07 March 2024

Biodiversity science

(I know, I know, too long again. I always seem to drag myself into a swamp of thoughts.)

How much biodiversity is out there?
Why are there so many species (1), or why are there so few (2)?
Why is biodiversity worth protecting?
How should we manage biodiversity?

These are the questions of biodiversity science, of course, but I am afraid that we will fail at the first one. Answering how much biodiversity is out there does require taxonomists.

It is not a secret that around the time of the Watson and Crick paper in 1953 (3), a chasm opened in biology, a chasm between molecular biology and organismic biology. Molecular biology received faculty positions, research funding, research castles, and journals (4). Organismic biology received a kick in the groin. 

In their classic paper from 1979 -- 1979!! -- Gould and Lewontin quote Rupert Riedl (5): 

"[T]he whole of the huge and profound thought collected in the field of morphology, from Goethe to Remane, has virtually been cut off from modern biology. It is not taught in most American universities. Even the teachers who could teach it have disappeared."

(I received my undergraduate training under Rupert Riedl at the University of Vienna. A lot of courses in morphology and comparative anatomy, a lot of Linnean tables and classification keys, nothing on cladistics, very little biochemistry. But even as zoologists we had to be able to identify at least 125 plant species (6).)

The situation wasn't helped when in 1988 Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez disparaged the scientists who try to understand species (7): 

"I don't like to say bad things about paleontologists, but they're really not very good scientists. They're more like stamp collectors.'' 

Except, of course, Alvarez did say a lot of "bad things" about other scientists. 

Taxonomists used to be respected as collectors of historical evidence to test hypotheses on the origins of species, disparity in body plans, biodiversity, variation within species, and, more recently, invasive species (8). There is no comfort in the irony that the profession that can tell us whether a species is going extinct is going extinct itself.

Maybe I don't know enough, or maybe my judgement is too harsh. I am wondering, Charley, how do you see recruitment and training in biodiversity science?

(1) G. E. Hutchinson (1959), Homage to Santa Rosalia or Why Are There So Many Kinds of Animals. The American Naturalist 93(870): 145 - 159
(2) J. Felsenstein (1981), Skepticism Towards Santa Rosalia, or Why Are There So Few Kinds of Animals. Evolution 35:124 - 138
(3) J. D. Watson and F. H. C. Crick (1953), Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids. Nature 171: 737 - 738
(4) Have a look: https://www.nature.com/siteindex#journals-N (Accessed: 7 Mar 2024). How many Nature journals cover molecular biology, how many organismic biology?
(5) S. J. Gould and R. C. Lewontin (1979), The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 205: 581 - 597
(6) Of course, there are some good identification apps out there (e.g. Pl@ntNet for plants, Merlin for birds), but they are for hobbyists. Besides, who is going to produce the data required to train the artificial neural networks? 
(7) M. W. Browne (1988), The Debate Over Dinosaur Extinctions Takes an Unusually Rancorous Turn. The New York Times (19 Jan 1988): C1 + C4, 
(8) Currently there are 110 known invasive species in British Columbia alone. See: https://bcinvasives.ca/ (Accessed: 7 Mar 2024).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.