[Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Stephen Thorpe stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz
Wed Jan 26 18:31:03 CST 2011

Bob makes some good points ... I didn't pick them up in Rich's email because my 
main focus was on making the point that the original quote that started this 
thread blamed bioinformatics *only* as responsible for the (alleged) demise of 
taxonomy, and that IMHO is *wrong*!

>I think it's still true that most new species are 'discovered' in museums and 

*Absolutely*! At least for N.Z. beetles. I would say that 98% of all N.Z. beetle 
species are in collections, but many, many hundreds (thousands?) of these remain 
unstudied and undescribed, with not much sign of progress. It is interesting 
that the following paper is in press: 

	* Leschen, R.A.B.; Butler, E.; Buckley, T.R.; Ritchie, P. (in press): 
Biogeography of the New Zealand subantarctics: phylogenetics of Pseudhelops 
(Coleoptera: Tenebrionidae). New Zealand entomologist, 

taken in itself (i.e. out of context), there would seem to be nothing amiss 
here, but let's consider it in context:

The genus has only a few species and has already been thoroughly revised 
(morphologically). Surely it would be better to choose an unrevised genus 
instead, and revise it? Particularly so since the (public) funding is supposed 
to be for describing and documenting the "uncatalogued" N.Z. fauna ... and we 
have had precious little of that from the same sources over the last few years, 
with most of it being farmed out to overseas specialists and/or students in 
return for nominal second authorship to bolster publication records ... To my 
mind, someone is either employed as a taxonomist, or not, and if they are not, 
then they shouldn't get funding for describing and documenting the 
"uncatalogued" N.Z. fauna ... someone else should ...

So, Rich Pyle's emphasis on more field work may reflect a personal preference to 
some extent ... nothing annoys me more than seeing more and more funded field 
work combined with less and less actual taxonomy being published on what is 
collected ...

It is all about balance, and finding the appropriate funding levels for 
everything. Cladists can do cladistics, biogeographers can do biogeography, 
molecular biologists can do molecular biology, but taxonomists should do 
taxonomy ...


From: Bob Mesibov <mesibov at southcom.com.au>
To: Richard Pyle <deepreef at bishopmuseum.org>
Cc: TAXACOM <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu>
Sent: Thu, 27 January, 2011 12:33:39 PM
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Hi, Rich.

I think your lack of food may have affected your lines of argument :-)

Pyle: "First of all, it's wrong."
Whether existing taxonomists think the databasing efforts are good or not isn't 
relevant. The author of the Wired article is Craig McLain, assistant director of 
science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center and like you, a keen 
marine expeditioner. McLain doesn't knock databasing. He says: 'Thankfully (my 
own research has relied upon them), thousands of hours and millions of dollars 
have been spent on these initiatives. However, many of these programs did not 
financially support taxonomists generating the data these databases required.'

Pyle: "Second of all, the amount of money spent on all database efforts combined 
is *trivial* compared to what is needed to correct the problem."
Ah, the old 'drop in the bucket' argument from Tom Wolfe's 'Mau Mauing the Flak 
Catchers'. Correcting the problem might take millions, who knows? It's a fluid 
estimate. Take some real figures: in 2010-11, of the 4 of the 9 taxonomy grants 
from the Australian Biological Resources Study (the Federal taxonomy honeypot) 
to professional taxonomists were for AUD$10000 *over 3 years*. That really is 
trivial. How much does one EOL Biodiversity Synthesis Meeting cost?

Pyle: "Third, in most cases that money has not come from a source that would 
have been available to taxonomists anyway."
Which is McLain's point, and lots of other people's. That source damn well 
*should* have been funding the taxonomists. And here again one of my favourite 
quotes, from former EOL head James Edwards: "We have not given enough thought to 
the people who provide the information on which the Encyclopedia of Life is 
built," Dr. Edwards acknowledged. "We are looking into ways to keep that 
community going." (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/26/science/26ency.html?_r=3)

Pyle: "Fourth, the entire argument is a Red Herring, because the real problem 
with misdirected funds is more dollars spent doing lab-based taxonomy, and less 
dollars spent doing field-based taxonomy."
You probably need to clarify that a bit more. I think it's still true that most 
new species are 'discovered' in museums and herbaria.
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
Ph: (03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195
Webpage: http://www.qvmag.tas.gov.au/?articleID=570


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