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HCJ Godfray

NERC Centre for Population Biology
Imperial College London
Silwood Park Campus
Ascot, Berks, SL5 7PY, UK

Unitary Taxonomies

by Charles Godfray

The growing realisation of the threats to the Earth’s biodiversity has thrown into sharp focus the plight of taxonomy in the cut-throat world of modern science funding. There seems to be broad agreement of the need to maintain our stock of taxonomic expertise, and to support our great museums and herbaria, but these generalised positive statements seldom translate into new funds for the descriptive taxonomy that underpins our ability to describe and understand biodiversity. Why is taxonomy finding it so hard to attract these new funds, and how might it be remedied?

Taxonomy is one the crowning achievements of modern science: it has provided a logical framework in which the massive diversity of plants and animals can be classified, and their inter-relationships resolved. It is customary today to talk of the bioinformatics crisis caused by the explosion of genomic and other molecular data, but the first bioinformatics crisis occurred in the late 18th and 19th century when both the magnitude of the task confronting taxonomists, and the difficulties of multiple workers applying Linnean nomenclature simultaneously, became apparent. Taxonomy solved these problems by creating the Zoological and Botanical Codes of nomenclature; rigid rules that led to a consistent and coherent nomenclature, universally adopted by all taxonomists.

However, we can be sure that if Linnaeus and his successors had access to the informatics tools available today—especially the web and associated technologies—they would have solved the first informatics crisis in a different way, more along the lines the molecular community have responded to the growth in their field’s data holdings. Today there are “one-stop-shops” where one can access vast amounts of information on, for example, DNA sequences, the corpus of knowledge on the fruit fly or other model organisms, three-dimensional protein structures etc.

The early taxonomists did not have the technology to create these unitary resources and instead taxonomy evolved a distributed data structure. The taxonomy of a group of particular organisms does not reside in one place but is an ill-defined integral of all the publications on that group, supported by type specimens in museums. Taxonomists are adept at working with this system, and indeed part of being an expert in a group is understanding the distributed structure of a group’s taxonomy. But it is a barrier to taxonomy being widely used by non-experts.

An alternative approach, evolutionary not revolutionary, is to move taxonomy from a distributed paper system to a unitary web-based system. How might this work? A group would be revised and the product mounted on the web (after refereeing and revision). The revision would include all that would be in a traditional paper-based treatment, including references to type specimens, though the space available on the web compared to paper publications would allow a much greater use of illustrations and even audio and video where appropriate. The revision would also include a list of currently unaccepted synonyms etc. that might in future be resurrected. Critically, future revisions need not consider any names not included in the first and subsequent web revisions: taxonomy would be liberated from the nomenclatural archaeology that slows down research in so many areas. The taxonomy would not remain static but revisions would be posted for comment and refereeing and periodically a revised current web taxonomy would be posted, the site providing seamless links between current and previous versions. The site would be moderated by an international committee, the equivalent of an editorial board. Access would be unrestricted.

Such an idea has both positive and negative aspects. On the minus side it would require new resources to host and moderate the unitary sites. There is also a danger of authoritarianism, only revisions within the web framework would be valid. But this could be countered by insisting that alternative hypotheses to the current web revision are also included on the unitary site. End-users would then be able to work with the current consensus taxonomies, while alternatives would be available for research. On the plus side the product of taxonomy would be a modern informatics tool that would be much more attractive for funders. It would link produces and end-users of taxonomy and hopefully create a constituency that would militate for more taxonomy. It would also modernise the field and ensure that taxonomy could absorb rather than be absorbed by molecular approaches to the subject. Surely now is the time to experiment with a unitary web taxonomy of a significant group of plants or animals,

For a longer version of this argument see Nature 417, 17-19.


Last updated: 6 August 2004

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