[Taxacom] Decline and fall of taxonomy

Bob Mesibov mesibov at southcom.com.au
Fri Jun 19 20:26:57 CDT 2009

Since Richard Zander quoted his wife to effect, I'll do the same.

One theme in this thread has been that taxonomy hasn't a future because there's no money in it. No jobs for new recruits, no big grants to universities (unless they're doing huge molecular systematics projects). Yet apparently less practical and useful science, like astronomy and particle physics, gets billions.

My wife diagrees. She says there *is* money in taxonomy: big potential losses for developers and exploiters of all kinds. Studying the natural world is a threat to people who want to destroy the natural world. But these people are only making their money because ordinary folk want civilised comforts: streets, footpaths, comfortable buildings, water on tap, lawns, gardens. Once people have these things, they the have the leisure to pay disinterested attention to the world that got destroyed in providing those comforts. Or rather, to the traditionally interesting bits of the natural world - polar bears, whales, eagles, etc.

Most people want to live away from nature. A few days in a national park each year is just fine, thanks, and make sure there's plenty of parking near the gate. As this human-centered world gets bigger (more people every year, more intensive agriculture, more housing), perhaps the little interest now shown in taxonomy will get even smaller, and not only because there are fewer species around. There's guilt, too: "The housing estate I live in was once nice woodland. Shame about that."

So particle physics and astronomy are *safe* science, because there's no guilt attached and no hindrance to doing what people want, which is to turn the natural world into a human one. Taxonomy has always been about honouring the dead: the dried specimens in herbaria, the bones and bottled specimens in museums. We now face the possibility that a large proportion of the diversity we can hope to discover over the next few centuries will no longer be alive at the end of that time.

Interesting to think that neontology is slipping quietly into paleontology, just as 'the natural world' is slipping quietly into 'the human world'. So what's the role for taxonomists in the modified landscapes and climates of the next couple of centuries?
Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and
School of Zoology, University of Tasmania
Home contact: PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
(03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195
Website: http://www.qvmag.tas.gov.au/mesibov.html

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