[Taxacom] article on taxonomy

Bob Mesibov mesibov at southcom.com.au
Fri Feb 26 19:14:33 CST 2010

Many thanks, Mike, for posting the link to Dr Boero's article. I read it carefully and can't find anything in it with which to disagree. It also contains brief statements of many of the complaints we TAXACOMers have been making for years. It's unlikely we'll stop complaining on TAXACOM, but it's nice to know that anyone who asks us 'What are you on about?' can now just be sent a PDF of Dr Boero's very readable article.

I read the article on the same day that publicity has started gaining momentum for a very pessimistic book on climate change (Clive Hamilton's 'Requiem for a Species'), and when I again looked at some popular press items about unstoppable population growth and the 'unsustainability of wild fisheries' (think about the human-centered nature of that phrase!). Also today, I'm finishing the last paragraphs of an article describing 18 new species of millipede. Is there a connection?

Well, I think there is. I'm happy to argue about this, but I'd like to propose an ethical stance for taxonomists in an era of extinction:

1. Taxonomists should discover and document living forms. They should not be distracted by projects which endlessly catalogue and reformat what's already known in taxonomy, because contra Richard Pyle the net result is time lost to discovery and documentation, and because the goal is an empty one: as I've pointed out here before, biodiversity informatics could still be going ahead full steam long after the last wild species had gone extinct. Taxonomists should also not be distracted by projects which endlessly seek the One True Tree of Life, because a geometrical abstraction of evolutionary relationships tells us pathetically little of what we can discover about the natural world.

2. Taxonomists should concentrate their efforts on those taxa and those habitats which are vanishing most quickly. We've made the mistake time and time again in the past of sampling groups and places for the wrong reasons, with the result that the world is now full of blank spots - still growing - where agricultural and residential development and pollution impacts have destroyed locally endemic plants and animals about which we know absolutely *nothing*. Taxonomy is about knowing  *something*. Do biodiversity salvage.

3. Taxonomists should stop seeking scientific prestige and big funding. Some of the best taxonomic work of the past 250 years was done by private individuals equipped with little more than a handlens or an inexpensive microscope, and much of the best taxonomic work in the coming decades of extinction will be done the same way. The goal here is the discovery and documentation of living forms, not the elevation in academic status of taxonomy.

4. Taxonomists should speak for the voiceless natural world when talking to concerned non-biologists. The short and simple answer to 'What can I do to help the planet?' is 'Don't have kids.'
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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