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As Species Decline, So Do the Scientists Who Name Them

samzenpus posted about 5 months ago | from the end-of-the-line dept.

Earth 76

tcd004 (134130) writes "Few sciences are more romantic than taxonomy. Imagine Darwin, perched over a nest of newly-discovered birds in the Galapagos, sketching away with a charcoal in his immortal journals. Yet Taxonomy is a dying science. DNA barcoding, which can identify species from tiny fragments of organic material, and other genetic sciences are pulling students away from the classical studies of anatomy and species classifications. As the biodiversity crisis wipes undiscovered species off the planet, so to go the scientists who count them."

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.truth! (-1, Flamebait)

retchdog (1319261) | about 5 months ago | (#46957333)

fuck them. if they mattered to humanity (the dominant species), the free market would have done something to save them.

this counts for the commie "scientists" too.

Re:.truth! (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46957619)

What is this free market you speak of? It sounds like a good idea, maybe someone should try it some time.

Re:.truth! (1)

retchdog (1319261) | about 5 months ago | (#46961969)

Ownership is freedom. Markets are all about owning both things and people. Freedom. Markets. Free Markets.

Do you get that yet, you fucking commie?

It's not dead, it's evolving (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46957369)

DNA isn't pulling people away from taxonomy so much as replacing it with a vastly superior system. Classical taxonomy is kind of like classical mechanics. It's fine for most purposes, but it's not "complete" and its answers range from slightly inaccurate to flat out wrong depending on the question.

We no longer have to arbitrarily decide "ok, this is a new species because it's different in this way" we can now look at DNA and see exactly how it differs, what it's closest to, who its ancestors are, when it split, and so on. Names are inaccurate representations for humans to use. With DNA, the term "species" itself becomes somewhat irrelevant because we now know the system of species and genetics is much more fluid than that.

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (5, Insightful)

Xest (935314) | about 5 months ago | (#46957535)

Exactly right, but it's worth warning there are still a lot of issues with the subject, not least the fact that in changing the way taxonomy is done there is confusion about what taxonomy is meant to actually achieve.

On one hand you have people who want easy names for things, so they can refer to them in conversation, or write books. Hey look at this "Blah blah" plant and so on.

On the other you have the needs of science - the need to be able to explicitly define a cut off point to say this is a different species, a different genus, a different family or whatever.

Historically taxonomy has had problems without DNA analysis because it's been based pretty much entirely on how a plant looks, it's features. If Plant A is a small fat round green cactus with 1 inch spines and small purple flowers and Plant B has the same then they must be the same species, or at least the same genus. This sounds well and good, but the advent of DNA analysis sometimes shows that plant A and plant B are in fact extremely genetically distinct and aren't closely related at all. So why did they look the same? Convergent evolution - if the two plant populations were 200 miles apart directly north-south to each other and the species that pollinates them likes small purple flowers then they've simply evolved the same traits through natural selection because of that pollinator. Meanwhile another plant 100 miles to the East of plant A may be a large tall thin cactus with a blue powdery coat and large white flowers but actually ends up being more genetically similar to the point it's in the same genus as plant A - it looks completely different because although it shares ancestry it's on the path of a completely different pollinator that likes tall blue plants with massive white flowers. The net result is that plants that are genetically close are not identified as such based on visual inspection, whilst those that aren't close are lumped together when they shouldn't be using classical taxonomy. This is why the AC above says classic taxonomy is sometimes outright wrong. Looks don't tell us anything like the sort of picture we need to know - without being able to track the growth and evolution of species through time we simply do not know the ancestry, so until the arrival of DNA taxonomy was a fundamentally flawed science.

So it seems like DNA solves everything right? Wrong. The problem we have now is that it's still arbitrary as to where you decide the cut off, how different does a subject have to be to be a distinct species from another subject? If their DNA varies by 0.00000000001% we can probably agree they're closely related enough to be the same species, but what about a 0.1% difference? what about a 1% difference? When we figure that out we then have to decide the boundaries for genus, for families, and also in the other direction for subspecies and so forth. Right now there is no fixed figure so it's still arbitrary - one taxonomist is separating species based on a 0.1% difference, and another is doing it on a 0.15% difference. This means we still have nonsense arguments about what genus a species belongs in or whatever - nonsense because it's completely down to personal opinion, and that's subjective.

The problem is that if we do do something objective and say right, well, the cut off points are 0.1% for species, 1% for genus and so on we end up with situations where subjects are lumped together in a manner that are inconvenient for the trade world, and for gardeners "Oh I've always called it that, I'm not changing the name, they need the same growing conditions so I'm going to treat them like they always used to be named" - sometimes the objective system can result in surprising classifications that are inconvenient for non-scientific users and so they refuse to adopt them.

Which takes us back to the original question - what is the point in taxonomy? From there we have to ask things like who does it exist to serve? What are it's goals? Does science even need it? would scientists be better off moving to a whole new system that isn't lossy and just describes groupings based on differences from some norm?

As an aside there are other complications - it's possible for ancestry to split, and then remerge for example, which makes a classic and popular tree-like structure invalid. An example might be the splitting from great apes into neanderthals and humans, and then supposed subsequent cross-breeding of the two which creates a diamond like shape on a graph of ancestry.

DNA analysis has created massive turmoil for taxonomy which was frankly historically a faux-science. We now have to decide what it's for, and whether it's a science or an art - is it designed to provide objective classification, or is it designed to provide convenient classification? Until these fundamental questions are answered the whole profession of taxonomy is still completely up in the air in terms of where it even sits in the academic world.

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (1)

GrumpySteen (1250194) | about 5 months ago | (#46958339)

To add to your points, the big problem with taxonomy is that it treats two closely related species as if there is a definitely dividing line between them so that every animal can be categorized.

In reality, categorizing closely related species should probably be treated more like making a Venn diagram. Sometimes two species will have a definite dividing line between them, sometimes there's some overlap (especially when you get into tracing the evolution of species).

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (1)

Xest (935314) | about 5 months ago | (#46958785)

Yep, exactly. We can't really say that speciation is analog, it's not, it's defined by a finite albeit with an unimaginably large number of DNA variations, but it's absolutely a broad spectrum rather than a clear discrete set of possibilities which is what taxonomy tries to apply.

Because of that it's also hard to determine a dividing line from the perspective that what might look like a reasonable dividing line for say, very simple plant life, might not be a reasonable dividing line for a complex mammal. So even if we do get an objective cutoff point in terms of say a percent difference, it may lead to some wild divisions of species in some families of species even if it makes sense in others. What then? do we create arbitrary dividing lines for different families? if so how do we stop that descending into the subjectivity we have now anyway? It's further complicated by things like "junk" DNA too which may vary greatly between species and may alter the calculation as to what defines a different species. Not that we do, but if we had two subjects that were pretty much identical in all but say 5% of their junk DNA then would we really want to classify them as different species? The actual expressed genes say they're close enough to be the same species, but their overall DNA says they're very different. Even choosing what part of the genome of a species we use is challenging - all of it? a subset? do we need to alter the amount we take into account for each family or genus?

That's why until we really know what the point in taxonomy is, it's hard to figure out how to achieve that point. We know we can't just say taxonomy is about providing useful classifications and names of species in a scientifically objective manner any more because we know that introducing objectivity removes much of the historic usefulness of taxonomy.

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (1)

csirac (574795) | about 5 months ago | (#46958891)

That's true. People scoff at the older taxonomic groupings from before we had molecular evidence, but actually I'm often surprised at how similar new phylogenies are to huge chunks of the old taxonomies. What's more, at least with plants, one molecular study can produce quite a different looking evolutionary tree to another depending on what genes they used to compute them.

Which begs the quesiton... what's the ground truth? Data from classical taxonomy is actually extremely valuable. It can help inform molecular studies. It can be used to feed consensus trees or indicate which genes might yield certain phenotypes.

There seems to be many who think that with enough CPU power and algorithms we can turn any old meaningless garbage string of GATC into something we can pretend is useful. It seems like a lossy way of thinking... you can do interesting work without names, that's true - but the reckless abandon and total lack of scientific discipline when using names would never be tolerated in the "harder" sciences.

I dare you to pick up ten different papers using species or group names... and find even just one that cites the name in a reporducible, scientifically useful way (i.e. cites the taxnomic publication which specifies what they mean when they use the name).

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (4, Insightful)

Xest (935314) | about 5 months ago | (#46959727)

"That's true. People scoff at the older taxonomic groupings from before we had molecular evidence, but actually I'm often surprised at how similar new phylogenies are to huge chunks of the old taxonomies."

I'm sure that depends on the families and genus in question, because certainly for Cactaceae it's made a complete mockery of previous taxonomic definitions.

"(i.e. cites the taxnomic publication which specifies what they mean when they use the name)."

Amusingly I tried to help a botanist do exactly this, we couldn't because although we found a snippet on Google Books of the original reference for the name, we couldn't see the whole thing because it unfortunately fell under the specific set of restrictions that meant it wont be out of copyright until about 2021, despite the fact it went out of print in about 1926 and the author died in about 1953 or something. I thought this was a fantastic example of how absurdly long copyright laws prevent scientific progress.

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (1)

csirac (574795) | about 5 months ago | (#46970833)

Yes, that's a problem. BHL [biodiversitylibrary.org] is really the go-to source for plant people I've worked with in the past.

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46961635)

DNA analysis has created massive turmoil for taxonomy which was frankly historically a faux-science. We now have to decide what it's for, and whether it's a science or an art - is it designed to provide objective classification, or is it designed to provide convenient classification? Until these fundamental questions are answered the whole profession of taxonomy is still completely up in the air in terms of where it even sits in the academic world.

Software patterns might provide some insight about the forms taxonomy can take in the future. At least the taxonomist have now a widely agreed upon, or dare I say objective metrics behind their decisions.

So it seems like DNA solves everything right? Wrong. The problem we have now is that it's still arbitrary as to where you decide the cut off, how different does a subject have to be to be a distinct species from another subject? If their DNA varies by 0.00000000001% we can probably agree they're closely related enough to be the same species, but what about a 0.1% difference? what about a 1% difference?

It's more about the quality than the quantity. If that minute difference produces a detectable difference in behaviour, or an adaptation to a new environment, there is an answer that a taxonomist can use to justify years of employment in the future.

Re:Interbreeding (1)

riverat1 (1048260) | about 5 months ago | (#46963247)

I would think the obvious first level test for species separation at least in sexually reproducing species is to test how well they can interbreed and how fertile the offspring are.

Re:Interbreeding (1)

Xest (935314) | about 5 months ago | (#46965311)

Even that works on a spectrum though depending how far removed they are from each other. Obviously one breed of sheep can breed with the same breed of sheep easily, success rate is ever so slightly lower between different breeds of sheep, but sometimes you can go as far as breeding a goat with a sheep to get a geep (yes really!) though the chance is far lower.

It's more obvious in the plant world when you can more easily attempt to cross pollinate different many different species and see the results often much quicker, but it becomes very clear that there's still no clear cut dividing line - some plants are harder to cross pollinate with others in the same genus than they are others in a different genus.

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (1)

mpe (36238) | about 5 months ago | (#46974015)

So it seems like DNA solves everything right? Wrong. The problem we have now is that it's still arbitrary as to where you decide the cut off, how different does a subject have to be to be a distinct species from another subject? If their DNA varies by 0.00000000001% we can probably agree they're closely related enough to be the same species, but what about a 0.1% difference? what about a 1% difference?

Or it may be exactly which DNA differs. Possibly also exactly where that DNA is. It would theoretically be possible to have 2 organisms with identical genes, but different chromosomes. The latter would mean that they couldn't interbreed.

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (5, Insightful)

Savage-Rabbit (308260) | about 5 months ago | (#46957561)

DNA isn't pulling people away from taxonomy so much as replacing it with a vastly superior system. Classical taxonomy is kind of like classical mechanics. It's fine for most purposes, but it's not "complete" and its answers range from slightly inaccurate to flat out wrong depending on the question.

We no longer have to arbitrarily decide "ok, this is a new species because it's different in this way" we can now look at DNA and see exactly how it differs, what it's closest to, who its ancestors are, when it split, and so on. Names are inaccurate representations for humans to use. With DNA, the term "species" itself becomes somewhat irrelevant because we now know the system of species and genetics is much more fluid than that.

I'm not so sure Taxonomy has been replaced, it's just gotten a whole new and better tool and I suppose you could say the geneticists have kind of taken it over. In anthropology ancient DNA extraction where classification into species was done using skeletal morphology, DNA is likely to cause a whole lot of re-arrangement of the taxonomic classifications. When Svante Pääbo found Neanderthal DNA in modern humans he effectively threw the scientific equivalent of a hand grenade into the comfortably organized world of anthropology. His discovery shattered a widely accepted axiom and left a whole lot of people red-faced who'd been postulating that modern human admixture with archaic hominids was unlikely to the point of it being impossible. Technically modern non-African people belong to both the species H. Sapiens and H. Neanderthalensis, so the borderlines between species have all of a sudden become much more fuzzy thanks to geneticists. A really interesting recent development is that geneticists have found traces of extinct hominid populations that are only known from DNA analysis of living humans, not from discovered remains. Africans for example are now know to have interbred with archaic hominid populations but no physical specimens, i.e. skeletal samples of these archaic populations have ever been found so in that sense Africans aren't pure H. Sapients either. So we now have palaeontologist/archaeologists out in the field searching for physical remains of these 'shadow' or 'ghost' populations which has turned the normal practice in their field completely on it's head where you first found the bones and then took them to the lab for (DNA and other) analysis. As we get better at extracting DNA from ancient remains it will completely upend a lot of what we thought we knew about the mechanism of evolution.

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | about 5 months ago | (#46957929)

I don't know whether or not this is actually happening (if not, no problem); but the one possible negative would be if genetic techniques are pulling people away from field work in favor of sequencing stuff and then number-crunching on it.

While the classical taxonomists are mere stamp collectors by the standards of phylogenetics, the field did have the virtue of getting people to slog to the godforsaken malarial back end of nowhere to look for new and exotic stuff. Given the rate at which the godforsaken malarial back end of nowhere is being burned down to produce either cows or palm oil, we don't exactly have unlimited time on that score.

If people are still out looking for neat stuff while it remains available, the fact that they are using superior methods to analyze it is an improvement. If the availability of more advanced DNA based techniques means that people are being diverted into re-analyzing more easily available samples it isn't bad science or anything; but it is spending time on something that will be available more or less indefinitely while other windows of opportunity are closing, sometimes fast.

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (1)

Xest (935314) | about 5 months ago | (#46958997)

I'm good friends with a modern day plant hunter who is also a professional botanist, and who also has a number of discoveries and subsequent names under his belt.

I've never really asked him how the profession is doing in general, but from what I know of him the bottleneck as much as anything seems to be the amount of time it takes to describe a new species. Maybe he specifically is just very detailed in what he does, but for each discovery of a plant he has to provide illustration of it in growth, in flower and so forth, he has to inspect and textually describe every aspect of it, and he has to map out it's habitat to see how far and wide it grows as much as he reasonably can. That is before he starts down the taxonomic path to try and figure out what genus and family and so forth if should be classified under. If it's not in flower, then it may even involve waiting for it to come into flower (which is not necessarily an annual thing - it could take years), it sometimes involves trying to grow it from seed, recording the sort of substrate it grows in measuring things like the chemical consistency and the acidity and so forth of the soil or rock, and even attempting pollination to produce seed and so forth and describing the seed. As you can imagine this is a time consuming process, so certainly for him it isn't the lack of will to go out into the field, but the amount of time and work involved in documenting a discovery afterwards. There's also the bureaucracy - it should be submitted to the likes of CITES, especially if it's at risk because it's perceived to be a small single population, and that means writing up the threat to it to CITES for inclusion in the endagered species list providing a suggested classification and justifying why that classification is deserved. If it's truly endangered then you may be involved in follow up work to provide protection for it, such as finding out who owns the land on what it resides, and lobbying to get that land protected from activity such as mining and deforestation.

So the difficult is probably more finding people with both the experience and competence to do the describing of species whilst those that excel in the field can get on with it. That just wont happen though as everyone wants to be in the field, and no one wants to be in the lab doing drawings and writing walls of text about species - effectively it's the largely necessary post-discovery formalities that put people off the fun and adventure of discovery more than anything else.

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (1)

flyingsquid (813711) | about 5 months ago | (#46958173)

If taxonomy is really a dying science, you'd have a hard time telling from the number of species being described. According to reptile-database.org, there were 3149 snake species in 2008, as of Feb 2014, there are 3458. That's 309 species, 51 species a year, roughly a 10% increase in six years- which is stunning when you consider that we have been naming species since the 1700s. There were 5079 lizards in 2008, and 5914 in 2014. That's 835 species,139 a year, and a 16% increase. This is just the reptiles; you'll see similar trends if you look at other groups like frogs, or fish, or insects. Given these numbers, you could argue that we are in fact in a golden age of taxonomy. DNA is a big part of this- using DNA it's possible to show that populations that may look superficially similar, even to an experienced taxonomist, stopped exchanging genes millions of years ago.

Bird and mammal taxonomy is a different story. Historically they have been really well studied, to the point that there simply aren't that many species left to be described. Only 44 birds have been described since 2010, which works out to around a dozen a year, around 10% the rate of discovery for reptiles. That's enough work to occupy a few taxonomists full-time, or a number of taxonomists part-time, but it suggests that we really don't need more bird taxonomists because there's just not much left for them to do.

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (2)

Xest (935314) | about 5 months ago | (#46959023)

It's possible that the recent increase in discovery of new species isn't so much actual discovery though, but re-classification and splitting of existing species based on modern DNA analysis.

It may be that when a number of old, non-DNA analysed specimens are run through DNA analysis it turns out that they're not in fact all the same species but comprise say 4 different species.

Or in other words it may be that we knew about just as many snakes before, the difference is we used to call them the same thing, now largely automated processes have told us to call a bunch of them different things.

I think the question is as much about how many field taxonomists there are now. Are there more out in the field looking for and finding completely unknown candidate species or is it the same amount or less than ever and the "discoveries" are simply reclassifications of what we already have?

I think that's probably the difficulty.

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (2)

flyingsquid (813711) | about 5 months ago | (#46962143)

What is your point precisely? Taxonomy is about determining the number of species and the boundaries between them- whether that means identifying a new population, or subdividing one group into two distinct species. Either one is taxonomy in action, the fact that we are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of species means that taxonomy is an active field, not a dying one.

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (1)

Xest (935314) | about 5 months ago | (#46962759)

The point is that it takes an awful lot less people to do automatic reclassification through DNA analysis than it does to go out into the field and actually find new species.

So whilst the number of distinctly defined species may be increase, the number of people actually working in the field could be decreasing, and if the determination of distinction is just the result of a taxonomist that favours splitting over lumping and is just arbitrary anyway then it's quite possible that an increasing number of classifications tells us absolutely nothing about the health of the field.

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (1)

reub2000 (705806) | about 5 months ago | (#46958681)

And until you sequence the DNA from a dimetrodon, looking at physical features will be the best you can do for the vast majority of species that have ever lived.

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (1)

datavirtue (1104259) | about 5 months ago | (#46959233)

taxonomy is dead as species are no longer classified that way. It is a hobby now. No scientist is going to waste their time sketching birds when the work is meaningless.

something else (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46959687)

A camera.

While taxonomy is a dying art you cannot blame it on one thing. DNA didn't become the kill all of taxonomy. Everyone is going to go on and on over the same meme comments on this. And most overlook what really did taxonomy in, the camera. Not sure if Darwin would have used one once they advanced to the point where you can easily carry it around your neck, zoom, focus and take a photo. I still want to see taxonomy being used due to the beauty and skill of it.

I will get voted down for being the buzz killer of this....

Re:It's not dead, it's evolving (1)

isopodz (538915) | about 5 months ago | (#46963287)

As a professional systematist**, this is the kind of claptrap I have to deal with on a daily basis. I use both types of data (morphological and DNA) and people should understand that molecular biology does not replace morphological taxonomy, but it provides another useful source of data. What is used for DNA data these days are a tiny part (especially DNA barcodes) of the functional organism, and the phenotype comes about in ways we do not completely understand yet. Because of the attitude shown in this post, several generations of biologists are not taught how to identify animals of any sort; zoological and botanical survey courses are being dropped from cirricula at most universities, especially here in Australia. I won't even work with Australian students anymore, because they both don't know anything basic, and because of their background seem more interested in their smart phone than looking down a microscope. So yes, taxonomists like me are becoming a rarity, both because of declining interest but also because of a lack of jobs for anyone who wants to take up the field. And yet I regularly get requests from the molecular only students to tell them what they have -- for free. **((I name species and groups, but I am also interested in evolution biogeography etc))

Who declines ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46957379)

The death of taxonomy... is just one of the many symptoms of this declining specie.

Romantic, And Delicious (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46957389)

I think Darwin exemplifies humanity in this. Schools teach about voyages of discovery. They forget to teach that it wasn't about discovery it was about imperialism and the romantic scientists enjoyed eating their way through all the living species they discovered.

Re:Romantic, And Delicious (0)

CRCulver (715279) | about 5 months ago | (#46957425)

Schools teach about voyages of discovery. They forget to teach that it wasn't about discovery it was about imperialism

If one defines "imperialism" as subjugation of peoples, then the case of the Galapagos Island was not imperialism: while Native Americans may have visited the island in prehistory, there was no human population on the islands when Europeans visited, and the endemic nature was the sole attraction. For Dawin, it really was a voyage of discovery.

Re:Romantic, And Delicious (1, Funny)

retchdog (1319261) | about 5 months ago | (#46957469)

Unfortunately for you, imperialism is defined as "a policy of extending a country's power and influence through diplomacy or military force."

Now, to the layman this poses no cuntradiction against your erudite proposal. However, the educated Marxist will not allow to pass your blatant speciesism. While the "Native" "Americans" are clearly irrelevant Redskin savages, as even the most niggardly capitalists/Hayek-ists will admit, we cannot allow to pass unchallenged and critically unexamined the acts of this Dawin, whomever he may be. The problematics of speciesist endemicism plague your narrative and thus we cannot accept it as true scholasticism by any means. The Hegelian dialectic calls for a synthesis of the suppressed testudinate (socialist) impulse with the anglo-imperialist rapist. Whenceforth We (The Glorious Peoples' Sodomitic/Recidivist Council) request only that you open your anus to inspection and purification against unnecessary thematic influences.

Re:Romantic, And Delicious (1)

Xest (935314) | about 5 months ago | (#46957575)

All that serves to tell us is that imperialism came with benefits, and that without imperialism there would not have been the resources to ship scientists around the world to do some of the most important and ground breaking science in history.

Or is that too inconvenient to your pre-conceived notion that nothing good ever came out of imperialism? If so then you're suffering from a case of "What did the Romans ever do for us?".

Sometimes good can come from bad, without World War II we'd never have had quite such a period of rapid technological advanced towards what is now the modern airline industry - jet engines and radar for air traffic control, and people like those at Bletchley and those in similar projects abroad may never have been given the funds to do the research necessary to get us the modern computer as soon as we have.

Your hatred of imperialism is clouding the fact that it was imperialism that was the engine for these voyages of discovery in the first place and that without them a lot of science would not have been done when it was, setting humanity back.

Re:Romantic, And Delicious (2)

Ol Olsoc (1175323) | about 5 months ago | (#46958001)

All that serves to tell us is that imperialism came with benefits,

Yeah, that Seinfeld episode was pretty good, wasn't it?

Re:Romantic, And Delicious (1)

Xest (935314) | about 5 months ago | (#46958057)

I don't even know what Seinfeld is about other than it's some American TV show, so the reference is lost on me.

Re:Romantic, And Delicious (2)

Richy_T (111409) | about 5 months ago | (#46959635)

I would have gone with a Monty Python reference.

So what? (5, Insightful)

l2718 (514756) | about 5 months ago | (#46957397)

If DNA sequencing means taxonomy is now straightforward, then it's good students are switching to other fields. The goal of science is to solve problems, not to ossify. In this case, while taxonomy may cease to be a significant research field, morphology (understanding the structure and evolution of plants and animals) is surely going to continue. The people doing it will simply not be called "taxonomists" anymore.

During the 80s and 90s there were different projects trying to determine the cosmological parameters (mass density, curvature, cosmological constant, Hubble constant, etc). Then WMAP [wikipedia.org] was launched in 2001, and by 2006 (release of 3-year data) the previous techniques were obsolete. Do you think many students in 2001 started working on the old techniques? Should they have? But we haven't lost interest in the cosmological parameters.

Re:So what? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46957499)

If DNA sequencing means taxonomy is now straightforward, then it's good students are switching to other fields. The goal of science is to solve problems, not to ossify. In this case, while taxonomy may cease to be a significant research field, morphology (understanding the structure and evolution of plants and animals) is surely going to continue. The people doing it will simply not be called "taxonomists" anymore.

So, if this is true, can someone tell me why the hell we need "bankers" anymore?

I mean, we DO have these things called "computers" around that are pretty damn accurate at counting money. Probably a hell of a lot more accurate than the corruption controlling it.

Re: So what? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46958127)

We did replace a healthy chunk of them with ATMs.

Re:So what? (1)

Richy_T (111409) | about 5 months ago | (#46959643)

We don't. It's just inertia.

Re:So what? (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | about 5 months ago | (#46959939)

So, if this is true, can someone tell me why the hell we need "bankers" anymore?

The purpose of banks has never been "to keep track" of your money. The purpose of banks has always been to keep your money safe. At least, that is supposed to be the reason for their existence.

The idea of fractional-reserve banking, i.e. making loans and so on with that hoard of money, came later. But that still doesn't mean their purpose is to track your money. If you weren't doing that yourself anyway -- at ANY time in history -- you were likely to lose that money.

Re:So what? (3, Interesting)

Xest (935314) | about 5 months ago | (#46957549)

The problem is that DNA sequencing doesn't mean taxonomy is now straightforward, on the contrary it's created an identity crisis as to what the subject is even meant to achieve anymore. See my post here for a broader description of what I mean:

http://science.slashdot.org/co... [slashdot.org]

It used to be simple when DNA analysis wasn't available and the actual ancestry was hidden by time, back then you could name stuff based on things that were convenient for science at the time, and people who just wanted to know what to call things alike. Nowadays there's a stark divide between the two, the science has uncovered that it's not that simple, and in doing so has uncovered the fact that taxonomy as a science would not be useful for one of the things it has been historically most useful for, which wouldn't be a problem in itself if it weren't for the fact that for it to become a true science, it needs to cast of the shackles of the general public, and the business world alike, something which as I'm sure you can imagine is quite difficult given the vested interests involved and even within the profession of taxonomy itself. Getting people to change their ways isn't easy.

Re:So what? (1)

Bing Tsher E (943915) | about 5 months ago | (#46957585)

if it weren't for the fact that for it to become a true science

It has similar difficulty becoming a True Scotsman.

Re:So what? (1)

Xest (935314) | about 5 months ago | (#46957751)

Right, so you think choosing subjective opinion over objective fact is scientific?

For something to be a science it has to be able to accept objective fact over subjective opinion, taxonomy has long been struggling to do that, and so cannot truly be called a science until it eliminates that completely. There is certainly room for subjectivity in science, but not when it overrides objective fact.

Re:So what? (1)

khallow (566160) | about 5 months ago | (#46963113)

Right, so you think choosing subjective opinion over objective fact is scientific?

The taxonomy case is not unique in having subjective opinion generally be the more scientific route. A similar example is organic chemistry. Deoxyribonucleic acid versus the subjective, but far more widely adopted DNA. Adenosine triphosphate versus ATP. High density polyethylene versus HDPE.

On the other hand, you have crap like ringwoodite for a high pressure polymorph of olivine. Geology really doesn't fare well here.

The problem of taxonomy is that it is intended for people who want to use it to label and classify. I mean, you could just assign everything a number meaning that all species under the method would have something like an IP address with the same sort of scale resolution as one goes from the broadest categories to the species. But who's going to remember what species 2.5.13.3.1.5.2 is?

Re:So what? (2)

MozeeToby (1163751) | about 5 months ago | (#46959521)

The problem is that taxonomy isn't a science, it's a tool. It shows how different species are related morphologically and chemically and more recently genetically. It's a tool to used by other branches of biology to further their research, and now the tool has become too accurate for it's own good. Not really, but that's the perception. Part of the problem is that the dividing lines between species are artificial constructs, there's no line in the sand that says "everything on this side is a red bottle nose guppy and everything on this side is a red trumpet nose guppy", that's not how evolution works. But if you want to study the differences between the two you need a dividing line, and that's really the primary purpose of taxonomy.

Re:So what? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46959625)

The problem is that taxonomy isn't a science, it's a tool.

Huh? Science is the uncovering of truth, in explaining many complicated things with a few more concise statements. Taxonomy for sure is a science.

Got a bunch of people here thinking that engineering is science....

Re:So what? (1)

Xest (935314) | about 5 months ago | (#46959857)

I think the problem is that science is the study and subsequent authoring of knowledge based on observation and experiment. Historically, because we didn't know about DNA, you could in fact reasonably call taxonomy a science, because there was nothing unscientific about the fact that certain species seemed, given all evidence available, to be one species or another, one genus or another.

Then along came DNA analysis and it turns out some of that old science was wrong, the new science results in reclassification. But then we have two problems - we have those still using old methods and shunning new methods, at this point it's no longer a science, and secondly we still have this problem of arbitrary determination of boundaries, and that's not scientific either. It could be scientific if we moved towards non-subjective boundaries, but that's not happened yet.

So it's not that taxonomy was inherently always unscientific, and it's not that it can't be scientific. It's that many of the views as to how taxonomy should nowadays be done and used result in a taxonomy that isn't a scientific practice.

And I know you say it's a tool but I think this is also part of the problem, it is a tool, but in the same way statistics is a tool. Still perfectly scientifically sound if used correctly, but a farce otherwise, which isn't to say farce statistics don't have their uses (like changing people's perceptions) but that we need to decide what type of tool taxonomy should be - do we want it to be a casual tool for non-serious stuff, or do we want it to remain useful for scientific grade classification and discussion?

It's very similar to common statistical method in a way - we don't always say "This is true", sometimes we have to say "This seems true with 95% confidence". So the question is rather than saying "The group of specimens of species A" which may vary somewhat and be only borderline all of a single species arbitrarily defined as 'A' should we instead be saying something like "The group of specimens that are within the range of 0.1% genetic similarity to specimen A" in research papers and so forth? Or in other words, do we need to also have a more mathematically (and hence scientifically) sound branch of taxonomy that works in a similar way to the way we deal with lack of absolute certainty in statistical results?

Re:So what? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46957655)

The goal of science is to solve problems

No, you're thinking of engineering. Science doesn't have to solve squat.

Francis Bacon would say that science has the goal to uncover truth.

Better hurry up... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46957455)

...and set up a captive breeding program for taxonomists, then...

mod 0p (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46957495)

Questions, then RAM) fOr about 20 feel an obligation more grandiose [slashdot.org], All our times have as one of the

Re:mod 0p (1)

mark_reh (2015546) | about 5 months ago | (#46957541)

Outstanding gibberish! I doff my proverbial cap to you, sir!

Re:mod 0p (1)

jones_supa (887896) | about 5 months ago | (#46957665)

MyCleanPC and Golden Girls are passing fads, but this random-word-spam keeps coming year after year. The subject line usually has something like "mod d0wn" and the word "BSD" often appears in the body.

Interesting and mysterious. Somewhere there is hiding a machine and its operator who maintain this little tradition.

Re:mod 0p (1)

burisch_research (1095299) | about 5 months ago | (#46958151)

It's a numbers station.

Re:mod 0p (1)

jones_supa (887896) | about 5 months ago | (#46959545)

Heh, UVB-76 indeed crossed my mind when I wrote the message.

That's silly. (0, Troll)

mark_reh (2015546) | about 5 months ago | (#46957507)

I don't care how many species are going extinct, there are enough unclassified species out there to keep taxonomists busy for the next 300 years.

The problem isn't decreasing diversity. It's the same problem with everything: we are getting too lazy to do the grunt work. Who wants to spend their time trying to decide where a creature fits into existing taxonomic trees when there's more "hollywood" type work to be done- you can get out on a Greenpeace boat and get sprayed with water cannons for trying to save whales, ferchrissakes. You might even get laid!

Re:That's silly. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46958029)

You might even get laid!

Sorry about all your failures. You're obviously pretty frustrated.

Re:That's silly. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46961603)

He would be even more frustrated on a Greenpeace ship

Re:That's silly. (1)

mark_reh (2015546) | about 5 months ago | (#46964697)

Church!

Re:That's silly. (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | about 5 months ago | (#46960005)

I don't care how many species are going extinct, there are enough unclassified species out there to keep taxonomists busy for the next 300 years.

Beside the fact that this whole "biodiversity crisis" is unfalsifiable. It is based on assumption.

I'm not saying there isn't any evidence to suggest it, but that's all it is: evidence that suggests it.

How can you say with authority that we're facing a crisis of biodiversity when in the same paragraph the writer admits that said biodiversity is not yet discovered?

Assumptions. When I was younger I used to read about these scary things and swallow them whole. Now I am a bit more skeptical. With good reason.

As Species Decline, So Do the Scientists Who ... (1)

webmistressrachel (903577) | about 5 months ago | (#46957553)

... Name Them...

And so does the number of people commenting on such things.

Do engineers still learn blacksmithing? (2)

AndyKron (937105) | about 5 months ago | (#46957563)

Do engineers still learn blacksmithing?

Re:Do engineers still learn blacksmithing? (1)

Rich0 (548339) | about 5 months ago | (#46958797)

Do engineers still learn blacksmithing?

Absolutely. They share the facilities with the chemists when they're not learning glassblowing.

On the other hand (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46957687)

Lobotomy is rising in popularity

'perfect balance' population of -.5 billion (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46957717)

WMD on credit genocide cabal math; 2+1= 2 too many... no volunteers yet to be one of the too many of us? always counting us down (forcefully) is extremely uncreational... leading killer (mostly kids 1000s daily) on planet still 100% preventable starvation

"Naming" (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46958085)

Scientists don't "name" species as if they've identified an objective set of facts and simply ascribed names to them.

Scientists "expanding" Linnaean Taxonomy make up arbitrary categorizations and people strangely consider this to be "how thing really are".

Cladistics is the first methodology in this domain that is in the least scientifically worthwhile.

Just make more species... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46958105)

Given the well known species problem, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Species_problem, you know we could just make lots more species and stop the rate of decline. Or, we could get rid of a lot of species and genera by lumping them all together and then the decline would appear to slow down.

Um... stars? (1)

BobMcD (601576) | about 5 months ago | (#46958383)

Have you seen the names they put on stars these days?

Those poor, poor animals...

Computers too (1)

T.E.D. (34228) | about 5 months ago | (#46958497)

"Computer" used to be a job description, not a piece of machinery. Businesses that had to do a lot of number crunching would hire rooms full of people who did nothing but arithmetic all day. Now we can do that easily with machines.

Sometimes, its a good thing that certain careers are going away. It means we can reserve our human brainpower for more important problems.

I think I know why (1)

wcrowe (94389) | about 5 months ago | (#46959375)

Hmmm. I might have something to do with the fact that you never see job postings that read:

Taxonomist Needed!
Immediate Opening!
High Pay! Great Benefits!

Re:I think I know why (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46962681)

And/Or: I bet it's near impossible to get a grant in this area.

Taxonomy (1)

rossdee (243626) | about 5 months ago | (#46959481)

Taxonomy - not a subject thats going to get funding from a Republican congress

Grammar Nazi unite! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46959693)

*so too

There, I fixed that for you.

Undiscovered Species Disappear? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46960081)

"As the biodiversity crisis wipes undiscovered species off the planet..."

If these species are undiscovered, how would we know they're disappearing?

grammar revision (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46960733)

"so to go" needs to be "so too go".
Why does everyone on the internet get this wrong?

Re: grammar revision (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46961179)

It's because the "too" was associated in the mind of the author with "go" as an infinitive, not with "so" as an adverb(?).

Re:grammar revision (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46961755)

'cause muh dick niggerdom. public schools

Pop quiz... (0)

hsthompson69 (1674722) | about 5 months ago | (#46964687)

...name just one species that has gone extinct this year. ...name just one species that has gone extinct this decade. ...name just one species that has gone extinct this century.

Not a problem (1)

Draugo (1674528) | about 5 months ago | (#46977859)

Since the classical Taxonomy based on physiological distinctions by an observer is a flawed concept anyway when you consider the DNA and evolutionary Taxonomy this is not a problem.
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