogenies with greater and greater bootstrap values, until
eventually they approximate what happened (reticulate evolution be damned


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