[Taxacom] Fading role of traditional taxonomists

Doug Yanega dyanega at ucr.edu
Tue Jun 2 17:09:41 CDT 2009


Jason Mate wrote:

>If I had to pin the blame on any single thing I would say that the 
>increasing lack of contact with the natural world would be it. You 
>can´t be curious about organisms if you don´t experience them and I 
>am afraid that with our increasing bubble-culture it will only get 
>worse.

I'm inclined to view this as a symptom, not the cause. Look at it as 
a historical thing: back when there were still vast tracts of the 
planet that had yet to be explored, the work of the "natural 
historian" was still a source for wonder and inspiration. Wealthy 
patrons would effectively throw money at people to go on long 
journeys and bring back heaps of specimens and observations about 
creatures previously unknown. That whole mentality - that there were 
many amazing things yet to discover - was always at the foundation of 
the taxonomic enterprise: taxonomy was a tool people used to describe 
all the things they were finding, and to try to make sense of how 
they all fit together.

As it got to the point where human culture was thoroughly globalized 
- that no human cultures were completely out of touch with the rest, 
and that nowhere was left that was unmapped and unreachable - it was 
inevitable that the fundamental appeal of discovery would vanish. 
What desire is there to experience the natural world when it is 
delivered, prepackaged and narrated, on cable TV? I'm trying to think 
of the last time anything of the old Victorian-era sentiment managed 
to work its way into the public consciousness, and the closest I can 
come is when the major tepui expeditions were happening. Even then, 
it was a VERY small segment of society that got truly excited by it, 
it and didn't take long to fade. In a culture that is chronically 
bored, and thinks that it's seen everything already, it takes a major 
novelty to attract and hold attention. And - not surprisingly - 
telling people that there are over 10 million insect species still 
waiting to be discovered is good for maybe a momentary hesitation and 
eyeblink before the comment "Yeah, but they're just bugs" puts the 
matter to rest. This isn't a cultural attitude conducive to the task 
we have before us, because it's almost impossible to make our task 
seem flashy.

About the only thing keeping taxonomy and systematics alive and 
kicking is, as suggested, the massive funding behind molecular 
research, and that has virtually nothing to do with cultural 
attitudes, and everything to do with how universities and other 
centers of scientific investigation run their businesses. If all that 
a traditional taxonomist needs for their research is a musty old 
microscope, a musty old computer with an internet connection, some 
file cabinets with musty old reprints, and access to musty old 
specimens from museums (and *maybe* a digital camera), then it's 
going to be tough to convince  administrators that their presence is 
generating enough revenue to merit their continued employment - when 
their space could be filled by someone who brings in over a million 
dollars a year in overhead...and isn't quite so musty.

I was thinking about all this recently when I was interviewed for a 
TV show, and I made the observation that if NASA were to announce 
that they had found a life-bearing planet in another solar system, 
and  estimates indicated at least 10 million different unknown life 
forms on that planet, then people would throw an unimaginably huge 
amount of funding at describing all those alien life forms - it could 
become the biggest single scientific effort in history - yet, faced 
with 10 million different unknown life forms on THIS planet, people 
could hardly care less. "Yeah, but they're just bugs"...

Where are all those wealthy Victorian-era patrons now that we really need them?

Sincerely,
-- 

Doug Yanega        Dept. of Entomology         Entomology Research Museum
Univ. of California, Riverside, CA 92521-0314        skype: dyanega
phone: (951) 827-4315 (standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)
              http://cache.ucr.edu/~heraty/yanega.html
   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82


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