nameless taxonomy (Re: Time to update taxonomy?)

Doug Yanega dyanega at POP.UCR.EDU
Fri Jan 31 11:16:20 CST 2003

Wolfgang Wuster wrote

>The real crux of the matter is that if all these DNA sequences are
>to mean anything other than simply existing as a nice bunch of
>sequences in a computer, then they will have to be related to a real
>organism, i.e., a specimen. For that specimen to be of any use, we
>need morphological taxonomists who know what they are looking at.
>A bunch of DNA sequences without an organism to relate them to is of
>no use whatsoever to anyone.

That is not true. What Hebert is proposing is nameless taxonomy. Each
organism would be known only by its DNA sequence, or an arbitrary
code number, so no one would actually need any specimens, nor a
scheme of classification. Relationships would be determined by
sequence divergence, giving a tidy cladogram, and the problem of
specimens would be resolved by taking a photo of each organism before
it was sequenced. After all, many microscopic taxa (including a vast
number of insects) will be completely destroyed in the process of
sequencing. It is therefore a matter akin to Heisenberg's Uncertainty
Principle: in order to identify an organism, you must obliterate it,
and can no longer have that specimen to examine - but you know what
it *was* before you destroyed it. If you want to keep a specimen, or
allow an organism to keep on living while you observe its behavior,
you will often have no way of knowing what it is. Moreover, nearly
every specimen in every museum in the world will, in Dr. Hebert's
Taxonomic Utopia, be totally worthless and irrelevant, since
virtually NONE will be possible to sequence, and effectively none of
the past 300 years of biological literature (outside of vertebrates)
would be of any value, since no one could be sure which organism any
given work was actually referring to.

For all that we might object to such a proposal, it is - in
*principle* (i.e., assuming there weren't 500 trillion man-hours
required to build an exhaustive library, and his "20 years" figure
wasn't such complete lunacy) - a perfectly reasonable way for
non-taxonomist biologists to go about their business, IF they don't
mind dumping all past biological research in the trash and starting
from scratch. Think about it:

You have an organism, you sequence it, and you then link to a
database that tells you where and when other identical sequences have
been obtained, and any data that has been linked to those records. No
taxonomists involved, and all the information on that taxon is at
your fingertips. Brilliant.

If this technology had been available 250 years ago, then everything
would be fine, and any other approach would be inconceivable to us
now. Basically, then, the way to realize Dr. Hebert's vision is to
send him, and a sequencer laboratory (with an electric generator),
back in time to when Linnaeus started writing Systema Naturae, and
just re-write history (a la "Terminator"). If that isn't going to
happen, then he should just shut his fool mouth.


Doug Yanega        Dept. of Entomology         Entomology Research Museum
Univ. of California - Riverside, Riverside, CA 92521
phone: (909) 787-4315 (standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)
   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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