Monday, April 28, 2008

Systematics as Cyberscience

(Systematics as Cyberscience: Computers, Change, and Continuity in Science. by Christine Hine
MIT Press: 2008. 320 pp. $35.00, £22.95)

In the current issue of Nature is a review by Kevin Kelly, chairman of (what I believed to be dead) All Species and Wired maverick (Nature 452:24, April 24, 2008).

It begins with a very bold statement:

"Taxonomy, the science of identification and classification of new species, has been one of the slowest disciplines to adopt computers. When most other scientists routinely use these number crunchers to detect patterns within large sets of data, why have taxonomists only recently started to use them?"

I am reading the book right now to prepare a review for Systematic Biology, thus I only now so far that it is mainly about a certain group of UK based systematists and, following the index and the bibliography, missing out on many relevant topics, not least by here compatriots Rod Page, Ian White, both pioneering the use of computers and challenging ongoing paradigm.

It is also clear, that you can not talk about taxonomy without their institutions, which often are very slow to adopt to this new paradigm and technological change.

It could even be argued, that it is not taxonomy itself, that is bad, but the misguided, non-operationial Mayrian biological species concept forced on taxonomist by 'hard core' biologists that sidelined taxonomy for long. Wouldn't there have been computer geeks like Chris Thomson, Norm Johnson or John Noyes and few institutions like Mobot or Kew that used computers from very early on and created content (hundred thousands of names), a quick start for initiatives like EOL would not be possible without having to invest into data creation at begin.

The problem now are not so much the taxonomists, they are still productive and could be even more so, wouldn't there be a barrier to make their data accessible, for them to work, to collect new data (see Brazil latest legislation for the Amazon basin) or us to read what they write (and most of it we paid through our taxes).
The problem are our institutions that increasingly want to generate incoming with our scientific products and thus see them a commodity that needs protection, that is exactly the opposite of what we scientists need, that is maximum usage and dissemination of our results. This mixture of commercial goal with scientific intent annhilitates a lot of rights a scientists is granted in the copyright legislation, as long as the work is not commercially oriented.
The problem are people who want to run taxonomy who do not understand it. Because of the computer and Internet, taxonomy is not about the old school' adherence to authority and final statements, but about a dynamic field that increasingly will be based on observations that can be viewed directly and challenged.

It seems to me that Kelly's introduction has been guided through being mal-informed by colleagues at ALL species like EO Wilson who exactly fits his introduction - fortunately replaced by a different reality, which hopefully the also mentioned EOL will be aware of.

need to read the book now...