‘What if taxonomy had died in 1900?’

Last night, the Policy Team attended a fascinating discussion at the British Library, considering ‘Taxonomy in Crisis’. The evening was organised by the research and information team as part of the ‘Talk Science’ programme; a series of informal, public, discussions bringing researchers together to consider key hot topics in science.

Prof. Rod Page led the discussion, highlighting the importance of taxonomy as the ‘bricks’ of the ‘house’ of biology, with systematics as the mortar binding them together. Without taxonomy, he said, little in biology would make sense. He highlghted key issues for taxonomists and systematists: the nomenclature system leading to confusion if an organism’s position in the tree of life is altered by an advance in knowledge – all published literature relating to that species suddenly becomes detached from it. Would it be better to move to a numerical system of naming organisms? Does the potential to provide a ‘barcode’ for a species, based on its DNA, provide a threat or an opportunity for taxonomy?

Conflicting views then flowed from the audience during the discussion session. Some felt that taxonomy in fact didn’t matter that much to modern biology and that perhaps taxonomy was creating too much information: yes, it’s useful to know how many species we have and catalogue these, but the limited resources and time of scientists could be better spent in other biological endeavours. If taxonomy had died in 1900, would today’s biology look very different?

Others in the audience felt strongly that taxonomy was fundamental to conservation science. A taxonomist from Columbia highlighted the recent discovery of two new species in that country, the direct result of which was increased government interest in conservation and the formation of two new national parks to safeguard these natural resources. If all taxonomy had ceased in 1900, Prof. Page commented, our way of looking at the natural world, and our understanding of our place in it – and potentially our behaviour towards it because of this – would be fundamentally different.

Discussion highlighted the threat to taxonomy and systematics posed by the current model of supporting and funding science in the UK. Taxonomic studies simply did not attract large grants or publications in high-impact journals: therefore scientists were driven away from these studies by lack of cudos or lack of money. Another question was raised over whether this really mattered. Is it so important that our taxonomists are ‘home grown’ in the UK, when areas of high biodiversity are actually in the developing world, where many countries, such as Brazil, are investing in their taxonomists.

Overall, a very interesting discussion which brought out a variety of different viewpoints. You can find out more about the Talk Science initiative at the British Library website.