October 12, 2005


In the Classification Kingdom, Only the Fittest Survive (CAROL KAESUK YOON, 10/11/05, NY Times)

[L]innaeus would most likely be shocked - after guessing there were fewer than 15,000 species of animals and plants on earth - to learn that more than 200 years later, scientists are far from finishing the naming of living things and are once again being overwhelmed by an explosion of new species and names.

Between 1.5 million and 2 million species have been named, and a deluge of what could be millions more appears imminent.

As a result, scientists have once again been seized by 18th-century paroxysms of fear that the field of classification could descend into chaos with precious information lost. For while the Linnaean method for organizing life is still followed and has held up well, no one oversees what has become the rapid and sometimes haphazard proliferation of species names. [...]

A major reason that no one has kept track of all the species names is the surprising Wild West sort of freedom that allows names to spring up pretty much anywhere.

Let's say a person discovers what she believes is a new species. If she publishes a description of the organism with her newly created name for it, by the internationally accepted rules of science, the name officially stands. But while she might publish in a carefully peer-reviewed scientific journal, she might also publish it, as Dr. Polaszek lamented, "in the little local journal that your neighbor produces in his garage."

(This is no joke. My husband, who once carefully followed butterfly taxonomy, recalled a journal that was published out of the basement of the self-appointed editor's mother. It was another perfectly legitimate, if musty, source of names.)

But while scientists agree that the proliferation is out of control, there is no consensus on who should be in control. And every new initiative has a different flavor and agenda.

Thus the immortal line about the imagined speciatyion on the Galapagos: "Only God and Peter Grant can recognize Darwin's finches." Things having failed to speciate the Darwinists simply change the definitions and fiddle with their wall charts.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 12, 2005 11:27 AM

Have you been following this? Your insistence on the failure to observe speciation is humorous.


Posted by: Kilgore at October 12, 2005 4:55 PM

I thought it turned out that hobbit-man was a second cousin to the Cardiff Giant.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 12, 2005 6:19 PM

The next question is, of course, what is an endangered species?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 12, 2005 11:11 PM