[Taxacom] article on taxonomy

Stephen Thorpe stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz
Fri Feb 26 22:17:49 CST 2010

So may straw men, it is like a corn field in the midwest!

Although it isn't entirely clear, I think Bob's point was that too much time spent NOW developing biodiversity databases (in order to free up time in the future for discovery and description) is dangerous precisely because biodiversity is disappearing fast NOW. I certainly can't see a time in the near future when bioinformaticians are going to say, "OK, that's enough of that, we have what we need, now back to do some real taxonomy!". The real issue, which nobody here seems quite sure of the answer to, is this: to what extent (and for how long) is taxonomy losing out in competeition for funding with bioinformatics and molecular/phylogenetic projects? The argument, it seems to me, is over relative priorities and balance, combined with the unfortunate reality that "bioinformatics projects" are easier to report progress back to managers and funders, making them a very economically viable enterprise, but doing little to save a possibly dying planet ...


From: Richard Pyle <deepreef at bishopmuseum.org>
To: TAXACOM <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu>
Sent: Sat, 27 February, 2010 4:57:36 PM
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] article on taxonomy

Hi Bob,

> 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.

Clearly you've completely misunderstood my angle on this, because nothing in
my perspective on the value of "biodiversity informatics" (a term that has
been so diversely defined in these various threads that it now has
effectively no meaning), is in any way "contra" to my STRONG-held belief
that the TOP priority of taxonomists should be to, as you say, "discover and
document living forms".  There may be others who legitimately represent that
"contra" position, but I am certainly not among them, so please do not erect
my name as a straw man in this way.

> 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.

Again, I fully agree.  And given that coral reefs seem to be among the most
imperiled habitats on the planet (on a global scale), I'm also fulfilling
your stated mandate.

> 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.

Yet again, I couldn't agree more!

> 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.'

I'm not sure that this is necessarily the best strategy.  A disproportionate
failure of biophilics to procreate could have the opposite effect to the
intended one; that is, the parents most likely to instill a healthy respect
and appreciation for biodiversity in the next generation would attenuate in
abundance over successive generations, leaving only the childeren of
indifferent exploiters to perpetuate their memes.  Or, are you saing that
the taxonomists/biologists should still have the kids, but should try to
persuade only the non-biologists against having kids?  That strategy might



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