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Why the museum drawer is an enemy of understanding evolution


Because it’s stuffed with unexamined evidence. From Christopher Kemp at New Scientist:

As he read the beetle’s yellowed, handwritten label, he realised the specimen had been collected in 1832 in Argentina by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle. Somehow it had never been described. It was stored away unnamed, then disappeared into the museum’s vast beetle collection. Finally, after 180 years in limbo, Chatzimanolis gave it a name: Darwinilus sedarisi, in honour of Darwin and the writer David Sedaris, whose audiobooks he listened to while writing the description in his office at the University of Tennessee.

Yes, this reads like a novel (film option?) but it isn’t.

The rediscovery of Darwin’s long-lost beetle was a remarkable stroke of fortune, but the wider story – of a new species being found in a museum collection – is surprisingly common. More than 1000 new beetle species are described each year from the Natural History Museum’s collection alone. (paywall) More.

The museum drawer is a much more serious problem than is often realized. Charles Walcott, secretary of the Smithsonian, had the equivalent of Noah’s Ark for decades in museum drawers, the basic anatomies of most animal phyla – the Cambrian explosion. Never had time to…

The Cambrian explosion got revisited eventually… in the 1960s.

All the stuff in museum drawers today has already been dug up and deposited. In business, that’s called a “sunk cost.” (A cost that doesn’t matter anymore.) With so much ferment now, why not fast track examining the existing information. Unless of course, we are afraid of what’ll turn up. The Cambrian plays a big role in ID thinking, for example…

See also: Steve Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt is still doing well in paleontology (July 2017)


This evolution meeting must be significant: Suzan Mazur has been disinvited… again! Mazur is an American journalist who has been covering the antics of the Darwinian establishment for most of a decade.

Good thoughts, Bob O'H at 1. Besides, the museums already own that stuff. Possession is 9/10ths of the law... With funding, it could be a good field for STEM grads with a taste for history but not street drama. News
With so much ferment now, why not fast track examining the existing information.
Money. For a start, it costs a lot to train taxonomists, and this isn't seen as a priority by funders (this has been complained about with some regularity in the scientific press). There are also other priorities, such as digitising collections so we know what is actually there. This costs a lot of money - IIRC sums of over €100m were being talked about for the Senckenberg museum where I used to work (to be fair, this is in the top 5 natural history museums in the world by size of collection). All of the major museums have millions of specimens to sort through, and just keeping the collections can be a major problem. Checking the collections, once they are digitised and stored, takes a lot of time and skill. I couldn't do it, for example, because I simply don't have the skills in identification and specimen description - this takes a lot of time to develop, as well as a certain mindset. DNA based methods will be complementary, but this will still take a lot of money, and will also rely on digitisation to organise the efforts. Overall, this is a huge job. If you want to help, push for more funding of museums, and training of taxonomists. My colleagues will thank you, as will future generations. Bob O'H

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