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Taxonomists savage their dead

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From Ansel Payne at Nautilus:

Why Do Taxonomists Write the Meanest Obituaries?

The open nature of the science of classification virtually guarantees fights.

Well, “speciation” has been a mess forever. No one can define it but it is the basis of Darwinian evolution.

On the other hand, maybe that works. Still, one wouldn’t have expected this, necessarily:

For starters, there’s the problem of classification itself. Ever since Darwin gave us a framework for understanding common descent, the search has been on for a natural classification, an arrangement of nested groups, or taxa, that accurately reflects evolutionary relationships. In this scheme, a classification functions as an explicit evolutionary hypothesis—to say that five species form a genus is also to say that those five species share a unique common ancestor. Ditto for families and orders, right up through classes and kingdoms.

On another level, though, higher-order classifications are all a bit arbitrary. So long as all the members of a genus share a unique common ancestor and some unifying trait, the size of that genus—the number of related species lumped together under that name—is really up to the classifier. This has created generational fights between two different camps of taxonomists: splitters, who advocate for more and smaller groups, and lumpers, who like their groups big and inclusive.

If experience is any guide, it also gives them the right to sneer and obfuscate at the same time. And to protest is to dishonour Darwin’s prophets. But who knew this stuff about their classification system?

In order to balance freedom with stability, the Codes generally remain silent on the question of quality: Any taxonomic proposal, no matter how outlandish, ill-informed, or incompetent, counts so long as it was published according to the barest of requirements set out in the Codes themselves. For the ICN, this means descriptions must be published in printed materials that are distributed to libraries and accessible to botanists. For the ICZN, which recently relaxed its requirements, descriptions can come in either publically accessible printed materials or Internet-based digital publications. In neither case do the Codes require peer review; if you can print it and you can distribute it, then you can describe pretty much whatever you want.

While this freedom opens up a valuable space for amateur contributions, it also creates a massive loophole for unscrupulous, incompetent, or fringe characters to wreak havoc. That’s because the Principle of Priority binds all taxonomists into a complicated network of interdependence; just because a species description is wrong, poorly conceived, or otherwise inadequate, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a recognized part of taxonomic history.

The rest of us don’t care much, after a while, but the taxonomists can at least get back at each other’s ghosts:

Walker’s two-page obituary, in the November 1874 issue of the Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, sits between a short research note (“Emmelesia unifasciata three years in the pupa state”) and some words on the passing of William Lello (“He leaves a considerable collection of Lepidoptera …”). Written anonymously, it pulled no punches when it came to the late taxonomist’s legacy: The vast majority of the tens of thousands of new species he proposed were “objects of derision for all conscientious entomologists.” More than once, the obituarist referred to Walker’s work simply as the “evil.” More.

See also: “Speciation” means what exactly? No one can define it but it is the basis of Darwinian evolution.

and

Tree of life morphs into … leaf?

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One Reply to “Taxonomists savage their dead

  1. 1
    Zooman says:

    Let’s see…descendant species of a common ancestor ought to share DNA, so why don’t classifiers use DNA to identify members of a genus/family/etc.? Oh, that’s right…the DNA from some descendants of “well-established” hypothesized “common” ancestors has nothing in common with the DNA from their “relatives.” “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive.” (Sir Walter Scott) “Oh, dear.” (Eeyore)

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