[Taxacom] article on the decline of taxonomists

Curtis Clark lists at curtisclark.org
Sun Sep 12 10:50:39 CDT 2010

  On 9/12/2010 12:25 AM, dipteryx at freeler.nl wrote:
> Well, this could be taken that "decline" is everything past
> the high point, which would mean that the question becomes
> when the high point of taxonomy was? I suppose this may be
> before WWI, although it looks to me that it is hard to tell,
> with the disruption caused by WWI and WWII. The real
> manifestation of the decline is in the past few decades.

Ten years ago, I routinely said that this was a Golden Age for 
systematics (I probably wrote that on this list). I had my reasons:

1. The widespread acceptance and use of synapomorphy as an indicator of 
common descent.

2. A move from authority to inference in classification.

3. Powerful new techniques and viewpoints from molecular biology and 

4. Ubiquity of computational power.

5. Ease of worldwide electronic communication.

Every one of these addressed something I saw as a problem in my earlier 
career. And so many conundrums of plant phylogeny were being solved as I 
watched. How could it not be a Golden Age?

I'm not entirely sure what happened. Some possible factors:

1. The general level of instruction and knowledge of the basic biology 
of plants, and the basic vocabulary of plant biology, seems to have 
declined, and I suspect the same is true for many other groups (even 
including mammals: try finding comparative information about emesis or 
the anatomical distribution of eccrine glands). Traditional systematics 
required detailed understanding of the subject organisms.

2. Expensive science has an advantage in terms of sexiness. I had hoped 
that molecular systematics would solve that issue, but costs have 
greatly decreased, and that's a downside (see the next item).

3. Problems in the "hard sciences" are often one-offs. Show that protons 
can decay, and you're done. Solve a problem in systematics, and there 
are hundreds more that are different enough that your new insights 
simply make them easier, but don't eliminate them. If we could obtain a 
complete DNA sequence of an exemplar for USD 10.-, we're still looking 
at millions of dollars just to make a dent, and all the additional costs 
of managing the enterprise. And the tree calculations are still NP, and 
we still won't know whether the results mean anything. And that's hard 
to sell.

4. In the US, at least, the "e" word ("evolution") can still be a 
negative. There are enough closet creationists on search committees and 
in university administration to take the edge off any research program 
that addresses evolutionary problems.

5. Again in the US (but I imagine this is true elsewhere as well), there 
is a problem with institutional "critical mass". For the quarter century 
I spent teaching, I was the only plant systematist in the department, 
and one of three systematists of any sort (the others were an 
entomologist and an ichthyologist). This is not limited to 
systematics--for years, there was only one plant physiologist--but it 
makes one's professional life more difficult.

I'm sure I've just scratched the surface here, and, more important, none 
of this could relate to the *decline* of taxonomy.

Curtis Clark                  http://www.csupomona.edu/~jcclark/
Director, I&IT Web Development                   +1 909 979 6371
University Web Coordinator, Cal Poly Pomona

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