[Taxacom] Why Taxonomy does NOT matter

Richard Zander Richard.Zander at mobot.org
Wed May 11 08:52:39 CDT 2011

Taken separately, Fabian's comments are right on. 


On the other hand, I have suggested on Taxacom in the past that ALL aspects of taxonomy can be combined so that one can approach funders with 1. a 250-year ongoing project that 2. uses human-mediated genetic algorithms to do preliminary identification of taxa and sorting into relationships, 3. formalizes morphological character analysis to develop dendrograms based in descriptions of taxa showing parsimoniously nested relative primitive and elaborated trait series that can be made, with other information, into natural keys, 4. uses cutting edge DNA and genomic analyses to weigh genetic continuity, and 5. evaluates evolutionary directions with Dollo's Rule and other information to create a well-hooked classification. 


This is done by coming up with a scientific theory of evolutionary process for each group that explains and conciliates results of alpha taxonomy, morphological analysis, and molecular analyses. You may have to have a team to split the technical work, a well-funded team, of course. What is important is not to let any one member demand that his/her analytical method must control or will explain the results of any other method, but that all results be explained by a separate unified theory. 


This is possible. It is attractive because it has a footprint that consolidates years of alpha taxonomic work and also an aspect of high technology. It also will not negatively affect biodiversity studies by basing some aspects of classification on artifacts, like phylogenetic paraphyly and polyphyly, or old-timers insisting molecular analysis must be wrong when it conflicts with past classifications. My solution has to do with an appraisal of the caulistic dimension, but there may be other solutions.


Wrangling will not impress funders. We also cannot consolidate our different ideological camps by depending on hegemony of one or the other to fix things. I'm certain there is a solution, and though it may not entirely satisfy anyone, it does allow one to approach funders with a robust project.


* * * * * * * * * * * *

Richard H. Zander

Missouri Botanical Garden, PO Box 299, St. Louis, MO 63166-0299 USA�

Web sites: http://www.mobot.org/plantscience/resbot/�and http://www.mobot.org/plantscience/bfna/bfnamenu.htm

Modern Evolutionary Systematics Web site: http://www.mobot.org/plantscience/resbot/21EvSy.htm



-----Original Message-----
From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu [mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Fabian Haas
Sent: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 3:53 AM
To: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Why Taxonomy does NOT matter


Dear All,


let me share with you the results and summary of the discussions we had 

on why taxonomy does not matter for many donors. See below, a word doc 

is also available with nicer formatting.


Pls remember, the whole issue is about opinions and perceptions, and not 

about the truth. DFor example, many believe taxonomical knowledge is 

available, and so they decide based on their opinion, no matter that if 

we have difficulties finding relevant keys - if they exist at all.


Hope we made a step forward in this respect and can move donors a little 

better to fund taxonomy.


best Fabian


*Why Taxonomy does not matter?*


Fabian Haas, 2011-05-03, summary of about 100 emails in Taxacom Mailing 

List and input be a few other people.


A little while ago, I was on a steering committee meeting of a taxonomic 

initiative in East Africa, and we were discussing the issue why it is so 

difficult to receive funding for taxonomy, despite support through 

institutions and the CBD.


We were exchanging the regular arguments, when it struck me: Had any 

body actually talked to the donors why they don't like to fund taxonomy? 

In particular, the groundwork, describing species, recording 

distributions has had challenging times. If at all, DNA and Internet 

related activities are being funded, which do not produce new 

descriptions, but are based on them and do more, what I would like to 

call 'infrastructure work', making existing taxonomic information 

available via internet.


The result was that I wrote an email to two mailing lists (end of this 

document), and this paper summarises the responses of these list. It is 

obvious that these are personal experiences, and I was asking for that, 

and not a systematic questionnaire to donors. So, it is anecdotal 

evidence in the first place, but I think, this is important anyway. I 

received about 100 responses, which contained discussions about my 

email, so not each and everyone is an example of a statement made by a 



The word 'donor' should be explained a little more. These are 

institutions, private organisations and individuals who have a certain 

vision and mission and give money and other support to other 

institutions and individuals to achieve this target. We write proposals 

to donors and they decide to give money on a competitive basis, or not. 

In Europe and other places there are donors dedicated to basic science, 

while here in Kenya most of the donors are related to conservation and 

development cooperation, which have little interest in basic science 

from the beginning. This adds a whole new perspective to funding, 

bringing very different interests into the field.


The arguments, /why taxonomy does not matter/, are grouped in three 

sections, which appear connected, but otherwise don't establish a 

priority list. I took the liberty commenting on them and adding own 

observations to them.


It is a pleasure to thank all the participants in the discussion, who 

shared their views and experiences for this collection.


*Donor Perspective*


1) Most species don't matter


We only connect to a few selected species (often flagship species), and 

most, esp. insects and other invertebrates are unknown and unrecognized 

in daily life, they simply don't appear to be important. This perception 

has nothing to do with reality, like ecosystem service, where linkages 

are realized in a wider public only if the ESS fail, like pollination. 

With the donor's focus on application and immediate results, this 

selectiveness makes it difficult to pay for taxonomic projects, and 

since taxonomists have a sense of completeness, no donor wants to 

support comprehensive taxonomic projects. After all, many donors say, 

People Come First, so why care about some insects.


2) Taxonomy lacks innovativeness


Taxonomists are eager to point out how classical their science is, 

however, many donors want to see innovations with possible spin off to 

industry. This could be the reasons why everything that has the word 

'DNA' and 'Internet' in its name, has a advantage right from the start, 

and could explain why such initiatives (e.g. Barcoding, GBIF) did 

receive funding, while taxonomic groundwork does not.


On a satirical note I could imagine a dialogue between a taxonomist and 

a donor, the former saying that he is part of a tradition of about 

250yrs. The Donor might think: Hm, well, wonderful, impressive, BUT they 

haven't finished yet? When do I get my results and reports?? So, why 

don't they ever apply their knowledge then??? I am not going to fund 

them for that time, not even half of it!!!! Would I buy a cell phone 

from 10yrs ago? No! I wanna have the latest model, so I want the latest 

version of taxonomy too. Lets go for DNA!


3) Taxonomy is over-accurate for most applications


Most (not all) decisions in e.g. modelling and conservation are done and 

can be done without complete knowledge of taxa. As it is, decisions for 

conservation areas are often based on flagship species (e.g. elephants), 

on taxa which have an excellent research background, e.g. birds (IBAs), 

on availability of land (e.g. land with a high Tsetse burden), 

importance as corridor and other factors, but never on a complete view 

on an all biodiversity in a specific area. Even if an inventory existed, 

it would be an illusion that we could collect data on ecological 

requirements and population dynamics for most of the species necessary 

for informed decisions. A complete inventory does not seem to provide an 

advantage for conservation.


4) Taxonomy and Classification and Phylogeny


Most donors will consider that none of this is relevant to them. They do 

not need to know all species, let alone how they are related. If they 

are interested in taxonomy, they are interested in simple species ID. In 

some cases, like customs, they are often happy to know what it is not.


5) Taxonomic knowledge is available


Taxonomy is perceived as a public good, as something the states support 

and not the project based donors.


*Science Perspective*


I think that has been widely been discussed in the 1990ies and following 

years, and so I can keep it short.


6) Taxonomy is stamp collection


It comes also in a variant argument, that research has to be 'hypothesis 

driven' and this is the reason, why studies which included 

Classification and Phylogeny had much better chance for funding than 

studies which focused on 'pure' taxonomic work.


7) Taxonomy small budget research


Which is why administrations are not keen on it, for the small overheads 

and amount of money coming in. Compared to other research projects, 

non-DNA taxonomy is fairly cheap, brings in little soft money and thus 

administrations are only mildly interested in it.


8) Science politics and rating systems


Linked to 5-6) but also see the discussions citation indexes and impact 

factors, which taxonomy does not yield.


*Community Perspective*


9) A lack of sense of community amongst taxonomist


There is little cohesion amongst taxonomist, others and myself make that 

experience again and again. Lobby work is not appreciated or supported 

by the community, rather attacked. My personal impression is that most 

of the lobby work for taxonomy is actually not done by taxonomist 

themselves, but others who find the topic important.


This is not so amongst other professional groups, in my opinion the best 

example are astronomers who argue together, often worldwide, make their 

way into science administration and management, and are the decision 

makers. Another example is hunters who have extremely well organised 

lobby work, and many decision makers are themselves hunters. You see the 

outcome yourself.



My Original question was:


Dear Colleagues,


my apologies for the subject of this email, but I thing I have your


attention. I am a taxonomist myself, and working a lot to make taxonomy


matter on various plat forms, so no need to convince me about the


importance of taxonomy.


What I am trying to find out i , why we seemingly have not succeeded in


gathering more support for taxonomy in the last 10 yrs or so? Although


we have high political support for the CBD, a variety of interesting


projects, like EOL and GBIF, and many other plat forms distributing


taxonomic information. These success have little contributed -in my


opinion- to improve funding for the production of taxonomic knowledge.


Instead of lamenting again, and preaching to the converted, I would like


to find out, why the donors dont seem to react, what are their reasons


not to fund taxonomic work, at all, or at a level would be useful. So I


am looking for their reasons, why they dont seem to receive our message


that we need to taxonomy. And also why taxonomic aspects are often


deleted form projects when money becomes tight, more often than other


section. Taxonomy seems expensible.


I do have some suspicions, like they dont know what it is, they simply


dont like the topic, they think everything is known, they thing we dont


need it anyways, its a public good and so available, taxonomy would be


complete, etc.


I will certainly try to talk the donors informally to find out what they


think, but what I would like to ask this community, if you have any


first hand experience, first hand statements on that. I will treat all


information confidential if wished, and keep informant and, more


importantly donor, anonymously. It is not about blaming someone, but I


would like to better understand their perspective, with the ultimate


goal to improve our communication strategy, and better address them. We


did work a lot on our/taxonomist communication and I believe all the


necessary answers are ready, collected by BioNET etc, but this change of


perspective -ask the listeners why they dont listen- seems worth wile to me.


So Why does Taxonomy NOT matter??


Best & Looking forward to hearing from you!








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