The Shortage of Taxonomists

mbpi at mbpi at
Mon Sep 10 16:41:58 EDT 2001

Hi, all...

There was an evocative article in the Sunday Chicago Tribune about the
lack of young biologists choosing taxonomy as a profession, opting
instead to become the more glamorous and lucrative "molecular biologist"
which is currently in vogue.

This article, along with the fact that the Chicago Field Museum is
expanding their collection storage in an effort to preserve the thousands
of specimens that are currently being kept in less than "optimum"
conditions, got me thinking about what is fast becoming an "antiquated"
professional pursuit in the field of Biology.

At the risk of starting a "war," when one considers the amount of "space"
required for storage of the thousands of collected specimens, and the
number of undescribed specimens alone within these collections
languishing for "want" of someone to acknowledge and define them, it
appears that the current state of taxonomic research is going the way of
the dinosaur (!)  This is not to underestimate the numbers of dedicated
taxonomists that have greatly contributed their painstaking expertise and
research to the overall knowledge and understanding of species diversity
and ecosystem dynamics.  I can't tell you how much I've learned from this
listserv alone, or the awsome respect I have for the time-consuming
research represented by the many individuals on this listserv....

But in the context of reality and practicality:  we live in a world that
is on "fast forward," with little time to devote to what most people
would consider the "minutia" of our intertwined existence.  If one were
to examine the dynamics of populations of human beings alone, it would be
pretty obvious that the dynamics of established populations as recently
as 100 years ago, have changed considerably in a relatively short amount
of time.  Pockets of former immigrant neighborhoods have been gentrified.
 New immigrants from vastly different cultures have established new
neighborhoods of their own, replacing the once predominant ethnic
population.  If we were something other than Homo sapiens, this change
would indicate a "red flag" to the population biologists as a break down
in the once "established" ecological dynamics, for better or
worse...judged by human standards.

Personally, I don't think it's possible to collect and define "every
living thing" on the planet earth, nor do I think it's "necessary." 
Species come and species go, which is not necessarily a bad thing! 
Certainly there are "indicator" species in the many diverse ecosystems
that can tell us which direction their environmental existence is headed.
 These are the species that I would focus my research on rather than try
to determine all the resident species within a defined ecosystem.  If the
indicator specie's relationship to its environment hinges on some
undetermined it some other species of plant or insect or
bacteria, then that would be the criteria for determining why the
indicator species is doing well or doing poorly...

This is not to underestimate the importance of recognizing the presence
of "subspecies:"  If several families of Indo-Pakistani, say, were to
move into a previously all Euro-descended neighborhood, this would
indicate a change in the dynamics of the former community, along with all
the cultural differences and requirements that would make this a
"distinct group" of individuals within the previously established
ecosystem. The introduction of any change within an established ecosystem
can also be interpreted as an "indicator" by the transitional effect that
subsequently erupts.  The importance of such a transitional effect can
only be determined by whether or not it becomes an actual established
impact on the prevailing "status quo." (Am I making sense, or am I
getting off on a tangent?!)

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that it's the predominant
"obvious" that asserts itself in the overall hierarchy of population
dynamics and is what is most easily grasped by those who don't have the
time or inclination to intellectually pursue the intricacies of the
minutia.  Somebody has to do the cooking, cleaning and caretaking!!!

I'm sorry, but now that I'm out of a job, I've got too much time on my
hands to ruminate (!)

M.B. Prondzinski
Evanston, IL

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