Where Have all the Taxonomists Gone?

Taxonomy professionals in the information sciences often look to their forebears in biological taxonomy as role models in a pantheon of correctness. They are held up as the paradigms of descriptive truth and pure taxonomic principles. Scratch beneath the surface of what’s happening in the world of biological taxonomy, however, and you will find cabals, cliques, methodological debates and heresies, and a great deal of stress and uncertainty about the discipline of taxonomy itself.

A year ago I blogged a report from Australia about the endangered status of (biological) taxonomists in Australia. It seems from a recent article by Bob Grant in The Scientist magazine that the problem is widespread. That turns out to be a problem not just for taxonomists but also for the whole biological sustainability movement, because tracking and ameliorating the collapse of ecosystems requires the ability to accurately describe and study organisms and their roles in the ecosystems. Taxonomy plays a cornerstone role in this. The problem is:

”...there are fewer and fewer biologists who practice traditional taxonomy, or the collection, description, naming and categorization of organisms through intense study of their physical attributes. In general, the field of taxonomy, or systematics as it is often called, has been leaning towards the molecular end of the spectrum since genetic technology matured in the late 1970s and 1980s, and traditional taxonomic skills have been dwindling as older taxonomic experts retire. Many taxonomists blend traditional methods, such as morphological and behavioral study, with modern molecular techniques, such as DNA sequencing, to fully characterize their pet taxa. But taxonomists like Cognato and Hulcr, who rely on fieldwork and morphological study as core aspects of their taxonomic work, appear to be slowly going extinct.”

Biological taxonomy as a discipline is under severe stress because traditional descriptive (morphological) methods of discriminating species and creating family trees has been largely supplanted by the quick-fix “barcoding” method of reading sample sections of DNA sequences and coming up with a unique identification “genetic barcode”. Who needs to locate an organism in a taxonomic classification when you have the equivalent of a book ISBN? Well duh. Why do books need to be classified as well as having a barcode? Taxonomies put objects into relation with each other (as the Scientist article graphically illustrates) as well as providing identification data. Barcodes don’t.

There are other problems with genetic barcoding, such as the problem that there is substantial genetic variation within species as well, so any given DNA barcode sequence is an averaged approximation across several specimens. You can’t actually be confident about whether you are averaging the right set without a taxonomist to tell you whether on other morphological, behavioural and geographic factors, you do indeed have specimens from the same species. Taxonomy is an approximate, multi-factoral art of pragmatic judgment, whether it be in biology or in knowledge management. It’s all about whether you can function better having one, not about how quickly you can slap a label on something.

For those of you curious about the ructions and stresses in the world of scientific taxonomy, Quentin Wheeler’s recent edited collection of articles gives an excellent survey.

1 Comment so far

Patrick Lambe

Timely news from China on their attempt to stem the decline in taxonomic capabilities in science

Posted on July 03, 2009 at 05:26 PM | Comment permalink

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