Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Read my lips--no new taxa

The science of taxonomy is now under the doleful gaze of the conservation humbugs at The Economist. Is this the next intrusion of politics into science? Will politicians referee species determinations?

With an analogy to currency markets, The Economist warns against species inflation, worrying that it will diminish the value of species: "It therefore behoves taxonomists to be honest. If they debase their currency, it will ultimately become valueless." This is a chilling message hidden within a reasonable-sounding plea.

Of course taxonomists should be honest. And if individuals fail, their peers should call foul. That's the essence of the scientific method. But the dismal journal inappropriately doubts honesty if species are discovered in the lab and not in the jungle.

As modern DNA-based methods have emerged, a revolution in species identification has rightly taken place. Reclassification based on incisive genetic studies is not unusual. Are these powerful and important findings of new species suspect if the results somehow discomfort those who covet their habitat?

I would hope for better from The Economist, a journal that appears to support learning and intelligence. Advances in science do not always conform to political agendas, nor should they. Let's leave species identifications in the hands of biologists where they belong, and out of the political arena.

Years ago, I was warned that University promotions are based on counting publications rather than judging their merit. Apparently, University Deans are not the only science-watchers who can count but can't read.


Anonymous said...

I was also appalled at this article in the Economist. And we are not alone. They eventually printed three annoyed responses to this editorial in their Inbox (you have to scroll down the page a bit to find them . . .).


Rana said...

Well done - I was directed here from Bora's Blogs of the Year.

But I did read that Economist article slightly differently. I'm not sure that the authors were necessarily arguing for a completely gene-centric approach to teaching biology, but I think they were perfectly correct to say that
Evolution often fails to produce the clear divisions that human thought in general, and the law in particular, prefers to work with.

Although I'm not sure that I share their conclusion - today perhaps taxonomy is even more difficult, complicated and important than ever.