[Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Richard Pyle deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
Wed Jan 26 16:57:16 CST 2011

The more we scapegoat electronic biodiversity information management as the "cause" of the extinction of taxonomists, the faster that extinction will be upon us.  Misdirected blame only adds to the noise.  

First of all, it's wrong.  My octogenarian PhD Advisor, who has named more new species of fishes than any living ichthyologist (more than double than the next most prolific, in fact), and who has authored more taxonomic publications than any other ichthyologist in history (closing in on 800), *still* praises the online Catalog of Fishes as a marvel of technology, and one that has improved his efficiency dramatically. I hear similar sentiments from other similarly-credentialed "classical" taxonomists studying various groups of organisms.

Second of all, the amount of money spent on all database efforts combined is *trivial* compared to what is needed to correct the problem.

Third, in most cases that money has not come from a source that would have been available to taxonomists anyway.  In other words, these efforts have *increased* the total amount of dollars supporting the work of taxonomists; not detracted from it.

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.

I play all roles, and I would rank their importance in the following order:

1) Naturalist
2) Collector
3) Alpha taxonomist
4) Database Developer
5) Systematist

I return again to my consistent rant:  We need to spend less time/money figuring out how organisms are related to each other, and more time/money discovering and documenting them in nature (while they're still here to discover and document).  I don't mean to disparage systematics or lab-based taxonomy entirely -- both are important endeavors, and contribute meaningfully to the goal of documenting biodiversity.  The problem is in terms of proportion -- not just proportion of dollars spent, but proportion of training the next generation of taxonomists.

Finally, we're missing the larger issue.  Arguing about how to slice the bio-dollar pie is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. What we need to focus on is the SIZE of the pie.  We shouldn't be arguing about dollars spent on informatics vs. dollars spent on alpha taxonomy vs. dollars spent on phylogenetics.  We should be arguing about dollars spent on biodiversity research vs. physics research vs. astronomy research vs. other "big ticket" science.

So first, let's convince the world why biodiversity is important (as I have argued before, it is Earth's *most* important asset for future humanity -- we just don't realize it yet), and enlarge the size of the pie ten-fold or 100-fold.  Then we can argue how to slice that pie up.

Sorry for the rant -- I haven't had food yet today....


Richard L. Pyle, PhD
Database Coordinator for Natural Sciences
Associate Zoologist in Ichthyology
Dive Safety Officer
Department of Natural Sciences, Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
email: deepreef at bishopmuseum.org

> -----Original Message-----
> From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu [mailto:taxacom-
> bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Bob Mesibov
> Sent: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 10:36 AM
> Subject: [Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline
> http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/01/extinction-of-taxonomists/
> Quote:
> "The millions of dollars spent globally on technology to catalog species may
> actually be pushing out the people we rely upon: taxonomists and
> systematists. We’re like young children frantic to add new baseball cards to
> our collections, while the actual creators of the baseball cards themselves are
> vanishing."
> Nice to see that message getting out to a wider audience.
> --
> 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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