Ah, irony (was: Unknown fruit & other plants...)

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Fri Jan 17 15:38:06 CST 2003


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Wedi ei archwilio am feirysau gan Amgueddfeydd ac Orielau Cenedlaethol Cymru.


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> >Why are taxonomists not trying to find such a person to
> >establish such a Foundation?  Why are we not asking Ted Turner for
> >his help?  He gave a billion dollars to the UN, and clearly has some
> >reverance for life and understands ecosystem processes.

My understanding of the answer to this, though not in any way authoritative,
is that we, as a taxonomic community, have failed to articulate (and
demonstrate) in terms that non-biologists can understand the real reasons
WHY we do what we do is of general value to the broader public.  Sure, we
all know that what we do is important -- but that's because our years of
training allow us to see the otherwise unobvious connection between doing
taxonomy (i.e., classifying and documenting biodiversity), and the tangible
benefits such knowledge imparts on human society.

It's pretty straightforward to convince your average billionaire that
protecting biodiversity is important, and thwarting extinctions and similar
peril seems to be the sort of thing that can motivate such billionaires to
part with large sums of money.  It's not too much harder to explain how
protecting biodiversity can be achieved by conserving natural habitat
(hence, lots of philanthropic donations to conservation organizations
engaged in habitat conservation activities).  But it starts to get a little
fuzzy when you try to explain why knowing the names and phylogenetic
affiliations of the individual organisms is critical for the task of
protecting them.  WE can see the connection, but prospective donors without
years of education in biodiversity sciences are likely to find themselves
wondering why a dollar spent on classifying an organism wouldn't be better
spent on preserving its natural habitat.

Of course, conservation is only one of many reasons why taxonomy is
important.  Agriculture, disease, invasives, environmental aesthetics, etc.,
etc., all rely heavily on a solid taxonomic foundation. But these suffer
either from the same problem as the conservation angle (complex and
unobvious connection), or relate to goals that probably seem somewhat less
"lofty", and therefore less appealing, to the average philanthropist.

More than just being able to articulate the value, we need to be able to
demonstrate it.  There are a handful of examples of how taxonomic knowledge
really did lead to something of clear value to humanity -- but these tend to
be isolated cases. What we're left with, in making our case, is analogy
(periodic table, burning libraries, etc.).  While these analogies may be
compelling, they don't quite resonate as well as tangible and direct
examples.

The bottom line is that, if we want the Ted Turners of the world to entrust
us with huge amounts of their money so that we can make the world a better
place, we need to be clearer and more cohesive about how, exactly, we
actually WILL make the world a better place, and also demonstrate that we're
not just talking a good story.  I think it would be wonderful if, during
these lean economic years while we wait for a more robust philanthropic
climate, we as a community got our act together on our message -- the
articulation and demonstration of why we are important. If TAXACOM isn't the
most appropriate forum to pursue that effort, I have no clue what else would
be.

Aloha,
Rich




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