[Taxacom] Taxonomic anarchy -- solution?

Norbert Holstein holstein at uni-bonn.de
Tue Jun 6 07:48:21 CDT 2017

I am surprised that (only these?) conservationists seem to 
ignore one of the most basic things in science, viz. 
giving references. By merely conserving "names" they 
completely miss the essential (and actually completely 
different) point to specify on which taxonomic treatment 
(ID key, viz. how to recognize the taxon to be conserved) 
their conservation assessment is based on.

If legislature wouldn't be based on names but the citation 
of a treatment on how to recognize the group to be 
conserved, there wouldn't be a discussion about the 
automatic loss of the conservation status after a later 
change to names or rank etc. Rather, this would imply that 
the conservation status might be reassessed based on a 
newer knowledge. It would also require a discussion, what 
exactly is to be conserved. Just because some characters 
of a population are not specific to a distinct 
evolutionary line (e.g. behavior, coloration) doesn't 
mean, the population is worthless and that it doesn't 
deserve conservation. We humans conserve our heritage, 
traditions, diversity in languages etc., although they are 
not essential for our survival but because they are 
special to us. If people want cougars in Florida, then it 
doesn't matter which taxonomic status they have. If people 
don't care about cougars at all or simply don't want them 
in Florida anymore (like they don't care about flies, 
moquitoes etc.), so they die out. People care about polar 
bears and pandas, yet, nobody cries out if some slug 
species or worms die out, although they might be essential 
for other species or the eco system, or even harbor great 
things humans could use but don't know about yet. To find 
out if something is so special that it deserves 
conservation, is a though job, but it's not the job of the 
taxonomists. Taxonomists can help to pinpoint peculiar 
populations, just as any field biologist, behaviaral 
scientist or population geneticist can, but if they are to 
be protected, that's something completely different.

Taxonomists (systematicists) make hypotheses if and how 
individuals/populations differ from each other 
(morphologically, genetically, behavior, habitat 
preference, distribution) and try to find out if these 
differences are caused by independent evolutionary lines 
(or better networks). Names, however, are given to 
("typical") individuals that (seem to) have different sets 
of characters. Any change of names (only the oldest one 
will remain in use) from a reassessment of these 
characters to look if these reflect an independent 
evolutionary line, leads to a new classification. Just 
because some populations are not sexually isolated or 
differ from others by more than X% of mutations or 
whatssoever, doesn't mean, there is no diversity. If we 
talk about conserving diversity, it is also the 
below-species level diversity. Taxonomists do recognize 
this diversity (that's actually the challenge), but it 
does not mean that the diversity needs to reflected in a 
species rank. That's why there are ranks below the species 
level (at least in the ICN). If people don't care about 
diversity, that's a different problem.

The authors of the Nature article just show that they 
don't understand taxonomy or systematics. But who can 
blame them, to be honest. If taxonomy is taught at 
university, it's often rather, how to spot different 
species and name them (or: how to use an ID key and how to 
give it a name if it doesn't fit to any species in the 
key). Of course, students must learn how to identify 
species, but that does not make them taxonomists (also 
many claim themselves as such). Taxonomic work goes much 
deeper (nomenclatural rules, collection history, 
morphology, distributions, phylogenetics a.s.o., all that 
then cumulate in a real taxonomic treatment). What people 
see, however, is a key and descriptions and maybe a map. 
The complexity is often beyond them, just as it is for 
these article authors.


Dr.rer.nat. Norbert Holstein
Nees-Institut f. Biodiversität d. Pflanzen
Venusbergweg 22
53115 Bonn
Phone: +49-228-73-6530

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