The imminent death of taxonomy

I’ve commented before on the slow and painful death of taxonomy in science and the issues this is likely to bring in the long run. Fortunately it seems that this is finally starting to be picked up in the wider world and that this may get a little attention. Case in point being this rather good article on the subject which I can highly recommend (thanks to Taissa Rodrigues for flagging it up).

The only thing I’d add is that they seem to have overlooked what, for me, is the biggest problem. Species are inherently hard to identify and sort out properly. And so while an absence of taxonomists does mean we can loose species without knowing they exist or have real problems understanding biodiversity and conservation, the real issue is far more fundamental. If you do not know what a given species is, or it is not defined properly then *any* research based on that in any way is fundamentally undermined. You simply can’t practice biological research effectively if your most basic unit of study is questionable. Try doing a phylogenetic or ecological analysis when it’s not certain which specimens in your lab belong to species A or B, or even Q. Taxonomy is the absolute bedrock of biology and without it, the foundations of our research are going to be awfully shaky.



4 Responses to “The imminent death of taxonomy”

  1. 1 Jura 27/01/2011 at 7:06 pm

    While the nebulous nature of the whole species concept has been a bane of biology since at least Darwin’s day (he wrote a lot about it in Origin), there is hope. Kevin De Queiroz (2007) attempted to collapse all the species concepts into one unified concept (first and foremost being that a species is primarily defined as a group of critters that reproduce the same group of critters). The paper is a worthy read. To date I have only seen one application of the unified species concept (that of black rat snakes), but it is still early.

    De Queiroz, K. 2007. Species Concepts and Species Delimitation. Syst.Biol. Vol.56(6):879-886

    • 2 David Hone 27/01/2011 at 7:10 pm

      Not that I have read it, but even if it works, there will pretty much always be exceptions somewhere (there will alwayds be that One damned species that doesn’t fit) and something are simply not directly comparable (you simply can’t marry up fossils known only from bones and viruses from DNA). Even if you can get past this, you need people to name new species *and* to use it to revise all the other species. Given that we are fundamentally running out of taxonomists as we find more and more species, what concept you use is the least of the problems right now.

  2. 3 Jaime A. Headden 28/01/2011 at 12:29 am

    We’re conflating taxonomy with the “species problem.” The two are very, very different (although very related).

    The extra issue that the article cited does not mention is that science in general is becoming less hyper-specialization–driven: Less workers are devoting themselves to a strict small group, or are identifying themselves towards a broader range of organisms (or disciplines) in order to capitalize on what broad group perspectives and multi-specialization (Jacks-of-all-trades) bring to the fields in question. Both of these will contribute to the reduction of specialization in fields of biology.

    But what about general taxonomy? The issue of the “species concept” is part of this, as well as the tendency of a few dominant authors overriding many “weaker,” submissive (or student) authors to assert taxonomy, overshadowing the practice with the false illusion that less workers are adopting a taxonomic approach in their work.

    I’m not even going to try to approach the government/ecology element of this, where a group will define or enforce a taxonomic system or choice (Drosophila over Sophophora?) for a particular ulterior goal. Nor will I approach a political aspect, where an agency will attempt to enforce conservation by prohibiting work or workers in fields that may develop a richer or finer gradient of taxonomy.

    But I will say that this is all Linnaeus’ fault.

  3. 4 David Hone 28/01/2011 at 9:09 am

    “Less workers are devoting themselves to a strict small group, or are identifying themselves towards a broader range of organisms (or disciplines) in order to capitalize on what broad group perspectives and multi-specialization (Jacks-of-all-trades) bring to the fields in question.”

    That may be true in some areas, but everything I have seen in biology and especially palaeo is for hyper specialisation. You used to get people even jsut 30 years ago who worked on “fossil reptiles” or “Eocene mammals”, now you get people who only look at tyrannosaurs, or Early Cretaceous Gondawanan theropods. Though admittedly palaeo is an odd exception since pretty much every palaeontologist does some taxonomy and systematics as a course of their work, whereas I know lots of biologists who wouldn’t know where to start.

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