[Taxacom] The citation gap and its effect on taxonomy

Stephen Thorpe stephen_thorpe at yahoo.co.nz
Wed Feb 6 15:48:47 CST 2013

Which nicely brings us to the latest blasphemy by Mark "The ecological Antichrist" Costello :)
Costello, M.J.; May, R.M.; Stork, N.E. 2013: Can we name Earth's species before they go extinct? Science, 339(6118): 413-416. doi: 10.1126/science.1230318
according to which we can still describe everything in short order, and there still isn't as much as we might think out there to describe, even though Costello's upper limit estimate to global biodiversity has quadrupled now from 2 to 5+3=8 million species!

From: Robert Mesibov <mesibov at southcom.com.au>
To: Jim Croft <jim.croft at gmail.com> 
Cc: TAXACOM <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu> 
Sent: Thursday, 7 February 2013 10:33 AM
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] The citation gap and its effect on taxonomy

Nicely written blogpost, and I like the advice at the end, but I was stopped by this:

'Why does this matter?  As the world's population grows and ecological relationships unravel under the stress, our understanding of the diversity of life on earth is becoming more and more critical.'

I have trouble seeing this as anything more than a non sequitur. Critical for what? Garnock-Jones goes on to suggest:

(a) documenting (and maybe avoiding or 'repairing') extinction (which inevitably increases with population growth and more intensive Earth use)
(b) finding new foods and drugs (which help increase population growth and more intensive Earth use)
(c) identifying 'the pests and diseases that threaten agriculture, horticulture, and public health' (so that increasing population growth and more intensive Earth use aren't held back)
(d) recognising 'a local species that's a canary for water quality or temperature rise is replaced by a similar-looking exotic pest with a wider tolerance' (i.e., better adapted to a world with explosive population growth and more intensive Earth use)

Taxonomy doesn't help slow population growth or reduce destructive uses of the Earth. (b) and (c), above, make those problems worse, and (a) and (d) fall under the general heading of 'monitoring': documenting a catastrophe so that those people experiencing it can feel even worse about it, and so that anyone living post-catastrophe can see that we were aware of it but helpless to stop it.

If taxonomy has a 'critical' role to play, it's in documenting what we're losing (biodiversity salvage), i.e. gathering up the most at-risk bits of the shrinking resource of biological information, simply because that information won't be around in future and will have value for anyone interested.

We're busily and enthusiastically engineering a world with much lower biological diversity and an abundance of 'similar-looking exotic pest[s] with a wider tolerance' and much wider distributions. What 'critical' role can taxonomy play in this project, which has the support or grudging acceptance of nearly everyone?
Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and
School of Agricultural Science, University of Tasmania
Home contact: PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
Ph: (03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195


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