Tag Archives: Stephen Garnett

Taxonomies (classification schemes) rouse passions

There seems to have been some lively debate among biologists about matters most of us treat as invisible: naming, establishing, and classifying categories. These activities can become quite visible when learning a new language, e.g., French which divides nouns into two genders or German which classifies nouns with any of three genders.

A July 26, 2020 essay by Stephen Garnett (Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Australia), Les Christidis (Professor, Southern Cross University, Australia), Richard L. Pyle (Associate lecturer, University of Hawaii, US), and Scott Thomson (Research associate, Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil) for The Conversation (also on phys.org but published July 27, 2020) describes a very heated debate over taxonomy,

Taxonomy, or the naming of species, is the foundation of modern biology. It might sound like a fairly straightforward exercise, but in fact it’s complicated and often controversial.

Why? Because there’s no one agreed list of all the world’s species. Competing lists exist for organisms such as mammals and birds, while other less well-known groups have none. And there are more than 30 definitions of what constitutes a species [emphasis mine]. This can make life difficult for biodiversity researchers and those working in areas such as conservation, biosecurity and regulation of the wildlife trade.

In the past few years, a public debate erupted among global taxonomists, including those who authored and contributed to this article, about whether the rules of taxonomy should be changed. Strongly worded ripostes were exchanged. A comparison to Stalin [emphasis mine] was floated.

Here’s how it started,

In May 2017 two of the authors, Stephen Garnett and Les Christidis, published an article in Nature. They argued taxonomy needed rules around what should be called a species, because currently there are none. They wrote:

” … for a discipline aiming to impose order on the natural world, taxonomy (the classification of complex organisms) is remarkably anarchic […] There is reasonable agreement among taxonomists that a species should represent a distinct evolutionary lineage. But there is none about how a lineage should be defined.

‘Species’ are often created or dismissed arbitrarily, according to the individual taxonomist’s adherence to one of at least 30 definitions. Crucially, there is no global oversight of taxonomic decisions — researchers can ‘split or lump’ species with no consideration of the consequences.”

Garnett and Christidis proposed that any changes to the taxonomy of complex organisms be overseen by the highest body in the global governance of biology, the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS), which would “restrict […] freedom of taxonomic action.”

… critics rejected the description of taxonomy as “anarchic”. In fact, they argued there are detailed rules around the naming of species administered by groups such as the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature and the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. For 125 years, the codes have been almost universally adopted by scientists.

So in March 2018, 183 researchers – led by Scott Thomson and Richard Pyle – wrote an animated response to the Nature article, published in PLoS Biology [PLoS is Public Library of Science; it is an open access journal].

They wrote that Garnett and Christidis’ IUBS proposal was “flawed in terms of scientific integrity […] but is also untenable in practice”. They argued:

“Through taxonomic research, our understanding of biodiversity and classifications of living organisms will continue to progress. Any system that restricts such progress runs counter to basic scientific principles, which rely on peer review and subsequent acceptance or rejection by the community, rather than third-party regulation.”

In a separate paper, another group of taxonomists accused Garnett and Christidis of trying to suppress freedom of scientific thought, likening them to Stalin’s science advisor Trofim Lysenko.

The various parties did come together,

We hope by 2030, a scientific debate that began with claims of anarchy might lead to a clear governance system – and finally, the world’s first endorsed global list of species.

As for how they got to a “clear governance system”, there’s the rest of the July 26, 2020 essay on The Conversation or there’s the copy on phys.org (published July 27, 2020).